I can barely contain my excitement as Mont-Saint-Michel gets closer with every pedal rotation. Much has been written about France’s iconic abbey, but this post is as much about the approach as it is about the final destination. Those who follow my blog will know that Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the star attractions along the V4 cycling route and it marks the end of our time in Brittany and the start of our onward journey in Normandy.
Our 60 km (37 mile) ride from Cancale to Mont-Saint-Michel is a teaser. I give a big whoop-whoop the first time we get a glimpse of the Mont, which to the untrained eye is a mere speck that hovers on the horizon (hence the cheat note below).
It’s a beautiful flat ride along the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel. All is going well until my tire gets a puncture about 16 km (10 miles) outside of Pontorson (our base for visiting Mont-Saint-Michel). After much sweating and cursing, we finally get the replacement tube fitted. I ride a short distance only to feel the tire deflating agin. There’s more cursing. We conclude that the replacement must be defective too. Nothing to do but walk our bikes. After a few kilometres, I convince Mike to go ahead and find a bike shop. The good news is that our V4 route guide lists all the bike shops; the bad news is that it’s Monday and in France many shops and services are closed. Long story short: I walk my bike the whole way to Pontorson. My dreams of seeing Mont-Saint-Michel today are dashed.
By the time I get to Pontorson, Mike has in fact found a shop selling tubes. Our friendly guesthouse hosts have lots of bike tools and a big backyard. But first, they insist we need cold beers. It goes straight to my head. Mike is well-trained and is able to drink his beer and fix my tire. We eat in the one restaurant that is open in Pontorson on a Monday night—best steak-frites ever. We’re feeling good, exhausted and grateful that we’ve booked two nights here.
We get an early start to beat the tour buses. I’m a little disappointed about the grey skies but this is soon replaced by excitement. The 10 km (6.2 mile) bike path from Pontorson along the Couesnon River has a head-on view of Mont-Saint-Michel almost the entire way. I’ve been enchanted by images of the gravity-defying monastery for as long as I can remember. I want to get there but I’m relishing every second of this stunning approach.
You’ll see a mixture of sunny and overcast skies in the photos below. Some were taken in the morning on the way there, others on the way back when things cleared up.
At the bicycle parking area we need to decide whether to walk or take the shuttle across the 760 m (2500 ft) bridge that connects the island to the mainland. The slow approach wins. As we walk on the modern bridge, I imagine what it must have been like years ago when only a primitive path, which was covered during high tide and riddled with quicksand, provided access.
The rocky island at the mouth of the Couesnon estuary became known as Mont-Saint-Michel in the 8th century when the Archangel Michael appeared in a dream to the Bishop of Avranches and asked him to build a sanctuary in his name. It rapidly became a pilgrimage centre, growing in size to accommodate the resident monks and the visiting faithful. It was fortified in the early 13th century and withstood sieges during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Mont-Saint-Michel became one of the largest centres of medieval Christendom. Building enhancements and spiritual life continued until the French Revolution (1789-1799) when the monks abandoned the abbey. It became a state prison and housed more than 14,000 prisoners until its closing in 1863. In 1874 it was classified as a historic monument and restorations began. The site was miraculously spared during the Second World War. Mont-Saint-Michel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
We tour the inside of the church and the Mervielle (the Marvel)—a Gothic-style masterpiece dating back to the early 13th century that was used for the monks’ living space. It housed the wine cellar, dining hall, dormitory, scriptorium, a reception room for pilgrims and the exquisite cloister—a courtyard used for prayer, meditation, contemplation and reading.
My favourite time inside the abbey comes thanks to our guesthouse hosts who recommend we go the noon mass. I get goosebumps listening to the chanting of the 12 resident nuns and monks who stand under the high- vaulted nave of the church—their hauntingly beautiful voices a reminder of the centuries of spiritual importance of Mont-Saint-Michel and today’s ongoing devotion.
The view to Mont-Saint-Michel is tough to beat, but the view from the Mont down to the tidal flats is impressive too. Our favourite perch is atop the surprisingly crowd-free medieval walls.
As we wind our way down from the abbey, the narrow village street at the base of the Mont is choked with visitors. Some of the houses here date back to the 15th century and are now used as tourists shops, restaurants and small hotels (for a hefty price and booking well in advance, you can stay on the island). Interestingly, The Mont is still home to about 45 permanent residents. Despite the crowds, we are awed by the view over the old houses back up to the abbey.
Back at our guesthouse enjoying another beer I feel restless. I want to ride the bike path to Mont-Saint-Michel again. I ask Mike whether he wants to join me, but he is content lounging in the sunny garden. I grab my bike for a final grand approach, this time in brilliant sunshine. It’s after 6:00 p.m. and bikes are permitted to cross the bridge. I ride right up to the base of Mont-Saint-Michel, which is now wonderfully serene. The Archangel Michael at the top of the church spire glitters in the late-day sun and I feel overwhelmingly content.
If you go:
- If you can, avoid summer holidays and weekends. Try and visit early morning or even better, later in the day.
- Pontorson and Beauvoir both makes good bases. The cycling approach is sublime but there is also regular bus service if you want to avoid driving/parking.
- Save time by buying tickets for Mont-Saint-Michel at the tourist office in Pontorson or Beauvoir.
- Bring food for a picnic lunch to avoid the crowded and pricey village restaurants.
- The Mont-Saint-Michel website and Tourism Information website both provide details on access, pricing, tours and more.
- Shout out to our guesthouse Les Belles de Mai run by the friendly and efficient Sabine and Pierre. They speak French, English, German and several other languages.
Next posts: We continue cycling along the Normandy coast, visiting the D-day Beaches, Honfleur, Étretat and more.