Mont St Michel France is a beautiful island off the coast of Normandy. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, basically a monastery and an abbey built on an island that was cut off from the mainland at high tide. It includes a little village built on the route leading up to the 8th-to-13th (parts, pieces, and fires) century religious compound. A place where religious pilgrimage dictates a visit once in your life (if you believe that kind of stuff). And a bucket list item for many. It is an easy day trip from Paris and easy to fold into a weekend trip or road trip to either Normandy or Brittany (it is right on the border of the 2 regions).
But honestly, it is just nutty.
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So NOT worth a visit UNLESS you visit before 10 am.
8 million people visit every year, the daily average is 8,000, higher during the traditional summer vacation season. A teeny, tiny island. 8,000 people. You do the math.
We visited for the first time in 2010 prior to the parking lot, the bridge, the visitor's complex. It was a Tuesday in October. We were lucky. There weren't a lot of crowds. We didn't wait in line. I didn't feel like I was in an amusement park. Fast forward almost 10 years. Last October (2018) we spent a weekend in Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes/Cancale and took the opportunity to head back over to Mont St Michel for a sunrise shoot. Our target was the GR-22 (GR223) which connects with the GR-34. This is the hiking path that I have frequently mentioned in posts about places along the Brittany coast, like Saint-Malo and Cancale. The GR-34 runs right in front of Mont St Michel and as it is public land, there are no restrictions for walking through.
Here there is a sheep farm, the famous pré-salé sheep. These are lamb raised in the salt marsh fields in front of Mont St Michel. The sheep graze on the high salinity grasses giving their meat a distinctive taste. It is considered a delicacy and there is an annual festival in the spring where they grill the lamb and celebrate. An entrance to the GR-22 runs alongside this sheep farm. If you arrive just before sunset you can watch the farmer and his trusty dog herd the sheep from their barn in the center of their little village across the street and onto the pasture. If you are cautious and courteous you may even be able to capture it on film. We decided not to but did follow the sheep out as the sun began to rise on the mist, producing a beautiful golden tinge.
You can follow the trail all the way out to the Bay. Word of caution. It is muddy and well, there are hundreds of sheep so you know, lots of stuff you don't want to step in with dainty sandals. It is also fairly chilly in the morning, so dress in layers and be prepared. You have beautiful unobstructed views of Mont St Michel and the Mont St Michel Abbey whether the tide is in or out and I highly recommend taking advantage of this little walk. Just be respectful of the farm and watch your step!
How to access this entrance to the GR-22/GR-34: the sheep farm is in Pontorson, along the D275 (departmental road 275). Almost at the intersection of D275 and D280, if you hit the Auberge de la Baie you've gone a tiny bit too far. There is a parking “area” that will accommodate about 6 cars, otherwise, you'll need to drive down the road, park and walk back. (Do NOT block the farmer's gate!). The GPS coordinates are 48.616179, -1.489061. There is a wood step to access the GR-22 path that runs between 2 of the farmer's pastures until it opens up about 1/2 mile down.
During that particular weekend adventure, we did not attempt to visit the actual island but made our way through the countryside around it. Another great view of Mont St Michel and the Mont St Michel Abbey is from the village of Beauvoir. There are multiple places from the small village where you can have a fantastic vantage point of Mont St Michel. The image below is at sea level, we could have gone up a little hill a bit, but we liked the flowers in the fields. (Actually, the stuff in the right is colza or rapeseed that is harvested for oil). When we returned in April, the fields had been harvested and the photo wasn't as nice.
If your early morning excursion has fatigued you a bit, stop into the St Michel Café (they don't open until 9 am!) and visit the Biscuiterie de la Baie du Mont St Michel, a cookie and souvenir shop right down the street from either the sheep farm or Beauvoir. They have large front windows that have a great view of Mont St Michel. The coffee is pretty good and the pastries as well. We sat there and admired the view for quite a while.
Near Beauvoir is the Moulin de Moidrey, a working flour mill that you can visit near Mont St Michel. The miller sells his flour and does his own tour. He is quite attentive and guides you through the milling process like a proud papa! There is a view of Mont St Michel from the windmill as well, but we captured the actual windmill instead! The Moulin de Moidrey is located at 35 Rue des Moulins (Pontorson).
Okay, okay. I know! But what about the actual Mont St Michel? During our latest Brittany road trip, we went back to Mont St Michel. Our intent was to get the sunrise and then visit the Mont St Michel Abbey afterward. But when it came down to it, we just couldn't stand the thought of those crowds. So here is what we did do. We arrived at the parking complex at about 6 am. Given that the bus service does not start until 7:30 there weren't any cars in the lots (except those lots for hotel guests of people staying on Mont St Michel). We had our choice of spots. If you visit and find yourself in the same situation, choose parking lot 9 or 10, they are actually the closest to the ticket booth, transit area, and walkway. The walk to Mont St Michel from the parking lot is about 2km/1.25mi.
If you go early as we did, you have the walk all to yourself and you have plenty of opportunities to take photos as you head into the island. The bridge allows people to enter nearly around the clock, but there are high tides that still cut off the island from the mainland. So know where to check the tide charts and pay attention.
Once you arrive, walk right in. There will probably be a few employees of the various shops and restaurants slowly making their way in, but otherwise, you will be pretty much alone. Do me a favor and close your eyes as you walk past all the crappy/over-touristic/made-in-China restaurant, shops, and hotels. Don't stay on the island, don't eat on the island, don't shop on the island. You will be ripped off and disappointed. Service in France is not great, to begin with, add in 8,000 people a day and the service is atrocious. And that famous La Mère Poulard omelet? Do you really want to pay €34 for some eggs? Or the La Mère Poulard fish stew? It was trash day the morning we were there and that famous stew they charge €15 a bowl for? Straight from a bottle. I took a photo of dozen of bottles thrown into the trash in front of the restaurant. My point is, don't get sucked into the hype. Visit the island. Visit the Abbey. Forget the rest. Including the crowds! Go in the morning!
In the morning you will be able to take shots of empty streets.
And gorgeous shots of the bay that you don't have to stand in line for.
When you get to the top of the hill and reach the Abbey and Monastery you won't be able to enter as they do not open until 9:00 or 9:30 depending on the time of year, here is all the information you need on opening hours, etc. My recommendation to you is that you pre-purchase your tickets online and be there before opening to pass with ease and have an opportunity to see the church before the majority of the crowds descend. You can buy online here, here, or here. The Mont St Michel Abbey is quite beautiful and definitely worth a visit, just be prepared. Get in first thing and get out.
Places to Visit Around Mont St Michel
After your morning visit to Mont St Michel, you can spend the rest of your day enjoying the surrounding area
- The medieval villages of Dinan or Fougeres, both 1-hour from Mont St Michel. You've got the entire second half of your day to get lost in the middle ages in these pretty villages.
- Hit the coast and check out oysters in Cancale an hour from Mont St Michel. Or hike the GR-34, from Mont Saint-Michel to Cancale is 9 m/15 km.
- Learn about pirate history in Saint-Malo an hour from Mont St Michel.
- For other spots in Normandy, Mont St Michel is an hour and 40 minutes from Omaha Beach; 2 hours from Deauville and a little over 2 hours from Honfleur.
How about you? Have you been to Mont St Michel? What was your visit like? Do you have recommendations for people wishing to visit?
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