Mont Saint-Michel (population 42) is one of these postcard perfect scene of Europe, one of the world's great landmarks that everybody knows. Perched majestically atop a big rock in the English Channel, the old Benedictine monastery is only connected to the mainland at low tide, when a medieval causeway (now asphalted) reveals itself in the continuation of the salt marsh meadows where the sheep like to graze. The tides are notoriously swift, moving at the speed of a horse galloping, as Victor Hugo described them. Depending on the season, the difference between low and high tides can reach 14 m (45 ft).
Mont Saint-Michel was one of the five French sites that first joined the UNESCO World Heritage in 1979. It is visited by over 3,000,000 people each year and is the most popular tourist attraction outside Paris.
The rock was already used in the 6th and 7th centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Romano-Breton culture that existed in Southwest Britain and Brittany since the end of the Roman Empire. Legends has it that the first chapel dedicated to Archangel Michael was built in 708 by Saint Aubert, bishop of Avranches on what is then known as Mont-Tombe. The name would change two years later to Mont-Saint-Michel-au-péril-de-la-Mer.
The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when William "Long Sword", William I, Duke of Normandy, annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, definitively placing the mount in Normandy. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England.
In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael's Mount of Penzance.
In the 13th century, the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel developed into one of Europe's main scholastic centre, translating Aristotle directly from Greek to Latin. Repeatedly assaulted by the English during the Hundred Years' War, the mount always resisted thanks to its state-of-the-art fortifications. The small island prospered as a pilgrimage destination until the 16th century. Afterwards its influence waned with the Reformation. By the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence, and the island was converted into a prison.
In 1836, Victor Hugo and other influential figures launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874.
How to get there
The easiest way is reach Mont Saint-Michel is by car. The nearest major motorway is the E3 between Rennes and Caen.
There is no direct train from Paris. The nearest train station is Pontorson, a two-hour ride from Caen (itself two hours away from Paris). There are buses at Pontorson station making the connection to the island. An easier and faster alternative from Paris is to take the TGV from Gare Montparnasse to Rennes, where a bus run by Keolis Emeraude provides a 90 minute transfer to the island (there are 4 departures from Rennes per day, most departures are timed to match to the arrival of the TGV in Rennes but it is always better to check the timing for last minute changes).