One thing I came to greatly appreciate as a French who now lives outside of France, is that I regained a fresh attitude towards France’s touristic sites. Every time I return to France, I have this insatiable and truly genuine desire to visit and revisit France’s landmarks and touristic sites. Some places I would have run away from a few years ago, I am now weakly drawn to – as if if I were an innocent tourist, in my own home country.
Mont St Michel, definitely, is one of those places.
During our past trip to France, this last Fall, I couldn’t resist taking a quick trip to Normandy revisit this iconic landmark. Obviously, being September, we prepared ourselves for a crowd-filled day (which is exactly what we got), but we were still able to make a great day out of it.
Mont Saint-Michel is one of the great wonders of the world and is the second most visited attraction in France, after the Eiffel tower (3 million visitors each year!). The reality is, no matter what day of the year or time of day you visit Mont St Michel, it will be jam-packed. But that definitely shouldn’t deter you from going.
Set where Normandy and Brittany merge, Mont Saint-Michel island is surrounded by stunning sandy bay, with the highest tides in Europe. A mere 3 hour drive from Paris, its tantalizing shadow draws the eye from great distances, predicting a magical experience to all modern day “pilgrimers”.
Allow at least 2 to 3 hours to explore the island and the abbey, or 4 to 5 hours if you plan on grabbing a bite to eat, and to indulge in all the delicacies the region has to offer (which you definitely should do).
If you’re more interested in knowing what to eat when at Mont Saint-Michel – skip directly to the end of this article.
Walking your way to the Island
For myself, one of the best parts of the day was our walk towards Mont Saint-Michel. Cars aren’t allowed near the island (to preserve the shoreline) and are to be left in one of the massive parking lots built 1.5 miles away. You can then chose to take a free shuttle to the island (5 minute ride) or take a 30 minute walk, on an elevated bridge – which I recommend you do! Walking to the Mont is a truly magical feeling. As you walk closer and closer, the sight of Mont-Saint-Michel becomes increasingly mesmerizing – with its Monastery atop it, seemingly defying gravity more and more with each step towards it.
Close to the island’s entrance, if tides are high, the island is completely surrounded by sea. If tides are low, resist the urge to step out of the paved way to wander on the surrounding sand – it’s quicksand! And you will most likely end up with sand up to your knees and your shoes completely ruined. Basically, just like I did.
Looking over the crowd to find the beauty
Once inside, chances are you will discover this picture-perfect village to be intensely busy. But still, if you gloss-over this, the sinuous stoned streets in the Mont Village can offer you a delightfully typical Normandy experience, from yesteryear.
Try to make abstractions of the touristy shops and snack bars that unfortunately took over the small houses, and instead look up at the antique shields hanging atop their doors. As you make your way up to the Abbey, hop freely onto the few stairways nested in between walls, on the right or left of the main street, which often lead to some quieter gardens or cemeteries.
At the top, take some time to enjoy the breath-taking view of the bay, before visiting the 11th-century abbey. Be prepared to mingle with the crowds and wait in line a bit. But I guarantee you will still experience some of the beauty of this medieval pilgrimage.
People are all about travelling off of the beaten path these days (which is surely a great, if not the best way to experience a city or a country). But I believe that when it comes to some countries like France, there are some places that are just too iconic to be missed, even if touristy. Mont St Michel didn’t gain its fame for no reason. It is majestic, mesmerizing, and even mystical some might say. It shaped a whole country’s history, and still shapes its culture, economy and prestige, today.
Never mind the crowds, the knick-knack shops and seemingly-authentic bistros that took over the main street of the once-authentic village. I believe spending a day at Mont St Michel is still something one must experience in their lifetime.
What to eat at Mont Saint-Michel?
The “agneau de pré-salé”
If you’re lucky on your visit to the island, you will catch a glimpse at one or two herds of the iconic black-headed lambs inhabiting the Mont St Michel Bay. Known in French as the “agneaux de pré-salé”, these lambs are in fact a world-renowned culinary delicacy. They graze in the salt marsh meadows of the Bay, covered by green halophyte grasses. These grasslands, which have high salinity and iodine content, are raved by the lambs, which in return produce a delicate meat with a unique flavor and tenderness. Truly, a perfect example of terroir cuisine – where a region’s climate, landscape and environment can produce a one-of-a-kind food specialty. A piece of “agneaux de pré-salé” is a specialty dish in and around the Mont Saint-Michel island, served in most restaurants.
La Mere Poulard’s Omelet « soufflée »
Another culinary staple from Normandy, the Mere Poulard’s “omelette soufflee” is for some, the best omelet in the world. Made from slowly beaten egg yolks and whites cooked on an open fire in a rounded copper skillet, the omelet has a unique fluffy texture, which only a truly experienced hand can achieve. The Mere Poulard’s Auberge, the birth place of the world-renowned omelet, is still located in its original location, on the main street in the Mont Saint-Michel Village. You can stay overnight in one of its rusticly-decored rooms or just enjoy an omelet in the (often bustling) dining room.
Les Galettes du Mont Saint-Michel
Just like in Brittany, biscuits are butter-filled in Normandy. Les Galettes du Mont Saint-Michel is the name given to the array of scrumptious Normandy Butter Sables produced by the iconic Saint-Michel Biscuiterie. You can pay a visit to the original workshop in Contres or stop by any grocery store in the area to grab a collectable biscuit steel box to bring home.
The Calvados and Apple Flan
Personally, a trip to Normandy wouldn’t be complete without a slice of this one. At La Ferme St Michel, I had the most amazing Calvados and Apple Flan for dessert. It was tender, fruity and intensely fragrant – thanks to the Calvados Apple Brandy. I have been craving this dessert since then, and made it several times back home this winter. Known in French as “Far Normand”, you can also find slabs of it in most bakeries in the area (with or without Calvados in it). It makes for a perfect afternoon snack too! And if you’re into Calvados, make sure to take a drive to the Chateau du Breuil.