In 2014 a new footbridge opened between the French mainland and Mont Saint-Michel. The 2,500-foot-long bridge, which replaced a century-year-old causeway that would disappear during high tide, was built upon 40-foot-high stilts so that the water could flow freely beneath pedestrians and shuttles accessing the iconic mount. If only the monks who built the 1,300-year-old monastery had it so easy.
Appearing as a mirage floating just off the coast of Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel has long been a source of divine inspiration. Indeed, Aubert of Avranches —the bishop who founded the first church there in 708—claimed no less than Archangel Michael pressured him to do so.
In 966 the duke of Normandy bestowed the island to a community of Benedictine monks, who proceeded to construct an abbey atop the rocky outcrop in order to reach as close to heaven as possible. The building process itself required a leap of faith, hauling supplies while contending with some of the strongest, most powerful currents on continental Europe . Treks needed to be perfectly timed, as a local aphorism proclaimed that the seawaters rush back into the bay “at the pace of a galloping horse”—up to 200 feet per minute, with high tides reaching 45 feet. Even at low tide, the muddy flats needed to be carefully navigated to avoid concealed pools of quicksand.
Yet the magnificent monastery that arose on such an inhospitable locale became one of the most welcoming to intellectual and artistic expression. One of the guiding lights of learning during the Middle Ages, it earned the moniker “City of the Books” for the many manuscripts produced there.
Mont Saint-Michel would undergo numerous collapses, fires, and refurbishments over its millennium, resulting in a variety of architectural and construction styles. Ramparts were built to keep out English forces during the Hundred Years War (it remained the only site in Normandy not to fall). The crowning statue of Saint Michael, which sits atop a spire 300 feet high, was added during the 19th century.
Yet through the centuries, the faithful and travel fans alike have continued to make the pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel, which draws some 2.5 million visitors a year. The new bridge not only allows for easier access to the historic site—one of the first to receive UNESCO World Heritage status—but helped to removed decades of silt that had built up because of the old roadway. What’s more, Mont Saint-Michel is once again an island, inspiring with its dreamlike beauty that is simply divine.
For more information on visiting Mont Saint-Michel, visit Discoveries of Coastal Europe.