A Day trip to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris
We had decided to make another trip to Europe to visit things we had not yet previously seen, and we knew that we wanted Mont Saint-Michel to be part of this trip.
As our plans already included a trip to Paris to explore the Le Marais area, we enhanced our travel schedule to allow us sufficient time for a day trip to Mont Saint-Michel.
Before we proceed, if you are looking for a really good drone video of the island, click here. This video is one of the best we've seen!
If you have never been to Mont Saint-Michel & either you are planning a trip there, or you just want to know more about it, here are some good sources of information;
Paris to Mont Saint-Michel by Train
Our primary goal in flying into Paris was to take a day trip to Mont Saint-Michel. Driving there would take over 4 hours and that wasn’t practical for us, so we created a travel schedule that would allow us to day trip to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris. We researched train schedules to see if they would be faster and found that if we departed Paris in the early morning, that we could arrive at Mont Saint-Michel with enough time to do everything that we wanted to see there and get back to Paris on the same day. This was all because the TGV trains operate at 300 kilometers per hour and I doubt that anyone could match that speed if they drove!
We came up with the following transportation plan, based upon using the Train schedule information found online;
- We rode the Paris Metro from the Saint Paul Metro Station (nearest to our VRBO rental) to the Gare Montparnasse train station.
- Boarded the 6:52AM TGV train to Rennes.
- At Rennes, we switched to a regional (TER) train to Pontorson.
- In Pontorson, we boarded a local bus to Mont Saint-Michel.
- The Pontorson Tour Bus meets every arriving train, no need for reservations. You will be taken directly to the island causeway, and dropped off next to the main gate.
- Our return trip to Paris was dictated by the Train schedule from Rennes to Paris, so we picked a 3PM train from Pontorson, so that we would arrive in Rennes in time for the Paris train. We were back in Paris by 7PM and ate dinner on the way back to our VRBO rental.
- This schedule provided us with a total of over five hours to explore the island and have lunch.
If you do decide to drive to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris, note that the public parking lots are 2.5 kilometers away from the Abbey. From the parking area a free shuttle bus is available to visitors: called the Passeur. It starts from the shuttle hub, located next to the Tourist Information Centre, right next to the parking area. The Passeur will take you to the Mont Saint-Michel end stop, located 350 metres away from the city walls and it runs non-stop from 7.30am to 12.00am. It takes about 12 minutes for the shuttle to drive from the shuttle hub to the end stop.
Exploring the Island
When you enter the main gate, it is not immediately clear that there are two routes to the top. We took the Porte Eschaugette route by turning left and going up the stairs. If you turn right and follow the crowds, you will be entering the village area and it is slow movement due to the narrow street and dense crowds.
The advantage of heading to the top on the route we selected, is that you are going to be able to get to the top without the crowds and visit the Abbey then can see the village as you descend, so you will have as much time as you have to visit the little shops.
You should also keep in mind that taking the Porte Eschaugette route will require you to ascend a very steep trail and then steps at the top. The trail is a switch-back, so the ascent varies in steepness. Once you reach the top, you will be able to enter various areas of the Abbey that require you to traverse more steps.
Abbey entrance tickets are available, we purchased ours (€10 per person) in the visitors center on the left side of the main entrance. They check tickets at the Abbey entrance, so you need to have one or you will not be able to enter. Getting the tickets down below allowed us to skip the line at the top.
The following images & text, will show you our exploration of the entire island, the Abbey as well as the restaurant where we had lunch.
Island Causeway: The Pontorson bus from the train station, dropped us off on the causeway that leads out to the Abbey, so this was our first closeup view of this magnificent structure.
See how the water has not quite completely receded? In less than an hour, it was nothing but sand and the water had departed for the English Channel.
Main entrance area of Mont Saint-Michel: and the stairs in the background of this picture show you the route that we took. This method allowed us to not have to walk through the village and the crowds that were already gathering. This is a steep way to get to the top of the Abbey, but the views were worth the effort.
The little building in the background, just above the stairs, is where we purchased our Abbey entrance tickets.
Tidal Flats Tours: You can see a tour group setting out for a walk about the sandy area exposed during low tide. Although you do not need to be in a tour group to walk about, one must be aware of when the tide comes back, as well as being able to avoid the quicksand areas.
