The grand cycling approach to Normandy’s Mont-Saint-Michel

Cycling approach to Mont-Saint-Michel

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.

On our amazing 10 km ride from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel
Getting closer!

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.

Bikes are parked and we walk the remainder of the way
View to Mont-Saint-Michel and bridge that connects it to the mainland
It looks perhaps even more imposing under grey skies

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.

View from Mont-Saint-Michel ramparts
View down Couesnon River (the bike path runs alongside it)

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.

View of the abbey from the village
Beautiful old buildings with peek-a-boo views

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.

My bike at the base of Mont-Saint-Michel
A final look back

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.

Categories: Biking, France | Tags: , , , | 34 Comments

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34 thoughts on “The grand cycling approach to Normandy’s Mont-Saint-Michel

  1. Pingback: Cycling France’s Brittany and Normandy coasts: Top 10 highlights | Writes of Passage

  2. Pingback: Travels along the beaches on this 76th anniversary of D-Day | Writes of Passage

  3. Absolutely incredible place. I don’t believe I’ve seen anything other than a single exterior photo before so I really enjoyed your post. Also, completely understandable that you pedaled out twice!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The exterior view, especially from a distance is still the most captivating and I’m so glad I got to see it with my own eyes. It’s made all the more special though by seeing the inside and learning a bit about the history of the amazing abbey.

      Like

  4. Loved this article of yours Madam..!!
    Although much has been written about Mont St. Michaels, yet observing it closely has its own charms.
    It’s flabbergasting to know how the architects of the ancient times managed to build this masterpiece in a geographically impossible terrain, and that too without modern technology. The more we think about these, the more questions we end up having, and the more alluring it makes to excavate the answers.
    In India, we have similar buildings aged more than 1 Millennium, standing tall even today.
    Your tips are useful. I shall make a note of them while visiting Mont St. Michaels.. 🙂
    Thank you so much Madam for sharing.. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! I too am in awe of those ancient architects and engineers and how they managed to build such magnificent structures. Like I mentioned in a comment to another blogger, it also amazes me that these structures seem to hold up better than many of our modern buildings.
      I’m really looking forward to visiting India and seeing the forts, palaces, temples that have captivated me through photos.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Caroline, when your tire got a flat for the second time I had an audible OY gasp. So close to a beautiful destination you have anticipated seeing and yet so far! Whew, glad you got it fixed in time and had that extra day to work with.

    Thank you for sharing the video so we could hear the Gregorian chants. Beautiful! And the visuals with the white robes and the height of the cathedral.

    It is interesting to think about these heavily visitor centric destinations that now, under Corona, are all shut down, the world over, simultaneously. I wonder how the 45 residents are enjoying the peace and quiet at this time now, reclaiming their Mont St Michel of yesteryears.

    Beautiful photos.

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Peta. I’m glad you enjoyed the video and the photos. When I was writing this post I did a little research on the Mont-Saint-Michel official website. It wasn’t a surprise to see that the site is closed due to COVID-19 but it gave me pause for thought, like you say, on how quiet it must be there and at all the sites that are usually so busy. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I would love to go back and see something like Angkor Wat with no crowds but at the same time I know how heavily the local economy depends on tourism. There should be a happy medium!

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  6. I can totally relate to your wanting to ride back for another view. I tend to be the restless type in these situations also; I can’t tell you how many cities or monuments or natural attractions I have revisited at the end of a day when my fellow travelers are just chilling out! I could just feel your satisfaction and contentedness on your solo trip and view. We were last at MSM sooooo many years ago; one of my favorite photos ever is of our 10, 8, and 5 year olds hanging out in a cloister there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You and I would make a good team. I know I drive Mike (and others) crazy a lot with my restlessness. It’s often hard for me to just relax when I’m traveling. At least I’ve learned it’s OK for me to do things solo while he’s content reading a book/napping…
      It’s cool that you took your young children to see Mont Saint Michel. Our son wasn’t always thrilled about the cultural attractions we took him to when he was little but he’s impressed now.
      Hope you’re hanging in there! Grandbaby news?

