Exploring Magical Mont Saint-Michel: I AM CALGARY’S Summer of 2019

🇫🇷 Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France

Upon seeing the island community of Mont Saint-Michel for the first time, one is both enchanted and captivated. Purported to be France’s 3rd most popular tourist attraction, the walled fortress – dominated by the mountain-top abbey – is a UNESCO world heritage site and certainly a memorable sight to behold.

Mont Saint-Michel seen from the bay at low tide

Located one kilometre off the coast of Normandy, near its border with Brittany, the seven hectare island community of 50 inhabitants is an extension of the larger mainland community that occupies 393 hectares.

Tourists and pilgrims flock to the island of Mont Saint-Michel from the nearby mainland community of the same name along the causeway linking the two

We drove to Mont Saint-Michel in our rental vehicle from the Brittany sea port of Saint-Malo. It took us 45 minutes to get to the hamlet of Mont Saint-Michel. It took a further 45 minutes to gain access to the car park as we inched our way along the final two kilometre bumper-to-bumper access road amidst the mid-morning summer holiday traffic jam. Had we not pre-purchased tickets to the attraction we may well have turned around, avoiding the throngs of pilgrims and holiday makers trying to access the island. In hindsight, we’re so glad we persevered with our visit.

Bumper-to-bumper summer traffic mayhem as we approach Mont St Michel

Tidal Phenomenon

The island is accessed via an elevated causeway that, during high tide, is surrounded by water. Aside from the island spectacle, the bay in which Mont Saint-Michel is located sports some of the most dramatic tidal differences seen anywhere in the world. The difference between high and low tide averages 14 metres. Depending on the timing of the tide, visitors swarm to the Mount to see the tidal bore, the water surge or leading wave that forms by the incoming tide as it mounts the shallow sand bars and pushes up against the remaining draining waters from the bay. If at all possible, plan your visit to Mont Saint-Michel around the tide times and try to experience this phenomenon. Check out the tide table for Mont Saint-Michel here.

We had investigated and pre-purchased tickets through the exceptional travel website, BestTime2Travel, to two of the attractions that caught our attention.

👣 Tour #1: Mont Saint-Michel Abbey Ticket and Self-Guided Tour

As the description says, this is a self-guided walking tour of the Abbey. The tickets allow you to skip the line ups for the ticket booth, giving you quicker access to the Abbey. From there you are on your own – along with the multitude of other tourists, of course – to explore the mountain-top views, numerous chapels, gloomy crypts, cavernous halls, detailed architecture, the myriads of corridors, and the construction masterpieces of the edifice.

But, don’t be fooled. During busy times it still takes at least 30 minutes for any able-bodied tourist to claw their way up from the base of the mount to the ticket booth at the Abbey entrance. By the time we managed to elbow our way past the crazed crowds snaking their way up through the narrow cobbled streets and alleys to the Abbey atop the Mount, we were left with less than an hour to explore. We are regretful that we didn’t have more time to soak in the views or sit contemplatively inside the Abbey. None the less, our time there was worth every moment and effort.

View some video footage taken during our Abbey visit and walled city walk on our YouTube channel.

👣 Tour #2: Mont Saint-Michel Guided Hiking Tour in the Bay

This three-hour guided hiking tour in the bay was beyond our expectation. Be advised that the tour takes up every moment of the allocated time. It offers adventurers a fascinating and seldom-seen vantage point of the Mount, together with historic, geographic and astronomic insights into the area that few visitors to the area ever get to see and hear about.

Mont Saint-Michel Bay Tour Walking Group

Visitors should come prepared to walk through very varied terrain: water, mud, beach sand and slick molasses-like clay beds. It is recommended to walk barefoot. However, neoprene surfing booties or tight-fitting water shoes might work for some people. Be warned that you will get muddy and need to change footwear – and possibly clothing – by the end of your water-logged and boggy tour.

Low tide beach walking
Swift current stream crossings
You will encounter sticky fields of slippery clay that require steady feet and perseverance

Having said that, our exceptional local guide was very knowledgeable, humorous and engaging. The insights about the tidal effects on the bay, landscape, surrounding fauna and flora, and how tides work were very insightful and educational. His recount of the history of the Mount and surrounds were also intriguing and even mostly believable.

Beach sand formations left behind the outgoing tide

The views of the Mount from the bay are captivating, so make sure you have a charged camera at the ready.

Somehow one just can’t take enough photos of the Mount from the Bay, with minute-by-minute changes in the water reflections, sand formations or sky conditions

Be sure to carry water and a snack along with you. Also, remember to use the toilet before your tour starts! If you have any physical walking limitations then this tour might not be well-suited to you because it does require some perseverance and stamina. You will navigate slippery clay fields, “sinking” sand and potentially strong flowing water as you cross streams. However, this is all part of an unforgettable experience. If you do nothing else during your visit to Mont Saint-Michel, and you are up for a little adventure, don’t miss out on this tour.

For some visitors, it may even prove to be one of the most memorable walks of their lives, as this couple proved to us when he proposed to her and she said “yes” in front of an audience of strangers on the threshold of a stunning backdrop.

There’s even time for romance when on the Bay tour!

View some video footage taken during our Bay guided walking tour on our YouTube channel.

✏️ Notes:

  • if you’re visiting in summer, try to arrive earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the traffic pandemonium and the crowds entering the attractions;
  • you will need to pay in order to park in the carpark near the island access. This is unavoidable. However, your payment – which you make upon departure from the car park at the end of your visit – entitles you to a free shuttle ride to the island and back. The shuttle bus system is quick, efficient and worthwhile. Walking to or from the island along the causeway is also an option.
  • pre-book your tours on-line in order to avoid the long lineups at the Abbey entrance. You may not avoid the slow and snaking queues of pilgrims and visitors ascending and descending the narrow cobbled streets within the walled fortress, but you will at least jump to the front of the lineup that may have gathered near the top where you pay to enter the Abbey;
  • the guided hiking tour in the bay is only offered during low tide. Be sure to check up on tour availability ahead of time;
  • remember to pack snacks, water and sensible clothing for your visit, especially for the guided hiking tour of the bay;
  • don’t forget to charge your phone and cameras before your visit. You won’t want to miss out on capturing those perfect photos and memorable moments!

👣 But wait, there’s more …

For a recount of more walking tour experiences from our summer holiday check out our Part 1 blog about walking in Europe.

Walk with us through London.

Wander the woodlands of Windsor Great Park.

Explore England’s southwest coast path.

Detour through the streets of Guernsey.

Enjoy mesmerizing scenery along the pathways of Herm.

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