France's smallest municipality only houses some two dozen inhabitants these days, but every year welcomes three million visitors crossing the narrow land bridge from the mainland. The monastic village of Mont-Saint-Michel is immediately recognizable with its characteristic silhouette facing the open sea, but how is it that a monastery was actually ever built out here among the salt marshes?
In prehistoric times, what would later come to be known as Mont Tombe was part of the mainland, but centuries of erosion washed away the softer rock, leaving only the hard granite; here of a particular variety called leucogranite, which is believed to originate from an underground eruption of magma and is otherwise mainly found in the Appalachian Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Himalayan massif. Mont Tombe and the sister formations of Lillemer, Mont Dol and Tombelaine testify to this Precambrian event, and it was on the former that the latter world-famous monastery was built.
Mont Tombe was used during the 5th-6th centuries as an important fortification in the Gallo-Roman kingdom of Aremorica before it was sacked and destroyed by the Franks and incorporated into the West Frankish kingdom of Neustria, and then given by conquering Vikings to the emerging Bretons. According to legend, it was the archangel Michael who, during this period, gave the bishop of Avranches the task of building the monastery out on the island, but bishop Aubert was apparently skeptical, and it took two more revelations before the first shovel was swung in the Lord's year of 708. The story goes on to say that the archangel had to convince his bull-headed servant by appearing in physical form and pressing his thumb so hard into the bishop's forehead that it left a hole, and of course the skull with the thumb hole remains intact as a hallowed relic in a nearby church.
Initially a simple chapel but with a naturally defensive position, Mont-Saint-Michel eventually came under Norman patronage and the holy site was taken over by a group of Benedictine monks in 966, who quickly expanded the business and before the turn of the millennium had erected a church. The following centuries saw the construction of another abbey church in the Norman-Romanesque style, and then an extensive fortification of the island that resisted the British invasion during the Hundred Years' War and became an important motivator for the French resistance, not the least for Joan of Arc. The monastery complex was partly used for self-defense, to secure important key figures of the French state, but also as a naturally enclosed prison.
In keeping with the Reformation and a reshaping of the religious-political world map, the number of pilgrimages to the island, which in its heyday was nicknamed Mont-Saint-Michel au péril de la mer (roughly Mont-Saint-Michel in danger of the sea), decreased, and the site became less important for Christian pilgrimage. The remaining ecclesiastical activities eventually ceased entirely, and the monastery was emptied of monks. After the French Revolution, the reformed state took advantage of the isolated and easily monitored location, and the island once again served as a high-security prison for political prisoners for the better part of a century. But in the latter part of the 19th century, voices were raised within the cultural elite, led by Victor Hugo, to restore what was considered by many to be a national architectural treasure. The task fell on the architect Èdouard Corroyer to make a thorough inspection of the complex, and for two years he worked tirelessly to document the entirety of this granite outcrop. In 1874, Mont-Saint-Michel was granted the title of Monument historique, and then for fifteen frantic years underwent extensive restoration and cataloging under the inspired supervision of Monsieur Corroyer. During World War II, the island was temporarily used by the German invasion forces, and also became a popular tourist destination for many visiting German families. In 1979, Mont-Saint-Michel was accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Shortly after being designated a historical monument, a land bridge was constructed in 1879 connecting the island to the mainland, centuries of tidal currents have turned the seabed into a treacherous stretch to cross with pockets of quicksand and unstable sediment. However, the land bridge was frequently and unpredictably flooded, and was partially rebuilt into a bridge in 2014 in a huge government-funded project. Today, Mont-Saint-Michel is once again one of France's most visited tourist destinations, and with its unique location and spectacular location, it's easy to understand why!
After an adventurous day on the monastery island, which offers a journey through time both visually and spiritually, treat your body and soul with a stay in one of all the small, cozy family-owned hotels along the bay. And may we suggest trying a local specialty for dinner: agneau de pré salé; from lambs grazing in the salt-sprinkled fields overlooking this "St. Michael's Mountain". Bon appetit!
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