The Fortress Island

For many visitors to France, Paris is probably the only place that they visit, but France is just not only about Paris. So on our last trip to France, we decided to spend some time visiting a couple of other noteworthy attractions. One of the more famous sites is the abbey of Mont St. Michel located off the Normandy coast of France. I have always wanted to visit this place ever since I saw a picture of it long ago. It’s an ancient fortified island and also a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. It used to be only accessible during low tide but now a causeway connects it to the mainland so tourists can visit it safely.

There is no direct connection from Paris to Mont St. Michel, but it is relatively easy to get there. First, we took the TGV from Gare Montparnasse in Paris to Rennes (2hrs). Then at Rennes station there is a bus service that goes to Mont St. Michel directly (90 min, €12.70 per person for 1 way). The bus service is timed to match the arrival times of the TGV, but we found that as the bus can get full rather quickly, you may not be able to get seats on the immediate bus and have to wait for the next bus (a long wait). After the long ride to the Normandy coast passing through countryside and villages, we finally arrived at the small town that takes it’s name from the island.

We stayed at Hotel Mercure Mont St. Michel which is right in front of the bus stop (really convenient as you can hop off the bus and into the lobby). You can choose a range of hotels on the mainland, or on the island. Hotels on the island are much more expensive, compared to staying on the mainland, however, you do have the whole island to yourself after the tourist hordes leave in the evening. But wandering around old medieval buildings in the dark isn’t exactly my cup of tea.

It was a rainy afternoon when we set out. There was a break in the clouds and we decided to walk the 2km long causeway instead of taking the free shuttle bus so that we could enjoy the scenery.
It was a rainy afternoon when we set out. There was a break in the clouds and we decided to walk the 2km long causeway instead of taking the free shuttle bus so that we could enjoy the scenery.
Halfway, the storm clouds were gathering and blowing towards us from behind.
It was a bad idea. Halfway, the storm clouds gathered again and started blowing towards us from behind.
The last 300m was a mad dash as the rain began to fall steadily around us. This medieval scene greeted us as we dashed for cover.
The last 300m was a mad dash as the rain began to fall steadily around us. This medieval scene greeted us as we dashed for cover under the portcullis.
It looks like a scene from Game of Thrones, except for that Hello Kitty hanging there.
It looks like a scene from Lord of the Rings, except for that Hello Kitty hanging there.
There is only one long and narrow street that winds its way up to the abbey. This is a really narrow side stairs that only a skinny person can squeeze through.
This is a really narrow side stairs that only a skinny person can squeeze through. It’s like only less than half a meter in width.
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There is only 1 main cobblestone street that winds it’s way from the portcullis to the top where the abbey is. Along the way, we got to see different views of the island fortress.
Entry to the island is free, but you have to pay to enter the abbey.
Entry to the island is free, but you have to pay to enter the abbey.
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We could see groups of people crossing the tidal mudflats at low tide. I’ve heard that it’s best to go with an experienced guide who knows where the quicksand patches are. Tourists have been known to have drowned when they got stuck and cut off by the tide.
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Taking a rest inside the main hall of the abbey. It’s really a museum of sorts now.
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Some modern artworks have been installed along the hallways and rooms, like these lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling.
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We went past a grand hall with these arches and supporting columns.
The sky was beginning to clear finally.
We spent quite a long time inside the abbey, mainly to take shelter from the rain, but finally the sky was beginning to clear.

How did Mont St. Michel come about? According to legend, in 708AD, the archangel Michael appeared to the bishop of Avranches and instructed him to build a church on the rocky island that we see now. Later on in history, English forces laid siege to the island during the Hundred Years war but failed to capture it. The island’s remoteness and inaccessibility helped in it’s defense as it could only be accessed by foot during low tide, and invaders had to navigate through the tidal quicksands surrounding the island or get stuck and be swallowed by the rising tide.

You can see the causeway from up here.
You can see the causeway from up here and the quicksand riddled tidal mudflats.
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On display are a couple of these large wheels which formed a pulley system to haul the huge rocks up during construction of the abbey.
This looks so much like Hogwarts.
The courtyard outside the abbey with it’s arched walkway. This reminds me so much of Hogwarts in Harry Potter.

We spent about an hour inside the abbey which is quite large by the way. The way out from the abbey rejoins the main street and past more shops.

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There are a couple of small chapels which are dedicated to the archangel Michael along the street.

There are several options for dinner on the island with several small restaurants and cafes to choose from. We decided to try the famous La Mere Poulard restaurant which serves really expensive omelets. They also have a hotel above the restaurant where you can stay.

The famous La Mere Poulard omelets at € 70 per serving.
The famous La Mere Poulard omelets at €70 per serving. They are cooked over this huge fireplace on large pans.
We had to try it anyway. My serving came with foie gras.
It’s expensive but we were on holiday, and we had to try it anyway. My serving came with foie gras.

Depending on your budget, other restaurants also serve similar omelet dishes at a cheaper price, or you could also return to the mainland for more choices of food at even lower prices. After the expensive dinner, there was still time to look around as the sun had not set. Quite a number of tourists were leaving and it was not as crowded as when we first entered.

Tourists were feeding the seagulls. Perfect timing on the wings.
Tourists were feeding the seagulls and I caught the perfect timing on the wings.
A friendly local with his dog.
A friendly local with his dog.
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The flag of Normandy with it’s twin lions.
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It was getting dark and tourists were leaving the island. I guess that if you are staying on the island, this would be a great time to be wandering around, but the shops were also closing, so I’m not sure what you could do in a deserted medieval village?
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One of the small hotels that you could stay on island. Most of the shops, restaurants and hotels have these medieval looking signboards outside their entrances.
A very cloudy sunset over the Normandy coast.
A very cloudy sunset over the Normandy coast.
And finally, a night view of Mont St. Michel taken from the dam that is built near our hotel.
And finally, a night view of Mont St. Michel taken from the dam that is built near our hotel.

To return to our hotel on the mainland, we took the free shuttle bus service. This runs at regular intervals from the island to the mainland. After all the walking in the rain, it was time to give our legs a rest.

We spent only a night for this visit. There is some nice countryside scenery around here but unless you are really into photographing or exploring Mont St. Michel and it’s surroundings totally, a night’s stay is sufficient for most travelers. I’ve also heard of people doing this in a day trip from Paris but that’s really pushing it.

For pop culture buffs, Mont St. Michel was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the movie Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and also for the castle in the Disney animated movie, Tangled. So if you want to cosplay your favorite characters from those movies, this is a good place to start.

Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. See the resemblance?
The castle from Tangled. This looks almost like Mont St. Michel including the stone causeway.

We took the bus back to Rennes from the stop outside our hotel on the second day. You have to check the schedule of the bus if you are planning to catch the TGV back to Paris. Unfortunately for us, the bus broke down halfway and we had to wait in a cornfield for 30 minutes before a replacement bus came. So do give ample time allowance for the bus ride, because if your timing is too close, you might miss your train. So that is something to take note of.

3 thoughts on “The Fortress Island

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