Did I mention that the route to the Abbey is steep? The steepness is continuous all the way from the main entrance to the top of the island! Fortunately for the walker, the trail has to keep switching back & forth in order to ascend to the top.
Many of the websites that talk about Mont Saint-Michel, describe that the total walking distance to tour the entire island, is approximately 2 kilometers. Because the island is relatively small, the 2 kilometer description gives you some idea of how the trail loops back and forth.
As you ascend the trail, you have to keep looking up & around you, or you will miss these incredible views!
See the gargoyles sticking out from the building on the left? They are actually there to prevent rainwater from running down the masonry wall and slowly erode the mortar between the stones, thereby weakening the structure. By "sticking out" away from the building, the rainwater is forced away from the building, on it's way down.
For a more complete discussion of gargoyles (and some great pictures) found on French buildings, click here.
Spire of the Abbey: These are the kinds of views you get as you descend from the Abbey at the top of the island to the village at the bottom. This image is the inner courtyard of the Abbey, you can just barely see the tops of the walkway arches on the very bottom right of this image. At the extreme left of this image, is the entrance to the church (not available for tourist entrance however).
A gilded statue of St. Michael is at the very top of the spire.
This mechanism (called the Treadwheel crane) is how they hoisted heavy objects from the lower levels to the upper floors of the Abbey.
The Treadwheel crane served as a windlass and was installed when Mont Saint-Michel was a prison, to bring supplies to the prisoners. Some prisoners would walk inside the wheel to rotate it.
The abbey was closed in 1791 and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican regime (up to 300 priests at one point). The abbey was then nicknamed 'bastille des mers' (Bastille of the sea). It remained a prison until 1863.
La Mere Poulard History: The restaurant was founded by Anne "Annette" Boutiaut (1851-1931), who married Victor Poulard on 14 January 1873 and founded the Hostellerie de la Tête d'Or, finding that customers came and went quickly with the tide, giving them the idea of cooking giant omelettes in a wooden hearth to make them stay.
There are a number of places to eat in the village, see our "eateries list" at the bottom of this page.
Omelet Preparation: This is the La Mere Poulard restaurant Kitchen. These omelets are quite large, and I would imagine that the restaurant uses a lot of eggs each business day!
Notice how the large doors are open to the kitchen? Those doors open to the village street and the cooks preparing omelets draw quite a crowd, who enjoy watching the cooking activities!
A very good French friend of ours told us about this famous restaurant in the village area of Mont Saint-Michel. He told us to be sure and visit La Mere Poulard and that we would enjoy the omelets! However, this restaurant is pricey so be prepared.
By the time we had hiked the Porte Eschaugette route, walked through the Abbey and visited every nook of the entire structure, we were very hungry. Touristy? Yes... Pricey? Yes - but very filling and very tasty!
If you take the Porte Eschaugette route, you will walk very close to this area, which is on the western side of the island.
La salle des Chevaliers (the Knight’s room): This room earned its name from the St. Michael Knights’ Order, founded by King Louis XI. The King intended for the knights to meet here in this room annually, however history says that these meetings never took place because of the distance of Mont Saint-Michel from Paris. The end result was that the monks spent much of their time to copy and illuminate precious manuscripts in this room.
Situated on the second floor of the Merveille, this hall is divided in four naves of different width by three rows of columns ; the southern nave is built on the rock, the other two on the pillars of the room beneath.
This room is directly underneath the cloister, and these columns and vaults support the weight of the cloister and its garden.
Crypt of the Massive Pillars: has long been a source of fascination for researchers. “In 1421 the choir of the Roman church collapsed and, with it, a part of its supporting crypt,” Yves Gallet (professor of medieval art history at the Université Bordeaux-Montaigne) recounts. “Later in that century, both the chancel and what we call the Crypt of the Massive Pillars were rebuilt in the purest Gothic style.” However, the Roman remnants in the crypt led the historian to question the actual age of the granite columns. “The form and appearance of the Gothic choir just above it got me thinking,” he says. “Although it is in the flamboyant style typical of the 15th century, it has the layout of older Rayonnant churches, like Évreux Cathedral, which is 200 years older.”