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  7. Your photographs and video brings back lots of amazing memories from our trip to Mont Saint Michel. And I know what you mean about being excited. There’s certain magic when it comes to seeing the island, either from afar or up close and personal. We sat for hours just taking in the sounds and the smells of surrounding landscape dotted with sheep and couldn’t get enough of it. I would go back in a heartbeat. The Abbey was under construction during our visit so we missed seeing it in the whole spectrum. I can easily use it as an excuse to re-visit. Thanks for sharing, Caroline. 😊😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad that the post brought back good memories of your visit to Mont-Saint-Michel Aiva. Thanks for mentioning the surrounding landscape. It is very pretty and has such a peacefulness to it. It is certainly a place I could re-visit too.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The abbey is incredible. I might have said something like this before on your website: Humans’ ability to design and erect huge, amazing structures is something else. And has been for 5,000 or more years.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Another enjoyable read!! Some wonderful photos too. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I can feel your excitement. And your photos are stunning. I had the oddest feeling reading about you arriving there – a memory of arriving at some place so similar, but cannot remember where. I’m wondering if I’ve been to St Michael’s Mount in England and completely forgotten about it. We were in Cornwall maybe about 12 or 13 years ago so that could be it. It was the strangest feeling. I know I’ve never been to Mont-Saint-Michel. But I would love to!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks to your odd feeling Alison, I googled St. Michael’s Mount. I’d heard of it but didn’t know anything about it. It’s smaller than Mont-Saint-Michel, but does look strikingly similiar, especially from a distance. I haven’t been to Cornwall since I was a kid, maybe I saw it too? I’m sure you’d enjoy a visit to Mont-Saint-Michel (and you wouldn’t forget this).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Carl Jackaman

        You’d both certainly enjoy St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall but remember if you’re cycling around here to make sure your gears are working and you have plenty of them 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I can relate to you in the going-back-to-the-island part. Sometimes, on our first visit to such spectacular places, the weather can be gloomy. But whenever I see the sun, I always go back in a heartbeat — if I have enough time, of course. I remember being awed by Mont Saint Michel when I first learned about it many years ago. All those buildings on a small island which is at times cut off from the mainland? Just mind-boggling, especially to the mind of a teenager.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really happy that I returned for another look. It was the perfect ending to a great day. I’m glad you made the comment about the island being cut off from the mainland at times. I was going to write about that and forgot. Indeed, even with the bridge, Mont-Saint-Michel is inaccessible a few times a year (for a few hours) during extremely high tides. This would be a very cool thing to see.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. The route between Pontorson and Mont St. Michel is magnificent, isn’t it. The green fields stretch as far as the eye can see! I was very excited when spotting the abbey at the horizon 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s just awesome. At first I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t staying closer but now i’m so glad that staying in Pontorson gave us the opportunity to travel that beautiful route. I remember your lovely photos from Mont-Saint-Michel. Nice to “see you” Len; hope you’re keeping well.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I thought the best part would be seeing Mont-Saint-Michel from afar, but this inside is equally stunning. I’m glad you shared the video with the singing monks and nuns. I can see why it gave you goosebumps, Their white attire alone makes it special, but add in the singing and it’s very moving. Good that you went back as it looks like the light/sky was better then too. I went back and reread your Fitz Roy trek and you’re right the fall colours are awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Listening to the monks and nuns was really special and something I would have missed-out on had it not been for our guesthouse hosts. Although they are a small contingent, it only seems right that the abbey has a permanent spiritual presence. Yes, I’m so glad I rode back in the evening!
      Sorry, I think I foisted that post on you but I was so excited about the fall colours.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Caroline, I would struggle to contain my excitement also. I have never been to that part of France but I have been fascinated by Mont-Saint-Michel for years. Gorgeous photos. Lyn

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lyn. The unique look and mystique of Mont-Saint-Michel stays with you when you see photos. I remember being fascinated by it years ago (probably as a kid) when saw it in National Geographic.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Anonymous

    Have never been to Mont-St- Michel but really want to now! Love those clouds brooding above.

    Liked by 2 people

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