Catch a glimpse across the bay and Normandy’s most visited monument is a distant pimple on an otherwise flat horizon. Approach from the visitor centre, and the conical rock with its hilltop abbey towers above the sands and salt marshes.
Like centuries of pilgrims before me, I’m powerless to resist. Not so much for spiritual reasons, but because Mont Saint-Michel changes with the weather and the time of day. Jewel of the Manche department, this UNESCO World Heritage site became an Island again in 2015, for the first time since the access dyke was built in 1879.
Famous for its extreme tidal range – up to 15 metres in difference between low and high water, the surrounding bay has been gradually filling up with silt, and the passage of water was blocked by the old dyke. But in 2009, a new dam was put in place across the river at Couesnon beside the approach road, which flushes out sand twice daily with a combination of fresh and salt water.
The dam was followed in 2012 by new visitor parking areas on the mainland. So instead of parking beside the dyke in the shadow of the Abbey, visitors now travel the 2.5km by shuttle bus or, in true pilgrim style, on foot. In 2014, a new footbridge was put in place to carry visitors the last few metres to the entrance gate, and from mid-2015, the old car parks and the last section of dyke was removed. So at high tide, the sea flows beneath the bridge, temporarily cutting the Mount off from the continent.
It’s a spectacular environmental project that has captured the heart of locals and visitors alike, and with more visitors expected every year, it pays to time your visit carefully. In peak season, it can seem like all of France is squeezed into the narrow road that winds steeply up past souvenir shops and restaurants to the summit. So my tip would be to visit out of season, or otherwise arrive early or late in the day. Not only will you have a quieter experience, you may also catch the best light.
As much as I love the lofty cloisters and cavernous church of the Abbey, the ancient buildings and tempting eateries of the Mount my favourite perspective is from water level on a guided walk across the bay.
Victor Hugo famously wrote that the tide comes in as fast here as a galloping horse, a slight exaggeration but still a good analogy to bear in mind!
Tides here are not to be trifled with, nor the patches of glistening quicksand that could hold you fast in an instant. However walk the sands and shallows at low tide with a guide and you regain that sense of awe that must have greeted medieval pilgrims. A magical experience at any time of year – and absolutely no religious beliefs necessary.
a list of accredited bay walk guides, see manche-tourism.com. For visitor information on Mont Saint-Michel, visit bienvenueaumontsaintmichel.com
Highest tides occur on 26/28 April, 26/27 May and 23 August 2017.
Mont Saint-Michel Marathon At this exceptional World Heritage Site, one of the year’s most keenly awaited marathons takes place. On the 28th May, 5,000 runners from all over France and the world gather to take part in the race.
2-13 August 2017 Jazz on the Bay now in its 8th year featuring concerts, film projections and master classes.