Now more than ever, people are interested in places they've never been or haven't heard of yet. Thanks to the Travel Channel and social media, we can learn about fascinating destinations in faraway lands in just minutes. One such place is Le Mont Saint-Michel, an island commune located in Normandy, France, less than a mile off the country's northwestern coast.
While you might have never heard of Le Mont Saint-Michel, it is actually one of France's most recognizable landmarks and is visited by more than 3 million excited tourists each year. Why excited, you ask? This island has personality! Like the royal families, it even has its very own coat of arms! But that is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to facts about Le Mont Saint-Michel. In fact, we have dredged up 25 facts about this beautiful and mysterious island that just may have you booking a ticket and planning your next vacation for Le Mont Saint-Michel. If visiting a location that has deep roots in history, looks like something out of a fairy tale storybook and is packed with cool facts and intrigue sounds like your cup of tea, then a trip to Le Mont Saint-Michel may be up your travel alley!
25. It Used To Be A Jail!
Louis XI turned Le Mont into a prison during his reign of power. During the Ancien Régime (11th century), the island began to serve as a prison of sorts. In 1791, the abbey was closed and officially converted into a prison per Louis XI's orders. The original plan of converting Le Mont Saint-Michel into a prison was to primarily house clerical opponents of the Republican regime and at one point, the converted prison held up to 300 priests, earning the nickname "Bastille des Mers" which translates to Bastille of the sea. Thinking of hundreds of priests being held as prisoners in such a lovely location is a sad thought. Hopefully, they did stay not captive for long.
High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836, influential figures — including Victor Hugo — had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure.
24. It Has A Population! (But Barely)
According to a census that was taken in 2009, the island had a population of 44 people at that time. Currently, the island is said to have around 50 permanent residents. With over 60 buildings on the island, the building-to-human population is outnumbered! All of the buildings are protected in France as "monuments historiques."
Can you imagine living on an island with at least one historically protected building that has monument status all to yourself? The population is growing albeit slowly but maybe Le Mont's popularity as a residence is on the rise! But as a bonus, if the population stays small and any of the people on the island get into an argument with one another, they can just retreat into one of the many buildings.
23. It's Known As A "Tidal Island"
Le Mont Saint-Michel's relationship with the mainland has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. The island used to be connected to the mainland via a tidal causeway which is a path that is only revealed at low tide. On and off throughout the years, the coastal flats have been used as pasture fields during low tide which has eventually decreased the distance between the shore and the island.
In 2006, the French prime minister made a public announcement regarding a project with an estimated cost of over $100 million. The project proposed to create a hydraulic dam that would help to remove the silt that had accumulated and make Le Mont Saint-Michel a true island once again. The dam was completed in 2009 and today, the tides can vary greatly, at around 46 feet high.
22. The Design Is Very Meaningful
Today, if you so much as glance at any of the home makeover shows that are all the rage now, you'll hear all about "design this" and "design that." It's true, design is a crucial aspect of construction. Just like anything in life, planning is important to make sure that things run smoothly and an effective outcome is produced. The construction of Le Mont Saint-Michel is no exception but the design even goes a bit further into its significance.
Its structural composition of how it was built from top to bottom was meant to represent the feudal society that constructed it. The top part is an homage to God, the abbey and monastery are below, then are the great halls; then are the stores and housing; and at the very bottom, outside the walls, are houses that were intended for fishermen and farmers. While this isn't a great compliment to fisherman and farmers, it is a good demonstration of social class back then.
21. Fear No Floods
As previously discussed, the design for Le Mont Saint-Michel was designed with care and with several intentions in mind. One of these intentions was very smart and incredibly necessary considering Le Mont Saint-Michel's location and the fact that it is its own island. Le Mont Saint-Michel has a circumference of approximately 3,150 feet and its highest point is approximately 302 feet above sea level so in case of flooding (or very choppy waves) the residents of Le Mont have no need for worry.
