Mont Saint Michel is one of the most photographed sites in France and gets more than 13 million visitors a year. It rises atop a very small island at the tip of Normandy and as you might expect there’s a bit of a rivalry between Normandy and Brittany over who it belongs to. It is one of the four most visited religious sites in Christianity though mostly tourists outnumber the pilgrims these days. In 708 Bishop Aubert of Avranches, is said to have had three visions in which the angel Michael commanded him to build an oratory on Mount Tome the closest island to the town. The first two times the bishop ignored him so the angel poked him in the head leaving a dent. Aubert built a small church on the island which rapidly became a pilgrimage site for followers of the angel Michael that had been active since the 5th century.
Mont Saint Michel is surrounded by a mudflat and the tidal change along the coast is big so for periods of time it’s possible to “walk” out to the island. In 1878 a causeway was built that allowed pilgrims to come and go regardless of the tide. It increased the flow of visitors but blocked the flow of water around the island. The result was that much of the bay silted up and the island was rapidly becoming part of the mainland. The original purpose of providing a haven for monks and its uniqueness was disappearing. In a major engineering and environmental project French engineers with help from their Swiss and Dutch counterparts began a massive reclamation project building a dam upstream on the river to collect water during high tide and flush out the bay at strategic times and a bridge was built to replace the causeway which had been solid.
The village has existed since this became an active pilgrimage site so one can imagine that the tourists you see today were coming for a different purpose in the Middle Ages. It’s possible to avoid the shows by climbing up stairs to get to the abbey on top.
The abbey has been here for 1200 years and for most of that time home to Benedictine monks. Much of the history was lost when its archives were taken to St. Lo for safety during World War II and were destroyed during the D-Day fighting. These models and reconstruction of the tower models give you a good idea of the architectural development.
A word about Saint Michael; a warrior saint clad in armor, is often seen slaying a dragon (symbol of the Devil) with his sword. In his other hand he carries a set of scales. In the Middle Ages it was believed he weighed the souls on Judgment Day so if you wanted to get in his good graces you might have considered a pilgrimage to Saint Michel.