A couple beers Thursday night led to a train and ferry ride Friday afternoon and a weekend adventure that I won’t soon forget. It may have been put together at the last moment but most legs of the journey went smoothly and the sites that were seen were well worth the last minute hustle.
Mont St Michel, A History
Ever since seeing Mont St Michel in pictures, I knew this needed to be added to my to-do list. A structure like no other, the Mont St Michel Abbey is perched atop an outcropping on the French Coast, roughly 4 hours west of Paris.
Built in 708 in honor of the Archangel St Michael, the structure you see today represents hundreds of years of additions, rebuilding and refurbishment. Originally, the structure was simply an Abbey and a site for pilgrimage. However, over the years, given the natural and man-made defenses of the building it was also used as a stronghold and prison. It was attacked many times by the English during the Hundred Years War but was never overrun.
Labeled a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Mont St Michel has since been fully restored to its former glory for all to enjoy.
Getting To Mont St Michel
Unfortunately, getting to Mont St Michel from London is a little trickier than some of the other places I’ve been.
First, you need to grab a train from London Waterloo to Portsmouth. These trains run frequently and take about an hour and half but beware; they are extremely crowded during rush hour with all the commuters. This will cost you roughly £20.
From Portsmouth you take an overnight ferry to St Malo, France. The ferry we took departed at 8pm and arrived in St Malo at 8am the next morning. You can either book a cabin, which will give you a bed to sleep on or you can reserve a lounge chair that fully reclines in the public areas. Obviously, cabins will cost more than the lounge chairs. We were forced to get the chairs since we booked late and all the cabins were sold out. The ferry ride will cost anywhere from £30-150 depending on how and when you book.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the ferry ride but it turned out to be much better than I expected. It’s basically a step down from a full cruise. It had a restaurant, bar, 2 cinemas, an arcade and some shops. We killed the first couple of hours by watching the movie Ant-Man (terrible movie), grabbed a beer in the bar area and then headed up to our seats to sleep. All in all it wasn’t a terrible 12 hours.
Once in St Malo, you’ll need to grab a train to Pontorson. Oddly enough, the first train to Pontorson doesn’t depart until 11:20am so you’ll have some time to waste. You would assume that the ferry arrival and train departure times would be more closely aligned but sadly, they aren’t. There are plenty of café’s to keep you busy. This train takes about 39 minutes and will cost you €10.
Don’t despair, you’re nearly there. From Pontorson, you’ll take a bus from the train station to Mont St Michel. The bus costs €3.20 and takes 10 minutes. As the image below will confirm, the travel headaches will be justified in the end.
Mont St Michel, The Abbey
The bus will drop you off well in front of Mont St Michel’s entrance. As you walk towards the Abbey you’ll start to respect the sheer size and height of this structure.
Depending on what time of day you’ve arrived the surrounding sea could be in high or low tide. This means that Mont St Michel will either be surrounded by water, creating a natural moat and island, or will be surrounded by soft/wet sand and clay. Either way, you’ll understand why this Abbey has never been breached.
As you enter Mont St Michel, you’ll be in the village. During the restoration process they tried to recreate the buildings and streets to resemble the medieval times. Having never been to the medieval times it’s not hard to imagine life over 500 years ago as you make your way through the narrow and crowded streets. There are restaurants, cafés and shops aplenty as you walk upwards through the village on your way to the Abbey.
Entrance into the Abbey will cost you €9. It is a self-guided tour but you can buy an audio tour if you’d like. The Mont St Michel Abbey is massive and you’ll be in awe by the architecture, craftsmanship and engineering. What makes the Abbey more impressive is that they were able to build the structure using the natural rocks as support and this leads to many turns and twists and different levels in the floor plans. You’ll move from the Abbey entrance, to the observation deck, through the crypts and shrines and exit onto the Abbey’s gardens.
After leaving the gardens, we headed back into the village and ate lunch on a balcony that overlooked the surrounding area.
Given that it was low tide we decided to circle Mont St Michel on foot. Our shoes got fairly destroyed by the sand and clay but it was definitely an interesting perspective viewing the Abbey from the seafloor.
Once we had our fill of Mont St Michel, we boarded the same bus we took there and headed back to the Pontorson Station. From there we were headed to Caen, France to sleep and get ready for a visit to the Beaches of Normandy (Part 2).
In Conclusion, Day 1
Mont St Michel is easily the most impressive structure I’ve seen. The history and architecture will keep you busy for hours and the village below will allow you take a step back in time. If your travel plans will allow and if you can manage the logistics to get there, Mont St Michel should be on any France to-do list. You will not be disappointed.