They call it Mont-Saint-Michel-au-Peril-de-la-Mer, Saint Michael’s mountain at the peril of the sea—a pinnacled monastery at the mercy of some of the highest tides in the world. But Mont Saint-Michel was not always an island and it was not always called Mont Saint-Michel.
The granite promontory, first called Mont Tombe, was originally connected to the Normandy-Brittany coast in France by a stretch of scrubby forest, its rocky enclaves inhabited by Celtic Druids. In 709, the place changed forever; a tidal wave flooded and isolated the point from the mainland. And, legend has it, the archangel Saint Michael began appearing to a nearby bishop, St. Aubert, demanding a church be built atop the island. On his third and final visit, Saint Michael placed his flaming finger on St. Aubert’s head. Nearby, at the Cathedral of Avranches, the bishop’s skull still sits today, with a hole burned right through the bone.
While centuries of pilgrims have trekked barefoot across the quicksand at low tide, today’s visitors usually opt for the new half-mile-long bridge built in 2014. Yet nothing is high and dry enough when a supertide comes along, which happens about every eighteen years. [Read about the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France.]
Behind Mont Saint-Michel’s medieval fort walls, narrow cobblestone streets wind past museums, inns, cafés, and shops. Nicknamed “The City of Books,” Mont Saint-Michel is known for its many monastic manuscripts, some dating back to the eighth century when monks built the island’s first Christian church under the protection of the Duke of Normandy, a converted Viking king. In the 12th century, Aristotle’s writings were first translated from ancient Greek to Latin inside the abbey scriptorium. Amazingly, much of the library was preserved despite the monastery’s two-hundred-year stint as a refractory prison for over 14,000 prisoners, including monks and priests.
The star of the show, of course, is the 1,300-year-old abbey, a layered uphill maze of French history—Norman Gothic art, vaulted cloisters, a Romanesque nave and choir, glimpsed swishes of monk robes behind roped-off passages, and not one, but two victorious lightning-rod-statues of archangel Saint Michael with a sword in the air and a dragon underneath his heel.
At the very top of the monastery’s northern side stands a 13th-century addition called La Merveille, The Marvel. There, closer to the sun, the sea air is blustery and salty. Courtyard gardens of roses and lavender are squared off by romantic pillared granite, the windows and ramparts looking out onto mile after mile of quicksand, water and coastline—a northwest France landscape constantly changing by tide, by fog, by sun.
Freelance writer Cait Etherton studies for her M.F.A. in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction at Virginia Commonwealth University. Follow her travels on Twitter.