There are some French tourist destinations that you really shouldn’t visit in the summer if you can avoid it. Some, like the Musée du Louvre or the Tour Eiffel, are too crowded with tourists to be enjoyable. Others, like the bell towers of Notre Dame or the Arc de Triomphe, require some serious climbing in what can often be sweltering heat. Indeed, because of the general lack of air conditioning and throng of people in Paris in the summer (not to mention the month-long closure of most of the city’s shops and restaurants in August), I usually visit in the autumn and winter months. But I don’t just recommend exploring in the cold because it’s quieter and more comfortable. Some places also feel like they’re culturally, aesthetically, even spiritually made for winter.
For all these reasons, le Mont-Saint-Michel is forever a winter place for me.
Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a tiny, fortified island on the Normandie coast, a cluster of fairytale ramparts and cobblestones floating above a lake of sand at low tide and a mirror of seawater at high tide. The Mont has been a sacred pilgrimage site since the bishop of Avranches experienced a vision of the Archangel Michael there in the 8th century. Over the following millennium, the island grew from a modest abbey on a lonely hill to a stunning patchwork of Medieval, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The island is still crowned by the abbey, its iconic C19th spire visible from miles away.
Mont-Saint-Michel operates today in much the same way it has for centuries: it is home to a handful of nuns and monks who keep the abbey active, while the rest of the island caters to its 2.5 million annual visitors with restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. Below the abbey, a labyrinth of laneways, courtyards and lookouts crisscross the island. Moss and ivy lace the stone buildings, and Medieval walls ring the entire village. Looking out over of the water, you can project yourself back in time, imagining the many sieges the Mont withstood over the centuries, doubly protected by its walls of stone and water.
The last time I visited le Mont-Saint-Michel, with my partner in January 2020, dark clouds were brewing as we parked our rental car. As we boarded the shuttles for the 2.5km journey to the Mont, a sharp wind began to blow. We exchanged uneasy glances as the shuttle stopped on the bridge that now links the island to the mainland. Then, as we stepped out into the open, an icy, driving rain hit us at an alarming angle. We pulled our collars up and rushed, crouched against the almost-horizontal wind, to the shelter up ahead. One woman didn’t even realise she’d dropped her phone as she ran (don’t worry, we picked it up.) It was just rain and wind, but for a few moments we thought we were being pelted by actual ice.
If this sounds awful, what came next made up for it. Taking refuge in a Medieval tavern, replete with roaring fireplace, we huddled in the warmth and ordered a bottle of (shockingly cheap) Breton cider. We filled our bellies with salty fried potatoes and sipped our cider from traditional bolées as the rain lashed the intricate window panes. And when the storm cleared, we emerged to explore the Mont, the place almost all our own.
Winter attacked us when we visited the Mont-Saint-Michel. But we couldn’t have been more content. And I’ll never look at fries and cider the same way again.
Xx la Muséophile
Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, May 19-August 31 9am to 7pm, September 1-April 30 9.30am to 6pm, full fare 11€ reduced fare 9€
Free access, not wheelchair accessible