The Gothic abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, called the “Merveille de l’Occident” (wonder of the west), is located on a granite islet surrounded by sandbanks exposed to powerful tidal forces, near the border between Normandy and Brittany.
The islet measures approximately 960 meters in circumference and has an area of approximately 280 hectares and rises to a height of 92 m above sea level. In 1979, UNESCO included Mont Saint-Michel Abbey and its bay on the list of world heritage sites.
Legend says that in 709 AD, at the request of Archangel Michael, the bishop of Avranches, Aubert, had a small church built on the site where the Gothic Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is located today.
In 966 AD a community of Benedictines settled on the islet, building a pre-Romanesque church. Later, from the 11th century, the Romanesque abbey was founded. The first buildings to be built were those on the north side of the island. Then during the following century (XII century) the wings to the west and south were built.
The construction of the Gothic part of the abbey began in the 13th century, and two three-storey buildings with cloisters and refectory were built. In the meantime, a small village was forming on the southeast side.
In the 14th century, because of the Hundred Years War, fortification works were built to protect the abbey from military attacks. The village was also surrounded by walls. In the 15th century, the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel became together with Rome and Santiago de Compostela one of the major pilgrimage sites in Europe.
During the French Revolution, Mont Saint-Michel was transformed into a prison. The prison was closed in 1863. Only in 1966, at the celebration of the thousand years since the foundation of the abbey, some religious settled again in the complex. In 2001, a community of friars and nuns from the “Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem” settled in the abbey.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS: WHAT TO VISIT IN MONT SAINT-MICHEL
At the entrance of the medieval town is the Tourist Office. Which is located in the ancient guardhouse (Corps de Garde des Bourgeois). After crossing the Boulevard Gate (Porte du Boulevard), and the King Gate (Porte du Roy) with a drawbridge, you will reach the Grande Rue, the main street full of shops, museums and ancient houses of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. First there is the Maritime Museum, then the Archeoscope and the Parish Church of the XV-XVII century, dedicated to St. Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen. You then reach the Grand Degré (Grand Staircase) which leads to the entrance of the Abbey. From the drawbridge it is also possible to take the walk along the walls up to the entrance of the Abbey.
THE ABBEY OF MONT SAINT-MICHEL
The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel presents a complete panorama of the styles of medieval architecture between the 11th and 16th centuries. The oldest part is represented by the primitive pre-Romanesque abbey church (today called Notre-Dame Sous-Terre). This part of the building was built at the time of the Benedictine foundation in 966, and rediscovered during the excavations that took place between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The structures of the Romanesque abbey date back to the 11th century. Among these, three floors of convent buildings were built to the north of the primitive church, including the kite room, the monks’ walk and the dormitory.
During this period, the construction of the nave of the new church began and three crypts were built: the Chapel of the Thirty Candles (Chapelle des Trente-Cierges) to the north, the Crypt of the Choir (Crypte du Chœur) to the east, and the Chapel of Saint Martin (Chapelle Saint-Martin) to the south. The Chapel of Saint Stephan (Chapelle Saint-Etienne) dates back to the XII century. While are from the thirteenth century: the Guest Room, the Refectory, the Knights’ Room and the magnificent cloister, which together make up the complex called the Wonder (“Merveille”). Also from the same period are the Hall of the Guards, the new entrance to the abbey and the Officialité (hall of justice), which together form the Belle-Chaise.
The fortifications date back to the 14th century. Among these, the two towers of Châtelet stand out, the Tour Perrine and the Tour Bailliverie. The abbot’s apartments and the new abbey choir, in flamboyant Gothic style, are from the 15th century. The neo-classical facade of the Abbey dates back to the 18th century. While the spire, which reaches 170 meters above sea level, was built in 1896.
The Historical Museum (Musée Historique ou Musée Grévin) displays collections of weapons, paintings, sculptures, watches and the 19th century periscope. Archéoscope, a multimedia museum showing the abbey construction techniques and its history. The Maritime Museum (Musée Maritime) is an audio-visual museum that explains the phenomenon of the tides, the problems of the site and the restoration works that will be done in the future. Finally, the Tiphaine House (Logis Tiphaine demeure de Bertrand Duguesclin), an ancient 14th century house with period furniture, paintings and tapestries.
TIME OF ENTRANCE OF THE ABBEY OF MONT-SAINT-MICHEL: May 2-August 31: 9.00-19.00 (last entry at 18.00). September 1-April 30: 9.30-18.00 (last admission at 17.00). On 24th and 31st December last entry at 4.00pm and closing at 5.00pm. The abbey is open every day. Excluding January 1, May 1 and December 25.