F and I are doing our exploring through our own initiative mostly. We aren’t huge fans of guided tours because we prefer to go at our own pace in minimal crowds.* That being said, sometimes, during our pre-trip research, we realize that no matter how we plan it, it’s one hundred times less of a headache to go the guided tour route if we really and truly want to make a small trip out somewhere remote.
Like Mont St. Michel.
It’s a four hour drive from Paris, and bus routes weren’t optimal for our other travel plans. We found a tour group on Viator (PARISCityVISION) that provided transportation, a guided tour of the Mont, and lunch, all inclusive. Sounded like a decent plan!
*Yes, I realize we’re traveling around Western Europe in the middle of summer which is kind of the opposite of “minimal crowds,” but we work with the opportunities we’ve been given. Also we’ve managed to avoid large crowds for the most part with key timing for many sights.
Our bus left at 7am. It was late to leave, which wasn’t entirely unexpected. It was, however, unexpected that we’d return to Paris by 9pm. Viator had written 7pm as the return time on their website, which suited us because our train to Carcassonne left that night… at 9:38pm. Luckily, F is quick to problem solve and purchased tickets for an overnight bus at a later time.
Still, it kinda sucked.
We arrived, our tour now well into Normandy, at around lunchtime and popped into a restaurant inside the hotel Le Relais St. Michel that had a spectacular view of the Mont.
During the bus ride we had learned about (among other things) the gastronomic specialties of the region, from cheeses like camembert to unique apple ciders to the touristy La Mère Poulard omelette that is specific to le Mont St. Michel city island. At our lunch, we sipped on Norman apple cider and munched on melty camembert wrapped in a phyllo-type encasement. We were also treated to a salmon and rice main course and the most delicious apple tart–it tasted like 33% apple, 33% sugar, and 33% butter. SO GOOD. Don’t get me wrong, I loved exploring and just getting to see the Mont St. Michel in person, but that apple tart was heavenly. It was, to me, just as fantastic an experience as seeing a majestic, medieval island abbey town in Northern France.
Also… I’m not sure what it is about Europeans and boiling their veggies, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the green beans that accompanied the salmon and rice. Nor was I a fan of the rice, but I chalk that up to being too in love with Chinese-style jasmine rice. But yeah, what’s with making your veggies mushy all the time?!
A beautiful day. We just missed the thunderstorm that’s been going through the area.
After lunch, we waited for the rest of our group to finish and hopped on a tram that took us to the Mont.
Originally, the Mont St. Michel was first known as a Christian oratory build in around 700 AD and dedicated to the archangel Saint Michael (there’s an interesting story behind that which involves a reluctant bishop and a persistent archangel). Since then, it has evolved from a small place of worship to a medieval town and pilgrimage site and further into a very popular tourist destination.
It’s peak tourist season, so le Mont St. Michel was stuffed with people at lunch time. Outside of Paris, it’s France’s most-visited tourist destination–and understandably so, since it’s not only a place of pilgrimage but also very cool to look at.
During our time in the tiny town, we walked around the medieval stone walls, over cobblestoned streets, and past many other tourists. We were reminded once again how many times le Mont and those living on & near it have been tossed around, first as Normans conquered by Vikings, then nearly a millennia of being fought over by Normans, Bretons, French, and English.
The history of the conception and construction of le Mont St. Michel is of course a very interesting one. While you can learn a lot on tours like the one we did, it’s just as easy to travel there yourself and do your own research (which I did, after I returned, when I wanted to learn more!).
On our tour, our guide told us mostly about the age of the buildings and what made each parts of the Abbey significant architecturally. I can’t say it was all the most invigorating parts of the small town’s history, learning about how old certain rocks were, but we were happy just to look around.
Le Mont St. Michel is surrounded by water only really during the spring and autumn equinoxes. In the summer, like when we went, there are long stretches of beach and some wetlands; the open wetlands are used for sheep grazing specifically to produce salt-heavy grass-fed lamb meat that is considered a specialty of the region.
The sky reflected on the beach. In the distance is the small rock island of Tombelaine.
Climbing up to the abbey.
Atop the abbey is a shiny, golden statue of the archangel St. Michael.
During our visit, Buddhist monks were also exploring the abbey.
Inside the abbey, which, though nothing from before the vikings remains, has distinctly different parts made and re-made at different points in time over the millennia.
The monk’s cloister.
Daisies dotting the grass.
Despite being relatively hot and very full of tourists, F and I genuinely enjoyed our time at le Mont St. Michel. It’s so full of religious, cultural, and political history. One day, we’d like to return… but maybe not in June!
After a truly magical day, we returned to Paris and caught a night bus to Carcassonne.
The South of France is up next!