Water won't be reaching this lovely location anytime soon as it hasn't for centuries. If you choose to spend the night at one of the hotels on the island, you can rest easy and enjoy the amazing view with pleasure.
20. Its Primary Purpose Was For Protection
Though now an iconic tourist destination, this incredible little town (yes, Le Mont Saint-Michel, the island, is an actual town!) served the purpose as a strategic unit which helped to protect the north of France from attack during the Hundred Years' War. There are many advantages to using a building like this amazing castle when at war.
Firstly, there's the view. Thanks to the high towers, it's easy to see far away as well as any possible enemies coming in from the ocean. Plus (and probably the best benefit of all) is the isolated location. It's not simple to find the castle and if an enemy did manage to find it, the castle walls are sturdy and thick, offering much protection for its inhabitants.
19. If You Build It, They Will Come
According to ancient legend, the archangel Michael appeared in the year of 708 to Aubert of Avranches who served as the bishop of Avranches at the time. Michael, the archangel instructed the bishop to build an abbey on the island. Not one to disobey the direct orders of an archangel, the bishop did as instructed and set into motion the building of the abbey on the island... that's according to ancient legend, of course.
Whatever you choose to believe about how the abbey came to be, you've got to admit that a visit from an archangel is a pretty romantic notion. If it is true, it's even more amazing that not only the legend but the building still exists today!
18. Location, Location, Location... Saved Le Mont From The Hundred Years' War
Thanks to its special and carefully placed position, Le Mont Saint-Michel is accessible when it is low tide but when it is high tide, it is not accessible which is what allowed Le Mont to remain unconquered during the Hundred Years' War.
During the 14th century, the Hundred Years' War required soldiers to protect the abbey by building walls and other forms of military constructions which allowed the abbey to remain unscathed even though a battle went on around it for around thirty years. It's safe to say that even though Le Mont Saint-Michel was built with the sturdiest of materials available for building at the time, it's prime and very unique location is what saved it from becoming rubble during the war.
17. Le Mont Became Well Known Back In The Three Digits
It's not unusual for famous buildings that still exist today in usable condition to have gained notoriety several decades earlier but Le Mont Saint-Michel gained popularity back in the year of 933. Evidence exists showing that word spread of Le Mont's strategic significance well before the year of 933 when William I. Longsword annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the Duchy of Brittany, whose strength had suffered after the war.
This move cemented Le Mont Saint-Michel as part of Normandy without question. While Le Mont Saint-Michel is not the only building in existence from a year of three digits, it's still pretty impressive to know that Le Mont was making a name for itself way (way, way) back then.
16. Le Mont Was Supposed To Be The Site Of The Order Of Saint Michael (But Couldn't Because It's Too Far Away From Paris)
It is said that Louis XI of France created the Order of Saint Michael back in 1469. Louis had intended for the abbey church of Le Mont Saint-Michel to be the chapel for the Order, the main headquarters. But sadly for Louis XI's intentions, this was never meant to be and it was all because of Le Mont's location.
While there is no question that a huge part of the charm of Le Mont is the island, that is also exactly what prevented it from being appointed as the official chapel of the Order of Saint Michael. It was later discovered that Le Mont is too far from Paris to serve as a proper chapel for the Order. Location, location, location... it can either work for you or against!
15. The Contractor Was Handpicked By The Duke Of Normandy
It's a win to be chosen as a contractor for a project with all of the tough competition these days. It's somewhat of an honor even for contractors to have their work speak for itself and get hired for the job over anyone else. Imagine what that feeling must have been like for William of Volpiano, the Italian architect of the 11th century when he was chosen by Richard II who was the Duke of Normandy at the time, to construct the Romanesque church of the abbey.
It was Volpiano who set the transept which crosses over the top of the building. In order to compensate for the extra weight of the transept, a series of underground crypts had to be constructed to support the top structure that still exists today.
