Indiana University
Journalism Ernie Pyle

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March 13, 2008
Photo by Tim Street
A courtyard at the top level of the Mont St. Michel abbey.

Coming out of the lush green rolling hills of the French countryside in Normandy, a large castle-like structure suddenly appears on the horizon. At first glance this structure reminds you of Cinderella’s castle, but it is really Mont St. Michel, and on this overcast, rainy day, we had the experience of having a tour of this centuries-old landmark.

Mont St. Michel has been a landmark, an abbey, a fortress, a prison and a tourist destination throughout its centuries-long history. The first monastic structure on the island was built sometime in the 8th century (though the Romans inhabited it even earlier), and since then, the island has grown and expanded in many ways. The cathedral is built on top of a coastal island that rises some several hundred feet around the flat countryside. Once completely an island, various developments and farming operations have led to the buildup of silt along the coast, creating long, coastal mud flats that surround the island at low tide. This area is subject to extreme tides, and the water will retreat several kilometers after high tide, as we witnessed while we were there.

Though the island itself has no real strategic value, Mont St. Michel still figured in many wars and skirmishes, including an allegiance with William the Conquerer in 1066 (the story we saw told in the Bayeux Tapestry). The isle was also repeatedly attacked during the Hundred Years’ War, but was never overcome.

Photo by Tim Street
Students snap pictures as the tour guide explains characteristics of the architecture found on the island.

As we stepped foot on the granite pathway, we immediately had a sense that this was a special place. The entire structure, which is located in the province of Normandy, is surrounded by a huge, granite wall (built during the Hundred Years’ War). Most of the buildings are made out of granite or wood, a style from Normandy, and moss grows on many of the walls and roofs. As we walked up the steep slope, our tour guide told us there were 25 people who live on Mont St. Michel year-round, and that the town had two churches which each held two masses every day. After climbing the island’s many steps, we entered the abbey cathedral, which is situated at the top of this town. On top of this church is a copper statue of Saint Michael, the island’s namesake.

We then took a tour of the abbey church while the tour guide explained the history of the island. Roman and Gothic architectural styles were both used on the island, but the more elaborate gothic style was more elaborately beautiful. Continuing on, we were also informed by our guide that Mont St. Michel was regarded as the first pilgrimage sight in France, and every king had to visit at least once. We were shown where the monks, who lived in this church when it was a monestary back in Rennassance times, ate, prayed and worked. One of the more interesting facts was that there was no heat anywhere in this structure – except for the room where the monks worked.  

Standing high up in this church while looking out at the beautiful view of the vast green country, you could almost forget the bus that brought you here or the modern shops that line the pathways and pretend for a moment that you had been transported back in time.