Gallet surmises that some of the pillars of the Romanesque choir withstood the collapse and were “sheathed” (reinforced) to bear the weight of the Gothic chancel, whose walls rise higher than the previous Roman structure. In order to align the church’s colonnades with those of the crypt, its layout was modeled after an older building. This hypothesis was corroborated by a GPR study in the autumn of 2016: “The probes revealed the presence of a core of different stone inside the Gothic pillars,” Gallet reports.
Cloister Garden: At one point several hundred years ago, they actually grew food in this area.
This area is on top of the Knight’s room, and the water for the garden continually leaked into the that room below. After repeated attempts to stop the water leaks, use of this area as a garden was eventually abandoned.
Contrary to tradition, this cloister was not built at the centre of the monastery and thus does not link with all the other buildings. Nonetheless, as in every monastery, it is a place of contemplation, a promenade uniquely for the monks. It also used to serve as an open air library as monks were usually copying books or simply reading. In order to build this space, the northern part of the Abbey’s transept had to be partially reduced. The western, gallery was supposed open onto another building, mentioned before, and the three bay windows would have been the doors.
The Romanesque Nave and Gothic choir area: Everything on the island (Interior & exterior of all buildings) is granite stone, and as you can see here, it is not only very pretty, but it is in excellent condition for as old as it is.
All of the stones were transported here from nearby quarries in boats, then hauled up the steep slope by ropes and sheer human strength.
A substantial amount of the granite was quarried from the Chausey Islands, and the granite extracted there was brought to the island by barges during high tide. The Chausey Islands belonged to the monks, as they were given to them by the Duke of Normandy in 1022.
The rough granite was finished at the island after it was delivered, which allowed the stone masons to create stones for specific construction areas of the island's structures.
The Abbey was entirely constructed between 1203 and 1228, but has undergone a number of enhancements and changes over the years.
Monk's Refectory: located in the monks living area of the Abbey and it is adjacent to the cloister area. The refectory is covered by a wooden vault, far lighter than stone.
The refectory is where the monks ate their meals in silence. To provide light to this large room, the side walls are pierced with narrow windows invisible from the entrance.
Town or Parking Lot Transportation: The horse carraige is the more leisurely way to get back to the parking lots and there are other methods including; walking, buses, taxis, etc. You may want to keep in mind that the parking lots are over 2 kilometers from the Abbey gates.
Most of the shops and restaurants in the village, or at least the ones that are on the east side of the island's only street, have doors that open onto a stone rampart that allows a great view of the tidal area below the wall.
The village is located only on the eastern side of the island, facing towards the bay & the mainland. There are a number of shops, creperies and restaurants here in the village.
Abbey North Face: As we were walking up the trail, we noticed this ramp leading up to the building. We learned later, that this ramp was used to haul cargo into the Abbey using the Treadwheel Crane. You can see how steep that ramp is, I would imagine that hauling anything up that ramp would be physically challenging.
If you go back to the top of this page, the large image shows this ramp (left center of the large image) and where it can be found on the side of the structure.
English Channel side of the Abbey: We came into the Abbey with the intention of walking around this side on our way to the highest part of the Abbey. Due to the steep walk ways on this side, the crowds were not as large as they were on the bay side of the island.
At the top of this picture, you can see the top of the spire that is on the very top of the Abbey. This is the "back side" of it, the earlier picture showed it from the front side.
To see the Abbey like we did, turn left (the Porte Eschaugette route) at the main gate because it is the least crowded route up to the top, and make sure you get your camera ready! Do not turn right (after the main gate) and enter the village, as this will have you walking along with the crowd.
Mont Saint-Michel Village: If you had not turned left and followed the Porte Eschaugette route, you would have to wind your way through the village area shown in this image. The later in the day you arrive, the thicker the crowds are going to be.
I have to admit though, there were a lot of interesting shops in the village. I am glad that we took the Porte Eschaugette route and saw the village after the Abbey.
Where to eat or stay in Mont Saint-Michel
We ate lunch at La Mere Poulard located on the Grande Rue, however, your choices of where to eat are numerous and it depends upon how much time you have and how much you want to pay (restaurants on the island are not inexpensive!).
I'll mention a few places, however you should do a Google search to locate an eatery. There are creperies, restaurants, hotel restaurants/bars and generally speaking, they are all expensive.
For those who have not previously been in France, there are certain restaurant "rules" that you should get familiar with. For example, they do not offer "doggie bags" or allow "food sharing" !
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