14. Sister City In Japan
Le Mont Saint-Michel has a sister city! Sister cities, sometimes known as twin towns, are a cute and sentimental way to connect across the world and create a sense of camaraderie with other countries. Le Mont, which is technically considered a town, has a sister city which is located in Japan. Hatsikaichi, Hiroshima, where the Itsukushima Shrine is located - is very similar to Le Mont.
It's another island-temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site. These twin towns have a lot in common! Much like Le Mont, the Itsukushima Shrine is a popular tourist spot in Hatsukaichi. Hatsukaichi is located off the coast of Itsukushima Island, the red gate of the shrine appears to float at high tide, and is approachable by foot during low tide. Sound familiar?
13. Castle Envy
Anytime there is something with such vast beauty as Le Mont Saint-Michel, there is bound to be jealousy. It's just human nature. So you can imagine that Le Mont Saint-Michel has been known as the subject of traditional jealousy from the Bretons. They say that Le Mont is on their territory because the Couesnon River, which serves as a marker for the boundary between Normandy and Brittany, was altered over time due to the natural course of the river.
The Bretons claim that the original course should be on the side of Normandy's border. Let's face it... Le Mont is breathtakingly gorgeous. If you could lay claim to it, wouldn't you, too? Rumor has it that the few residents of the island state that the border is not located on the Couesnon River but on the mainland which is approximately 2.5 miles to the west.
12. The Preservation
In 1791, during Louis XI's direct orders, the abbey was officially converted into a prison and at one time, housed over three hundred imprisoned monks. In 1863, the prison was finally closed.
Soon after that, Le Mont Saint-Michel was declared a historic monument in 1874. It was a much better way to pay homage to the gorgeous castle on the island to give it its proper place in history rather than using the beautiful space as a prison. Because of this change, people have been able to visit the castle and enjoy its beauty, honoring it as the historic monument that it is.
11. Le Mont Received A Generous Donation From The King Of France
Everyone loves receiving gifts. But imagine receiving a gift from the King of France! During the 13th century, Philip Augustus, the King of France, gifted the castle on the island with a donation that allowed construction to begin on the Gothic section referred to as “Merveille” which is two three-story buildings, crowned by the cloister and the refectory.
Philip Augustus made the donation after his successful conquest of Normandy, likely as a sign of appreciation for the castle's protection and position which is ideal when a war breaks out.
10. The Joan Of Arc Influence
You've got to give it up for Joan. Rifling through the stories of history, it seems like there was almost nothing that Joan of Arc couldn't do. Back in the times of the Hundred Years' War, news broke of the island's stand against the English and word of this news traveled to a young girl who was living near Paris.
Joan of Arc rushed to the island and bravely fought for what she believed in. Two wrought-iron bombards that were abandoned when Normandy gave up the siege are still on site. The wrought-iron bombards are known as Les Michelettes. Le Mont Saint-Michel honors Joan of Arc today with a life-sized statue.
9. The Collapse Of The Abbey Church
Flip that... abbey? Out of necessity, yes! In 1421, the roman choir of the abbey church of Le Mont Saint-Michel collapsed. The reason for the collapse is thought to be a culmination of old age and wear and tear over time. It took around 20 years to decide on a plan to renovate the abbey.
Finally, it was rebuilt in Gothic style from 1446 to 1523. This huge gap in time is due to a construction break from that took place from 1450 to 1499. Yes, that is quite a long break! The Gothic style that can be seen in the abbey today is due to the rebuild from the 1400's to 1500's so maybe that huge construction break was worth it!
8. A Fight Over Religion Caused Le Mont To Become Abandoned
It is hard to believe now with so many tourists (3 million!) rushing to see the beauty of Le Mont Saint-Michel every single year but at one point in time, Le Mont became deserted. This was during a time when there was so much tension and fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants.
During this time, the Protestants tried several times to conquer Le Mont. Due to the constant fear of the Protestants invading the island and mounting pressure of a take-over, monks and abbots started to abandon their living quarters at Le Mont when it got to the point when the buildings were beginning to collapse.
