It was a trek to reach Mont Saint-Michel, but the journey is easily worth it. I had first heard of Mont Saint-Michel years ago, when my dad scoffed that I was going to Paris and told me about a mysterious monastery that becomes an island during high tide that I should be visiting instead. It took me a while, but I finally made it after seemingly every Instagram blogger had made it there, too.
We first flew into Paris from Ireland, caught a Le Bus Direct to Gare Montparnasse, then a train to Rennes. All of this went surprisingly smoothly, but when we got to Rennes, the next bus to Mont Saint-Michel wasn’t leaving until late afternoon, so we were stuck in Rennes for a few hours instead of making the most of our already short time in Mont Saint-Michel. Thankfully, Rennes is a fairly interesting city with a large student population, so we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and explored the impressive public library.
During lunch we learned the difference between crêpes and galettes, both of which originated in this region. A crêpe is a sweet wheat flour pancake often filled with Nutella or fruits, while a galette is a savory buckwheat pancake often filled with cheese & ham. In the U.S. we erroneously call galettes “savory crêpes”, or — even worse — we put savory ingredients inside a crêpe. I ordered a crispy galette filled with emmental, andouille & potato galette, and then for dessert we shared a flambéed Grand Marnier crêpe.
Our bus arrived right on schedule, and an hour and a half later we were finally in Mont Saint-Michel. Unfortunately, I hadn’t confirmed exactly which bus stop to get off at, so we watched as our bed & breakfast passed us by and anxiously got off at the next stop. Apparently our B&B is officially in the neighboring town of Beauvoir, as the only hotels in the tiny enclave of Mont Saint-Michel are either soulless chains filled with Japanese tour groups or ridiculously overpriced hotels actually located on the island. It was only a 13-minute walk back to our B&B, but trust me, lugging suitcases through fields on the side of the road for 13 minutes, dressed for rainy Ireland instead of sunny France, felt like forever. We must have been quite a sight to all the cars driving by.
At last, we arrived. And what a lovely welcome! Our room at Les Vieilles Digues opened up to a private backyard, and breakfasts included all the camembert I could dream of. Our affectionate host Danielle spoke fluent Japanese and, upon first greeting us, exclaimed, “So petite! So beautiful!” After we settled in, we made our way to the island, which, as we’d quickly learn, is farther out than we had expected. We knew about some free shuttles, but as New Yorkers we had wanted to walk instead. What a joke. From the tourist center, it’s about a 45-minute tedious walk along a causeway. Since we had dinner reservations, we gave up about a quarter of the way and decided to just stare at the island for as long as time permitted before turning back and heading to the restaurant in Beauvoir.
Our dreamy dinner at La Ferme Saint Michel reminded me of how absolutely tragic the United States is. Beauvoir is a simple village of roughly 400 people. It is not one of those prestigious French towns filled with Michelin-rated restaurants, but it does believe that eating home-cooked, organic food shouldn’t have to be a privilege. At La Ferme Saint Michel, I paid €26 for an incredible three-course meal of carrot soup with foie gras, locally-raised lamb, and crème brûlée (which came with a huge candle!), while dining in a beautiful historic farmhouse. A meal of this caliber would have cost four times as much in New York — and wouldn’t even be conceivable in the rest of the country. I’ve roadtripped across America multiple times, and there is no such thing as affordable, freshly-made, three-course dinners for the majority of Americans, even in towns that obviously grow food. This is because our country values capitalism and making a profit for Big Farms over feeding its citizens good, healthy meals. Instead, many Americans are forced to eat at Waffle Houses or the nearest dreadful chain restaurant (e.g., Applebee’s, Olive Garden) that charges unethical prices for food pumped with preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup.
Besides three courses of food, we also ordered a three-course beverage menu. For €9 each, we got a sparkling orange apertif, a carafe of wine, and coffee. Ireland certainly impressed me with its delicious farm-to-table food, but I still can’t help but prefer French food. I was in heaven.
After our meal, the sun had already set, but shuttles run late in the summer so we decided to attempt Mont Saint-Michel one more time. The shuttles are so convenient; no wonder everyone takes them! These sleek shuttles were designed to elegantly match the terrain, and they drop everyone off on the middle of the bridge, leaving passengers with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the island.
Some history about Mont Saint-Michel: It was built after a bishop dreamt about Archangel Michael, who ordered him to build a sanctuary on the rocky island at the mouth of the Couesnon River. The island has housed a vertical, gravity-defying abbey since the 8th century. Mont Saint-Michel was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations during the Middle Ages. Such was the difficulty of the journey that it became a test of penitence, sacrifice, and commitment to God to reach the Benedictine abbey. The English couldn’t conquer Mont Saint-Michel during the Hundred Years’ War due to the abbey’s strong fortifications.When pilgrimages were in decline during the Reformation, the abbey closed and was converted into a prison, holding priests and high-profile political prisoners, such as Victor Hugo. Closing the prison in 1863, Napoleon III ordered the 650 prisoners to be transferred to other facilities.
The island is cut off from the mainland twice a day at high tide, which rises 46 feet. The tide is said to travel at the speed of a galloping horse. The flooding has created salt marsh meadows that are ideally suited to grazing sheep. Richly-flavored meat resulting from the sheep’s diet makes a dish called agneau de pré-salé “salt meadow lamb”, a local specialty served on the menus of surrounding restaurants. I had this lamb during our dinner!
Only seven people live on the island. It was past 10 p.m. when we arrived, so all the daytrippers were gone and most of the shops were closed, giving the island an eerie medieval feel. It was a stormy night — no rain, but lots of thunder and lightning. I am not a religious person, but I could understand why one might believe in a higher power as we strolled through the empty streets and climbed staircases toward the abbey. Wandering here at night has to be one of the most magical moments of my life — it’s up there with going on a safari in South Africa, watching hot air balloons during sunrise in Cappadocia, and waking up in Positano. Some experiences make you feel so lucky.
We woke up early the next morning, still on a high from last night, and decided to return to Mont Saint-Michel. It was raining this time, but we had our umbrellas, and we huddled under the roof of the tourist center to catch the first shuttle of the day. As we rode the shuttle over the causeway toward Mont Saint-Michel, I couldn’t help but envy the pilgrims who trekked here centuries ago and had heard tales of this abbey but had no idea what it would look like. Can you imagine how epic it must have been for someone who wasn’t expecting this island?
It was still too early for the shops to be open and the daytrippers to arrive, so Mont Saint-Michel had that same otherworldly aura, but in daylight instead of in darkness.
By the time we returned to our B&B, breakfast was ready. Danielle had prepared a spread of cured meats, fresh breads, lots of Camembert, and yogurt. Camembert is a moist, soft, creamy cow’s milk cheese from this region — and one of my favorite cheeses — so I was pleased with an obligation to stuff myself with it.
It was time for us to leave right after breakfast, and as we checked out, Danielle immediately told us that she’d drive us to the bus station. It was only a ten-minute walk, but we weren’t about to refuse a free ride in her Benz and more time to chat with her. We arrived a few minutes before a bus took us to Pontorson, where we caught a train to Bayeux, our next stop on the trip.
Mont Saint-Michel is one of those places that is just as stunning in real life as in all the photographs you’ve seen online. When you glance at it from the mainland, it looks like a mirage, like something from a movie. And if you come late at night or early in the morning like we did, you’ll also feel like you’re in a movie. Experience it for yourself.
But, back to reality. Up next: Bayeux, my favorite place in France so far!