Inside the abbey of Mont St. Michel

Welcome to the second installment of “18 hours on Mont St. Michel.” When we left off last time, Esteban and I had just checked into our tiny room with an enormous view.

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We met up with our dear friend Des some minutes later and continued our climb up to the abbey. I was glad to have sort-of-insisted on the taxi ride, because otherwise we would have missed seeing the abbey entirely.

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According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared in 708 to bishop Aubert of Avranches and instructed him to build a church on the rocky island. That’s how this monument to faith got its name (“Michel” is French for “Michael”). That’s also why you see depictions of the archangel at every turn.

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Bishop Aubert followed his instructions quite literally, by somehow building a church directly onto the mountain. I loved how the masonry blended into the rocks.

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The 11th and 12th centuries brought construction of a bigger abbey, with round Romanesque arches and heavy stone pillars.

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The abbey was further enlarged between the 13th and 15th centuries. The result was a hodgepodge of architecture: You could see the evolution from Romanesque to Gothic to Flamboyant Gothic, simply by turning left or right.

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Mont St Michel refectory 1490160 BLOGMy favorite section was the gorgeous, verdant cloister.

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Only later did I realize it was perched on the edge of a cliff.

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The view from the ramparts was breathtaking, too.

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It was interesting to get a bird’s-eye perspective of the new causeway. (The old road blocked the tidal flow, leading to the formation of silt flats. In time these will disappear and Mont St. Michel will once again become a true island at high tide.)

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Out on the bay you could see groups of tourists with guides. In the next installment I will explain why you should never, ever venture onto the bay without a trained guide.

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Among the tourists there were also a few pilgrims, like this couple who stood motionless in prayer.

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Alas … we were the last tour of the day, and it was time to go. The docent was lovely and patient as I lagged behind the rest of the group to snap photos.

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Only in hindsight did I realize I’d gotten a rare opportunity to see some of these places more or less empty.

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It was I who felt empty by the time we exited the abbey, however, so off we went in search of dinner. We inquired at La Mère Poulard, but were told with some disdain that we should have made reservations.

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That’s how we discovered that nothing was open except a crêpe vendor and a single small restaurant. Des’ steak looked like leather, poor fellow.

Except for a general impression of beauty and calm, I barely remember the walk back to our room because I was so tired. But I do remember thinking how privileged we were to have these ancient streets to ourselves.

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I’ll be back soon with Part 3 — in which I meet an adorable snail, get stuck in the mud, and wobble down hundreds of stairs to the cheers of Chinese tourists.

IF YOU GO:

• Give yourself at least two hours to tour the abbey (preferably with a guided tour).

• Make dinner reservations ahead of time, as few places stay open after dark.

• Although it’s possible to visit Mont St. Michel as a day-trip, I recommend staying overnight. I’ll be back soon to show you why.

77 comments

    • Thank you kindly! I was terribly disappointed in them at first because they didn’t *begin* to capture the atmosphere, in my mind. But they did at least capture some lovely memories, as I’m realizing in hindsight.

  1. The place is simply stunning. Your photos look like I could just step right in.

    I had never heard of this place before. I suppose that when an Archangel tells you to build something you go all out.

    I grazed across another couple of online sources and it is unclear to me whether a religious community still resides there.

  2. Heide:) this post and the previous make me feel like I went on a journey myself! Your crisp photography, your description of the experience, and the layers of history in each shot. Thank you! Looking forward to the third installment =)

  3. Wonderful series of images. It gives a great feeling for the architectural splendour of the place.
    Looking forward to seeing the next series.
    Ho, & love the wide angle shots, captured the magnificent scenery very well.

    • Thank you so much, David! Although the fish-eye lens causes a lot of distortion, I was glad to have it along on this trip — because otherwise there would have been no way to show the scale of the buildings, or the expansive landscapes. As for the photos themselves: Dare I say that the best is yet to come? I appreciate your stopping by!

    • My husband and I were chatting about the steps just last night and wondering whether we’d be able to handle them. It’s been only four years, but we’re feeling our age too! I’m glad we enjoyed this particular adventure while our knees and hips were still sound. 🙂 As always, thank you for coming along (at least virtually).

  4. Aaaaawh – this was the BEST, the VERY BEST photo trip in an armchair (sadly not, rather a dining chair, but still….) I’ve ever seen – you are marvellous! Your treatment is stupendous and when I think of my meagre photos on film, I took ‘then’ – I can’t wait to ‘do it again’ …. For pics of the interiour of those darkish places, nothing helps more than some HDR and lightening. I’ve taken pics where I discovered details I didn’t even see when I took the photo.
    As per Mère Poulard’s; I have my own advice. I know from many, many ‘reports’ and visits of others that their omelettes are famous worldwide, but what made it (also as per those many reports) a no go for me, was their lack of friendliness and accessibility at reception AND their way-over-the-top prices. I fully understand that being SO famous can easily lead to ignoring your guests’ needs but rudeness and unfriendliness, combined with limited quality vs price is inacceptable to me. Don’t go by my words, check out all well known sites; this is only to say that you might have been spared some harrassed treatment and an empty wallet.
    To end on a totally positive note; I would visit Mont St Michel again and again – it’s a wonderful, magic place.

