Just off the coast of Normandy, the tidal isle of Mont Saint-Michel is home to a beautiful abbey, charming hotels and wonderful lunch spots. It's also do-able as a side trip from Paris
It is early morning. Paris is waking up. Your train will depart from Montparnasse station on the Left Bank at 8.65. It is the fast TGV – train à grande vitesse. The days when a vendor would come round with a trolley of warmed croissants and a hot coffee are gone, but the TGV will have a bar and you will even be able to buy a small bottle of champagne there. Do so, please, because you are on your way to the town of Rennes and from there you are going to take a coach to Mont Saint-Michel. And the day ahead of you is going to be wonderful.
To the island
Mont Saint-Michel is, scientifically-speaking, a tidal isle. To you and me, this means that when the tide is low the mount is connected to the mainland, to Lower Normandy, by a narrow strip of land, but when the tide is high the mount is an island that propels 92 metres (300 ft) into the sky some 200 metres (650 ft) off the coast of France.
This is what makes Mont Saint-Michel so special. What makes it breathtakingly beautiful. Romantic. Spooky. Stay for a night in one of the isle’s numerous small but comfortable hotels, the sea drumming the rocks, the distant coastline wrapped in a light mist, and you only have to close your eyes to imagine wolves howling at hobgoblins and demons and old witches on broomsticks – why not a vampire, too? – from where they are lurking behind the isle’s centuries-old ramparts.
But beyond such fantasy, the mount is one of France’s most visited tourist attractions - 3.5 million visitors annually. Therefore, once you have passed through Mont Saint-Michel’s wooden gateway and are on its main street – Grande Rue, narrow, steep and winding its way to the abbey, now over a thousand years old (Benedictine monks began to construct it when they settled on the islet in 966) – you will be back in the land of the living. Grande Rue is a moveable feast of seafood restaurants, crêperies (pancake bars) and souvenir shops that sell anything from tiny pewter Archangel Michaels to mass-produced tapestries.
Seeing the sights
The mount’s main attraction is the abbey. To reach it from Grande Rue, you will climb the stairs that go by the name of Grande Degré. It will be a breathless climb. Breathless because of the view of old stone houses with their orange-tiled roofs silhouetted against the blue of the surrounding ocean. And breathless because the climb is steep. So perhaps you should climb the steps as the monks and monkettes do (yes, the nuns are called monkettes on the mount – and there are 10 of them and 10 monks): in slip-on sandals.
On a hot day, the abbey will be cool like an ice-box; in winter, you would want to sit down on a stone bunk in what used to be the monks’ dining room five or six centuries ago to warm up. It is not free to enter the abbey unless you are not yet 12 years old; an adult has to pay €8, approximately the same in GBP.
Time for lunch
Once you’ve seen the abbey and you are back on Grande Rue you would want to have something to eat, because from the kitchens will waft the sweet smell of crêpes (pancakes) and waffles, or the salty, garlicky smell of moules marinière (mussels cooked in wine).
La Mère Poulard hotel/restaurant on Grande Rue is the most popular. And the most popular item on its menu is the Mère Poulard omelette. On the €55 fixed ‘speciality’ menu you could start with an omelette (it will be filled with mushrooms, bacon or tomatoes), then you could have roast leg of lamb (the lambs have been bred locally) served with fresh spinach and mashed or gratin potatoes. Your dessert will again be omelette, but it will be sweet, served with apples or chocolate or flambéed with the local speciality, Calvados.
Or you can opt for the €45 lunch. Your starter could be warmed goat cheese salad or oysters, and the main course either farmhouse chicken stew or herbed pork with honey. You could end with apple tart and cream or home-made chocolate cake.
Also on Grande Rue is Chez Mado. Its terrace overlooks the sea, whereas La Mêre Poulard overlooks the street. Here you will pay €26 for the seafood menu. You would start with either fish soup (fantastic on a cold winter day) or seafood salad or salmon terrine. Next you could have a seafood platter; a handsome waiter dressed in black would balance on one arm the platter piled high with oysters, mussels (raw), prawns, shrimps, winkles and whelks. You would then have to choose between cheese and dessert. The cheese will be made in Normandy: Pont l’Evêque, Livarot and, of course, Camembert. For the dessert you would have to choose between all kinds of apple dishes; Normandy is apple land. Caramelised apple tart. Apple sorbet with Calvados.
Or you may wish to have only a moules marinière at €18 in one of the smaller and cheaper cafés. The mussel is king here on the mount; if you love mussels, then I recommend that you forget about the oysters, the prawns, the lamb, the omelettes, and go for mussels and iced white wine.
After having enjoyed the pleasures of Normandy cuisine, you could pop into the history museum. Or you may feel like a nap. On a sunny day, while the tide is still low, you could sit on the beach and slumber a little. Or you might want to search for a shady, grassy nook where you could lie down.
Then, if you are not staying for the night – very few visitors do – as you drive away you will turn and look back at the mount and you will see an impressionist painting. One of soft grey and orange. And the sun’s last rays will be caressing the winged Archangel Michael there where he stands on his abbey’s spire.
How to get to Mont Saint-Michel
If you are in Paris and wish to make a day trip to the mount, you take the train from Montparnasse station to Rennes. The first train departs at 6.35am, after which there are regular hourly departures. The journey takes two hours. At Rennes you take a coach from the station annexe for an hour’s very scenic drive. A first-class Paris/Rennes return will cost between €194 and €206; second-class return between €108 and €157. Add €10 for the return coach fare. The coach will drop you off at the mount and pick you up there again.
If you are driving, the mount is 358km (222 miles) from Paris; 91km (56 miles) from Rennes, and 87km (95 miles) from Saint-Malo. It will cost you €4 to park your car in the mount’s car park for the day.