This That and the Passport

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Mont Saint Michel, France

Known as the "Wonder of the West," this Benedictine Monastery is dedicated to the Archangel St Michel and is an incredible feat of engineering.  Built between the 11th and 16th centuries it has remained intact through the centuries and to this day houses a small community of monks and nuns.  Pilgrims from all over the world still come to participate in some of the liturgical celebrations.  An average of 3 million tourists a year also visit this site, making it a challenge to enjoy one's visit while fighting the crowds- especially in summer.

How to visit Mont St Michel during summer without the crowds

-Arrive later than 3:00pm

-Buy your ticket ahead of time. Click here for skip the line tickets.

-Research the tide times: Current tide schedule.

We had read horror stories of people having to elbow their way up to the Abbey because the throngs of tourists are usually wall to wall up the narrow streets.  This is not the experience we were looking for, so we rented a property for several days in the Normandy region close enough to the Normandy Beaches and Le Mont St Michel (LMSM).

The day of our LMSM visit we spent the morning in the town of Cancale, sampling their amazing oysters and having a relaxed lunch.  Then we drove to the Mont and arrived at around 3:00pm instead of arriving at around 10:00am with everyone else.

At this hour there was plenty of parking and we managed to secure a spot really close to the visitor center. The visitor center has a good explanation of what LMSM is all about and we especially liked the model they have. We had bought tickets in advance so we just stood in line for the shuttle bus.

Model of Mont St Michel in the visitor center.

At this time of day most of the flow of people was out of LMSM and not towards it so we had no trouble getting on a shuttle bus.

You can walk all the way up to LMSM, but in the interest of time, since the last entrance to the Abbey was at 6:00pm we took the bus most of the way but we still had the experience of walking towards it and admiring the Bay.

When we arrived the tide was out. You can walk out and explore the Bay but it is not recommended to do it without a guide becasue there are areas of quicksand. Click for walking tour of MSM and Bay

Once you enter the main gate you walk up the hill to the entrance of the Monastery. We were a little disappointed at the stores lining the narrow streets. They are full of cheap trinkets and it kind of felt Disney-like, not very authentic.  

There are 365 steps, one for every day of the year, to get up to the Monastery and not always even. There was no line to enter the Abbey and we were provided with audioguides.  The guide is very informative and it took us like 45 minutes to complete the tour.  The views from the walls are incredible, with the waterless Bay going out as far as the eyes can see.  

View from the Abbey when the tide is out. Facing west(ish).

View of the causeway from the Abbey.

Mont St Michel Refectory

Mont St Michel Cloister

Streets at 4:33pm, even though lots of toursits had already left.

Empty streets at 6:50pm. If you don't mind the closed souvenir shops, this is a great time to admire the architecture and feel like you have gone back in time.

After the tour we found the narrow streets were empty, the shops closed and only some of the restaurants remained open.  It was a great time to admire the medieval architecture of the Mont. We had dinner at a restaurant waiting for the tide to come in, which was the other reason we were there.

About the tide at Mont Saint Michel

The Bay of Mont Saint Michel produces the greatest tide in Europe.  At its most dramatic the the sea goes out about 9 miles (15 kms) and comes in very quickly.  The tide only fully surrounds the Mont on certain days of the year. If you want to see Mont in all its glory, completely surrounded by water and cut off from the world, you have to plan carefully.   Here is the link to the tide information page, it has a downloadable chart that shows the tide schedule with the coefficients.  The higher the coefficient the more dramatic the tide with 120 being the highest possible number. The day of our visit the coefficient was 76, considered high, and peaking at 9:45pm. Since sunset was at 9:48pm we were able to fully appreciate it in daylight.

From a high vantage point up on the walls we started to watch the tide coming in. It was fascinating to see this massive body of water just moving in and covering everything in its path.

We hurried down to the Bay to see it up close and personal. Unlike the water in the ocean, the small waves do not receede. They just keep coming at you.

Eventually we went up on the causeway to watch the water coming in from dry land. At 9:45pm, as if by appointment, it reached its peak and then immediately began to receede.

After observing this phenomenon you can stay for a little longer and you will be rewarded with beautiful views of the illuminated Mont.

During the summer there is a lightshow inside the Monastery. If you look closely you can see some of the blue lights at the top.

Other Options for visiting Mont Saint Michel

If renting a car is not something you want to do there are other options.  Even if you don't get to see the tide, visiting the Monastery and its surroundings is totally worth it.  This UNESCO World Heritage site has a unique history that spans many centuries and yet it is also a site where new and innovative environmental protection practices are being developed.  The efforts to maintain the bay and the natural relationship with its surroundings is worth noting.

A guided tour is a great way to see the LMSM and the surrounding area especially if you have time constraints or you want to make it a day trip from Paris.

Click here for a variety of tours

Need more inspiration?

For more pictures go to my Le Mont Saint Michel Flickr Album

BBC Worldwide France has a great documentary on the history and construction of this site.

Where to stay when visiting Mont Saint Michel

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