    • You are too kind by far, Kiki. But I’ll take it! [As I write this, I am beaming with pride.] I’m relieved to hear your first-hand assessment of La Mère Poulard, actually. One hates to travel so far and miss one of the “must sees” on the island … and yet I was put off by the brusque brush-off we were given. I told myself that maybe the man was tired from a long day, or that my merry band and I looked rumpled and unkempt — but in the end I could not excuse his over-the-top rudeness. It’s a relief to know we escaped being fleeced on top of that. But to end on an equally positive note as you did: I would return again and again, too. May we both be so lucky!

      • Have a looky-look on T-Adviser. I don’t have to; I know all the feedbacks plus our own shock on reading their price-list…. Even the best omelette and the tastiest lamb salé can only come at a limited price. I’d rather see yet another place or have another experience than handing over my holiday budget at such a place. But then I never needed to eat at Guide Michelin ‘decorated’ restaurants. In France, you can eat very well, with a friendly service, at decent cost…. I know it.

        • Goodness, Kiki. You’re right about the T-Adviser reviews! Thanks to you, now I’m GLAD we missed that establishment. It would have put a big black mark on the rest of our experience. What a pity for all the other people who shelled out 38 euros for a mediocre omelette.

  5. Fantastic! Oh my goodness I would love to visit there someday 🙂 But see, this is why we love blogs. We get to travel to far away places even when we are stuck in our offices. Thanks so much for sharing – can’t wait for Part III!

    • I do hope you’ll get to see this place with your own eyes someday too, M.B. You’re at the top of my list of “people who would appreciate this” because your love of history would make it such a rich experience for you. If you ever go to the Normandy beaches, this will be right down the road. But in the meantime, Part 3 is coming up in the next day or two. Thank you so much for stopping by, and especially for your kind comment.

        • I desperately wanted to visit the Normandy beaches but we didn’t have time — so I’ll be visiting vicariously through your posts. Your photos are wonderful too, by the way. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it must have been to look out at that sea of crosses. So much loss! Such incalculable loss …
          Well, if we ever make it back there we can switch places and YOU can go to Mont St. Michel this time. 🙂

          • Hahaha I was just thinking that! We each missed what the other got to see hahaha! And yes we were very moved at the Normandy beaches, it was pretty crazy seeing it in person. What’s even crazier is now when I’m researching, I will see a picture in a history book and think to myself, “wow I actually stood right there.” It gives you whole new eyes!

    • Yes indeed, you can roam freely about the island. Not in the abbey itself of course, but the roads and alleys were all open (and completely empty) during our visit.

  6. Sigh…..how beautiful! I hope one day I will be able to visit this magic place myself. Thank you so much, Heide, for talking me along on your tour with those wonderful photographs! It’s like being there! Thanks for sharing! Marcus

    • Oh, Marcus … I can only imagine the beautiful photos you would capture of this place! I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit someday too. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen and is well worth the logistical efforts of getting there. Thanks a million for stopping by, and for your kind words!

  7. Truly amazing photography, thank you so much for sharing your adventures. I don’t travel, have a fear of flying unfortunately, so I REALLY love seeing this pics. I can’t even imagine when it must have been like to walk those streets,, and the peace and calm that you felt. You are a gift and a blessing. Thank you.

  8. I’ve always been attracted to tall structures, but this abbey is unique. Your camera captured the settings in such a way that it made me feel I was there with you in that vastness. On the other hand, I am sure you are by now in very good shape after climbing all those stairs up and down. Oh, and thanks for the traveling trips. I am sure they will come handy one day.

    • ¡Qué placer encontrarte aquí! You would have a field day on this mountain, Alberto, running up and down all those steps! I took it at a much more moderate pace, of course, not being an ultramarathoner like you are. 🙂 But no matter how/when you get to the top, it’s worth the effort for those views. Hope you and your loved ones get to go someday too. Thank you for your kind comment.

  9. Such a magical place. I miss it every day.

    We didn’t eat their famous omelette, because we don’t eat in tourist places anymore if it’s possible.

    And we didn’t see Mont St.Michel at night. We stayed in Les Vieilles Digues. It is 4km to Mont St.Michel, and we visited it every day.

    Very good pictures, Heide.

    • I am adopting your philosophy more and more, Victor, of not eating in the tourist places if possible. You get a much more authentic sense of a place if you dine among the locals. And the same is true for living among the locals, isn’t it? Perhaps next time we’ll stay in Les Vieilles Digues too. It looks absolutely charming! Thank you for reading, and especially for your kind words.

