A magnetic beacson to millions of travelers each year, this "wonder of the Western World"—a 264-foot mound of rock topped by a history-shrouded abbey—remains the crowning glory of medieval France. Wrought by nature and centuries of tireless human toil, this sea-surrounded mass of granite adorned with the soul-lifting silhouette of the Abbaye du Mont-St-Michel may well be your most lasting image of Normandy. The abbey is perched on a 264-foot-high rock a few hundred yards off the coast: it's surrounded by water during the year's highest tides and by desolate sand flats the rest of the time. Be warned: tides in the bay are dangerously unpredictable. The sea can rise up to 45 feet at high tide and rushes in at incredible speed—more than a few ill-prepared tourists over the years have drowned. Also, be warned that there are patches of dangerous quicksand. A causeway—to be replaced in time by a bridge, allowing the bay waters to circulate freely—links Mont-St-Michel to the mainland.
Leave your car in the parking lot (€4.20) along the causeway, outside the main gate. If you're staying the night on Mont-St-Michel, take what you need in a small suitcase; you cannot gain access to your hotel by car and the parking lot is unguarded at night. The Mont's tourist office is in the Corps de Garde des Bourgeois, to the left just inside the island gates.
Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared in 709 to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, inspiring him to build an oratory on what was then called Mont Tombe. The rock and its shrine were soon the objects of pilgrimages. The original church was completed in 1144, but additional buildings were added in the 13th century to accommodate monks as well as the hordes of pilgrims who flocked here even during the Hundred Years' War, when the region was in English hands. During the period when much of western France was subjected to English rule, the abbey remained a symbol, both physical and emotional, of French independence. Because of its legendary origins and the sheer exploit of its centuries-long construction, the abbey became known as the "Merveille de l'Occident" (Wonder of the Western World). The granite used to build it was transported from the nearby Isles of Chausey and hauled up to the site, and the construction took more than 500 years, from 1017 to 1521. The abbey's monastic independence was undermined during the 17th century, when the monks began to flout the strict rules and discipline of their order, drifting into a state of decadence that culminated in their dispersal and the abbey's conversion into a prison, well before the French Revolution. In 1874 the former abbey was handed over to a governmental agency responsible for the preservation of historic monuments. Emmanuel Frémiet's great gilt statute of St. Michael was added to the spire in 1897. Monks now live and work here again, as in medieval times: you can join them for daily Mass at 12:15.
All year, an hour-long guided tour in English (two a day and night in high season) and French (up to two an hour) takes you through the impressive Romanesque and Gothic abbey and the spectacular Église Abbatiale, the abbey church, which crowns the rock, as well as the Merveille, a 13th-century, three-story collection of rooms and passageways. La Merveille was built by King Philippe Auguste around and on top of the monastery; on its second floor is the Mont's grandest chamber, the Salle des Chevaliers. Another longer tour, which also includes the celebrated Escalier de Dentelle (Lace Staircase), and the pre-Roman, exquisitely evocative Notre-Dame-sous-Terre has a higher ticket price and is only given in French. Invest in at least one tour while you are here—some of them get you on top of or into things you can't see alone. If you choose to proceed independently, stop halfway up Grande-Rue at the medieval parish church of St-Pierre to admire the richly carved side chapel with its dramatic statue of St. Michael slaying the dragon. The Grand Degré, a steep, narrow staircase, leads to the abbey entrance, from which a wider flight of stone steps climbs to the Saut Gautier Terrace (named after a prisoner who jumped to his death from it) outside the sober, dignified church. After visiting the arcaded cloisters alongside, which offer vertiginous views of the bay, you can wander at leisure, and probably get lost, among the maze of rooms, staircases, and vaulted halls. Scattered throughout the mount are four mini-museums, which cost €9 each or €18 together. The island village, with its steep, narrow streets, is best visited out of season, from September to June. In summer the hordes of tourists and souvenir sellers can be stifling. Give yourself at least half a day here, and follow your nose. The mount is full of nooks, crannies, little gardens, and echoing views from the ramparts. It's worth lingering to see the Mont spectacularly illuminated, nightly from dusk to midnight.