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October 21, 2010

France: Mont Saint Michel

Filed under: Europe 2010, France, The List, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage — anotherheader @ 12:37 am

Mont St. Michel viewed from the causeway

When we dropped the canal boat off near Corbigny and moved to Tours in the Loire Valley we found the change to be jolting.  The quiet countryside

Inside the abbey at Mont St. Michel

of France we discovered along the canal in Burgundy was replaced by the college town intensity of Tours.  Add in the touristy chateaus and it was like being in another country altogether.

After Tours we drove to St. Malo in Brittany.  On the way we stopped at Mont St. Michel.  Situated on a tidal island at the mouth of the Couesnon River, the historically significant Mont St. Michel is a top tier tourist destination.  Indeed, UNESCO designates “Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay” as a World Heritage Site.

When you traverse the flat river delta on the way to Mont St. Michel, the island crowned by its abbey is visible from a good distance.  Initially the size and scale are hard to judge.  When you get closer it becomes apparent just how large the island is.  Closer in the road turns into a modern causeway that allows vehicular traffic to reach the bottom slopes of the mountain.  Once the access to the island was limited to low tide.  Now tour buses can reach the edge of the island at almost any time.  Maybe that is not a good thing.

Tidal flats surround Mont St. Michel (panorama)

Approaching Mont St. Michel feels like driving into Disneyland at the height of the season.  There are a lot of tourists.  Countless tour buses and a mass of cars funnel visitors onto the island.  Nearly 4 million visitors per year trample Mont St. Michel making it one of France’s most popular tourist destinations.  We visited in late May, on a Monday, and the island was packed elbow-to-elbow rock concert style.  Tourists filled all pores.  Lines of humanity snaked through the alleyways and jammed the expensive and indifferent restaurants and curio shops that frame the narrow streets.  It was full-scale tourist shock after the quiet peace of the Canal du Nivernais.  Now the congestion in the Loire Valley did not seem so bad after all.

Outside the abbey on the top of Mont St. Michel

Tourists jam Mont St. Michel for a reason.  Sited at the edge of a large tidal flat the medieval town capping a rock mount has a spectacular commanding view of the area.  A large and improbable abbey caps the high point of the island.  A tour inside gave us a glimpse of what life must have been like at the height of the abbey’s importance.  Inside the thick barrier walls of the abbey the modern throngs plugging the streets outside were forgotten.

For some popular tourist towns the best approach is to spend the night and tour when the buses have carted the crowds away.  Mont St. Michel would be better seen that way.  But still, even without the people, Mont St. Michel’s tourist infrastructure has seriously degraded the historic essence of the town.  Mont St. Michel feels less like a historic village and more like a wedge sliced from of Disney World.  It’s unavoidable, I guess, but it is unfortunate.  For us, the magic of Mont St. Michel has been lost.

The Mont St. Michel Picture set has been posted on Picasa.


  1. […] through the gates and jam the streets. In this way, UNESCO-designated Carcassonne is much like Mont St. Michel. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to discover the warren of tight streets inside the […]

    Pingback by France: Canal du Midi and Carcassonne « Another Header — November 27, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

  2. […] Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay (France, 2010) […]

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