    • … and once again, Wolfie, your kind words have me beaming from ear to ear. Thank you! I used to have an enormous DSLR but traded it in a few years ago for a Panasonic mirrorless camera (GX7 and GX85) with its kit zoom lens — but as you’ve noted, it produces great images. I’m old enough to remember traveling with piles of film canisters and a whole menagerie of lenses, so it’s a real treat to be able to fit the whole kit inside my purse … especially when one has to climb this many stairs.

      And how about you — what’s your choice of photography gear for your rides through St. Paul? Are you back on your bike already, or waiting for the sand to get cleared off the roads? Cheers to you, no matter where this note finds you today.

      • Hey Heidi. You’re very humble but the camera is a very small part of why your pictures are gorgeous. It’s your shooter’s eye and skills at composing a picture.

        I still use a DSLR – a 9 year old Canon EOS to be exact. I finally have three good lenses that let me shoot almost everything I could want on rides. (Still want a macro but not for the blog.) I’ve got panniers (or saddle bags as they were called when we were young) so I can carry the camera and all three lenses when I bike.

        I was on my bike Monday after work for the first time this year but it was for exercise, not an official blog ride. I hope to take that first blog ride in May.

        Thanks so much for your interest. Can’t wait for your next post.

        Wolfie

        • You are so kind, Wolfie! Thank you … you’ve made my day once again.

          Truth is, I do miss my Canon 70D. It weighed half a ton, but was built like a tank. I wouldn’t have hesitated to throw it in a pannier — unlike my current camera, which is a bit more dainty. But aren’t we lucky to live in an age when we have so many good options for gear?

          We’re not quite as lucky to live in Minnesota, though — at least not today. I hope you don’t have to go anywhere because this morning at least the roads were a nightmare. With any luck, though, the ice and driving wind will soon yield to ride-worthy roads. I’ll be looking forward to your first blog ride, whenever it presents itself!

          Take good care, and thank YOU again for your kind readership.

    • Yes indeed, we found a small restaurant in another hotel and stopped there for dinner. I didn’t do a good job of explaining that, did I. 🙂 But that’s where poor Des was fed the reconstituted shoe leather. We were all hungry enough that we wolfed everything down, and none of us got sick, so I suppose we can’t complain, ha ha.

  10. Your photos are breathtaking (and in some cases dizzying). You really captured the soul of this place. Your love of history and architecture shine through. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

    • I read somewhere that three million people visit the tiny island every year, Paloma — so yes, too many tourists! But if you ever get the chance to stay overnight I recommend it, because then you have the place almost to yourself. ¡Saludos!

  11. Heide, an amazing set of photographs and story. I have only visited once when I was a small boy. I live so close but have not yet managed to get back, but one day!
    Thank you for the memories.

    Simon.

    • How wonderful to see this place as a youngster, Simon … I imagine it must have made quite an impression! I do hope you’ll be able to return as an adult, with your camera. And as always, thank you so much for visiting, and for your kind words.

  12. How on Earth did you get that pigeon to devilishly pose standing on one leg, that way? All the stale crêpes she could peck up? And I’m glad you made it back up those stairs in the evening despite being overcome with tiredness. Maybe everything really does happen for a reason because imagine if you’d made reservations and in so doing you and Esteban would have probably polished off a bottle of some sort of Bordeaux (or maybe a Loire Valley would’ve been more appropriate, I don’t know about these things) you could’ve had a wicked fall that would’ve doubtless made that whoopsie on the 90th step in the 17th century apartment seem like a preschool tumbling class!

    • I don’t know why, but birds in general and pigeons in particular turn into absolute clowns in front of my camera — as you can see with this cheeky fellow (or gal). Can you imagine how cool it would be to wander along the edge of a roof like that, without a care in the world? And you make an excellent point too about the plus side of not having made a reservation. Falling down those stairs would almost certainly be fatal! At least it would make for an interesting obituary, though … 🙂

      Well. Here’s hoping all is well in your world, and thanking you (as always) for stopping by. Cheers, dear Jason!

    • HA HA! I’m seeing your comments a bit out of order … but so glad to see you’re concluding it’s worth the sacrifice! If you spent a night or two there I think you’d be able to pace yourself and see the whole abbey. SO WORTH IT, Marie.

      • I read the posts out of order so it is no surprised they seem out of order when you read them. 🙂 I think you are right about staying. It looks so quiet and a bit eerie.

        • There WAS an eerie quality to the place, Marie — how interesting that should come through in the photos, because I thought it was just my overactive imagination.

    • “Typing on a tour bus in Jordan.” Now THERE is a follow-up comment you don’t read every day! Hope you’re having a wonderful trip.

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