As you travel across the far reaches of the Normandy countryside, where France meets the English Channel, the island that punctuates the skyline is one of the most instantly recognisable silhouettes in all of France. The medieval abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel is perched precariously atop a rocky island, surrounded by the tidal bay, and has a history back to the 8th century. As you soak up the beauty before your eyes, you continually wonder if you walked onto a film set or into a time vortex; it is so picture perfect that it is hard to believe it is real.
Rising high from the rocky islet amidst vast sandbanks exposed to powerful tides stands the Gothic Benedictine abbey which is surrounded by a medieval village. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, it is an architectural masterpiece, a historical and still a living, breathing testament to French history and culture, and it is without a doubt, breathtaking. After visiting the island countless times, I am still amazed and impressed with the sight and wanted to share with you a few fun facts you might not know about Mont-Saint-Michel.
It was conceived in a dream
According to legend in 708, the Archangel Saint Michel appeared before the Aubert, the bishop of nearby Avranches, and asked him to build a chapel in his honour on the nearby rocky outcrop. Aubert paid him no mind, and an exasperated Saint Michel returned, this time getting serious and poking his finger into the bishop's skull before he finally committed to the idea. The relic of Aubert's finger scored head, is housed in the Saint-Gervais Basilica in Avranches, although the marking is more generally attributed to evidence of trepanation, the ancient practice of drilling a hole into the skull for medical reasons. Aubert was canonised and his feast day is 10th of September.
It has the largest tides in Europe
Due to a build-up of silt, and the geographic location of the island within the bay, the Mount only becomes a complete island on big tides that occur six or seven times a year. During Spring Tides, the difference between high and low tides is the greatest in all of Europe and can vary by up to 15 meters (50 feet). The sea can go out a whopping 15km (9 miles) from the coast, and then return with furious vigour which is said to come in at the speed of galloping horses.
It is the second most pilgrimaged site
Mont-Saint-Michel is the second most visited place in France, after Paris, and this is not a new trend. The island has been attracting visitors for centuries. Second, only to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Mont-Saint-Michel was a famous pilgrimage of faith during the Middle Ages and rose to prominence across all of Europe. The dangers of crossing the bay, often made complicated by quicksand and the fast tide, took their toll on pilgrims, and it was nicknamed "Saint Michael in Peril of the Sea".
The mount can still pose dangers for visitors who avoid the bridge and attempt the hazardous walk across the silt. As history has told us, it is extremely dangerous to walk in the bay or the area around Mont-Saint-Michel. If you wish to make the traditional pilgrimage, you are strictly required to do so in the company of certified guides.
It was never defeated
The commune's position on a rocky outcrop, in the bay, made the island the perfect fort. It was accessible to pilgrims and monks during the low tide but would wash away any would-be assailants or ensuring armies. Indeed during the Hundred Year War with England, the mount remained undefeated, and not from lack of trying. With a relatively small garrison, they withheld a full-blown English attack and survived a 30-year siege, often being used at the time as a symbol of French resilience.
It was used as a prison
Some 500 years later, during the French Revolution, religion was outlawed, and all religious practices declared counterrevolutionary. The natural defences of the island were not lost on the rulers of France who promptly put it into use as a prison, incarcerating clerical opponents of the republican regime. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and since then, a number of orders have sporadically occupied the site. Since 2001, the Benedictine monks have been replaced by some from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, originally from Saint-Gervais' Church in Paris and continue their work to this day.
The local sheep are "pre-salted"
The bay between the rocky island and the mainland used to extend many kilometres, but over the centuries the floodplain has been reclaimed to a point where the island is only about a kilometre from the shore. The salt marsh meadows that were cultivated are covered in a unique grass that is perfect for sheep grazing, but because of their high salt levels the resulting meat has a distinct taste that comes "pre-salted". The pre-salted or salt meadow lamb is called Agneau de pré-salé in French and is a local speciality that can be found throughout the region.
All of the photographs on this article were taken by myself, and if you would like to accompany me to Mont-Saint-Michel and learn how to improve your photography, I will be spending some time there on Aperture Tour's Normandy and Loire Valley Photography Workshop between 17 - 25 April 2019. Click the link for more details of the workshop.
Author: Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours which run photography tours in the most photogenic cities across the globe. A professional photographer for over a decade, Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.