Perhaps the most spectacular place in all of France – and perhaps one of the most spectacular in the entire world – is Mont Saint Michel.
Mont Saint Michel is a an island with an abbey surrounded by a small town and large medieval walls. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, despite its rather remote location, it is visited by over 3 million people each year.
At high tide, water will surround the town. At low tide, it is surrounded by sand and you can walk around the island.
A Brief History
There has been an abbey here for over 1000 years. The island was fortified in 1256 and it actually held out against the English during the entirety of the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453). In Napoleónic times it was a prison. In the late 1800s it was converted back to an abbey and restored. Since then it has been an abbey, a pilgrimage site, and a tourist site. While at one point over 1000 people lived on the island, the last numbers show only about 30 people living on it.
Staying Overnight (Highly Recommended)
The best way to visit Mont Saint Michel is to stay overnight on the island, within the walls. There are three small hotels there, all of which feature small cramped spaces, but that’s what you ought to expect in a place that is 1000 years old. Why go through all the trouble to stay overnight? Primarily because the tourists all leave around 5:00 – 6:00 pm. Remember that 3 million people a year come here, and over 90% of them are day-trippers. The place can be rather congested during the day. But once they leave, it is like you have the place to yourself and it is magical. It is worth the effort in staying overnight, I guarantee.
The best way to spend your time at Mont Saint Michel is to go to the Abbey at the top during the day. It is only open during normal business hours, so you should complete the tour during that time. The abbey is immense and spectacular in its own right. It is all the more amazing given that they built this hundreds of years ago in this remote location. You can tour the Abbey in an hour or two, or linger if you wish. The Abbey also offers some great views of the surrounding countryside.
In the evening, the hotel restaurants will be open for dinner (and breakfast the next morning). Assuming you are coming during the summer (most people do), it will be light out well beyond any normal dinner time. Take advantage of the daylight and explore. Climb up on the ramparts and walk around the town that way. Then exit through the front gate and walk around the island.
Photography at Mont Saint Michel
If you are a photographer, this is an amazing place to take pictures. Taking pictures inside the walls is fun and can yield some great shots, but the real star of the show is the Mont itself, from a distance. You need to nothing more than include the walls, town, and abbey in your shot and you will have a very nice picture. If you get lucky with a nice sunrise or sunset, you could have a spectacular picture.
When you are outside the walls photographing Mont Saint Michel, your picture will come down to two things. First, the conditions, which you have little control over. Show up around sunrise and sunset with your camera and a tripod and see what happens. Wait it out if conditions are not great. In the picture at the very top of this page, I was presented with hours of misty, terrible conditions except for one small break that allowed me to get this shot. Patience may be rewarded.
The other thing that will impact your pictures is the foreground. In fact, this is where you should be spending most of your effort. That makes sense, if you think about it. The subject is obviously Mont Saint Michel, so that is set. And the background will be the sky, which is just a function of conditions. So the remaining part of your picture is the foreground. And this can be tricky.
If you are close to Mont Saint Michel, it is likely your foreground will be sand (at low tide) or water (at high tide). Neither typically presents a compelling foreground element, but remember you don’t want anything too fancy anyway, since it will just detract from the subject. Work with that for a while, but then walk away from the island. You might use the causeway as an element, but most will choose to avoid this.
Further away, there is a creek you can use. As you get further away, obviously Mont Saint Michel will get smaller and smaller, so you will need to either accept that or zoom in. Either way can work, but it will require some work. I recommend employing a sketching approach, where you walk around taking test shots until you find something you like. When you do, set up your tripod and nail it down.
Logistics of Your Mont Saint Michel Visit
Getting There: There are lots of tour companies that will get you here for a day-trip. If you are going to spend the night, however, you will likely need to drive. Assuming you are coming from Paris, you can rent a car there. It is a 4-hour drive. If that seems like too long a drive, you can take a train to Rennes, which is the closest train station, and then rent a car there. That cuts the drive down to about an hour. I actually prefer this option if you are only going to Mont Saint Michel, but if you are going other places I would rent a car. Consider stops in Rouen, Honfleur, and/or the beaches of Normandy.
Of course, if you come with me, I will have this handled for you. We will arrive in a private coach/bus.
Parking: You will park about a mile from Mont Saint Michel. You can either walk to the island via the causeway, or you can take a shuttle bus. The shuttle will drop you off about half-way across the causeway, leaving you with a short walk to the gate.
Costs: There is no charge to enter the town of Mont Saint Michel. Parking will cost you 15 Euros a day and the charge for touring the Abbey is 10 Euro.
Hotels: The three hotels are La Mere Poulard, Auberg Saint Pierre, and Hotel La Croix Blanche. All are 3–star hotels and are generally reasonably priced. There are also several other hotels in the area of Mont Saint Michel, but not actually on the island. These may be fine hotels, but to me the magic of the place is being there late and early, so I think staying on the island is a must.
Restaurants: There are several restaurants on the island and they will stay open a few hours after the tourists leave. Most of these are connected with the above-referenced hotels. I have always come into these restaurants with very low expectations, given that you are a captive audience, but my expectations have usually been exceeded.