7. World Famous
Le Mont Saint-Michel, as well as the surrounding bay of Le Mont Saint-Michel, have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1979. Just by looking at a few photos of Le Mont, it's clear why approximately 3 million visitors from around the globe touch ground at Le Mont every year, choosing it for their vacation destination.
It seems to have it all; there's a certain "off the beaten path" feel to it but it has the comfort of hotels and restaurants and of course, views galore! Plus, for the history lovers, there's really no other place that can satisfy that vacation goal than Le Mont!
6. Le Mont Has Been "Adopted" Many Times Over
For centuries, Le Mont-Saint-Michel has been fought over, caused massive jealousies between different groups and lively debates have been sparked over who it truly belongs to. For the few families who call Le Mont Saint-Michel home, some of those who share the businesses in the town, and succeeded to the village administration, have decided to call Le Mont their very own.
If your family has owned a business in Le Mont for years and you have grown up there, it would be kind of hard to call the gorgeous Le Mont anything else but your very own! But truly, Le Mont Saint-Michel belongs to the rich history of France.
5. Dine, Wine, And Retail Therapy Included At The Castle!
If you're now thinking that Le Mont Saint-Michel's incredible island could be next on your travel list, rest assured that you can get the full "tourist experience" as you are taking in the lush and breathtaking surroundings and learning heaps all about the interesting historical facts.
Today, there are about fifty shops and plenty of restaurants with views that are well worth your time. There are hotels and plenty of tourist activities to do if you wish to stay at the castle. You can visit the sixty buildings that are protected as historical monuments, take in the sights of the time-treasured abbey and find fantastic gifts to bring home to your jealous friends and family members!
4. Spend The Night At The Castle!
Along with the fifty shops on the island, Le Mont Saint-Michel has several small hotels located within the island township. If you are looking to get a true "bed and breakfast feel" during your next trip to France, Le Mont may be just the place for you.
There are many hotels but you won't get the big hotel chain experience at Le Mont. Book any room and you will most likely get treated to a family-owned bed and breakfast style stay. Can there be anything better than waking up in a cozy room on a beautiful island next to a castle? We think not! That stay would likely be the most relaxing sleep of your life!
3. Building Bridges
Though the castle is old-fashioned in the loveliest of ways and the legends surrounding the castle on the island are as old as time, there is something new that visitors will enjoy. Most visitors like to experience things as original as possible on their travels but when it comes to safety, new is definitely preferred by most everyone.
So you can imagine the happiness that the residents of Le Mont and the visitors felt when on 22 July 2014, the new bridge that was designed by architect Dietmar Feichtinger was revealed and opened to the public. The new bridge is modern-looking and doesn't match the style of the old castle but considering that is what keeps humans above water, that is certainly okay with us!
2. Tourism Is Warmly Welcomed
For the fifty shop owners and their employees, along with the many restaurants and hotels who provide goods and services to the three million tourists who visit the castle every year, tourism is like manna from heaven.
This goes especially for businessmen, people like Eric Vannier, owner of the group the Mère Poulard, which owns half of the restaurants, shops, and hotels along with three museums. Jean-Yves Vételé who is the CEO of "Sodetour" and owns five hotels, a large supermarket, and several shops. Patrick Gaul, a former elected official, hotelier and restaurant owner along with several independent business owners, depend on visitors to the lovely island in order to keep their businesses running smoothly. So if you decide to visit Le Mont, know that you are welcome!
1. So Many People Visit But Few People Sleep At Le Mont
Even with three million visiting tourists annually, it's estimated that only around twenty-five people actually sleep at Le Mont which includes the monks who live there but excludes the various guests staying at the hotels on the island. So this means that each night, there are only about twenty-five residents who sleep on the island. For such a large island, that seems like a pretty surprising number.
For such a beautiful location, wouldn't more people want to stay near this gorgeous castle? We are debating packing up our bags and heading off to the castle on the island! See you there?