This month marks exactly one thousand years since the beginning of construction on a magnificent island off the coast of France. As it ascended inexplicably from the turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean, it would serve as a lasting symbol of national strength.
The impressive medieval abbey on top of Mont Saint-Michel was a spectacular structure that has played a significant role in French history over the centuries. It is a cascade of walls and buttresses that descends from a lofty central spire.
It is now one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations outside of Paris, marking a millennium since construction began. At times, it has been overwhelmed by its own popularity to the point where its custodians have advised people to stay away.
Over the centuries, the abbey, west of Paris in France’s Normandy region, has attracted a large number of pilgrims. It currently receives 1.3 million visitors annually.
Following an official visit to the location on June 5, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter, “In the span of 1,000 years, its silhouette has become an emblem of French universalism.” Its abbey is a representation of who we are: a people who build things.”
On June 23, the Mont will host concerts, conferences, and a visual show called the “Millennium Solstice,” which will feature an unprecedented light show, to commemorate the abbey’s birthday. Up until November 2023, a history and architecture exhibit is also open to the public.
A historian’s witness
The Gothic Mont Saint-Michel Abbey towers over its village and thick fortress walls, rising out of a bay surrounded by quicksand and flanked by Normandy and Brittany.
The Mont rises from the water like a French Atlantis when the tide comes in, an architectural marvel set in a stunning natural setting. In 1979, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In a speech to mark the millennium of the abbey, President Macron described it as a “marriage of human genius and nature.”
The Mont, also known as the “wonder of the Western world,” has been around since 709, when a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel was built on the rock. From the 11th century to the 16th, it continued to develop into a sacred site.
The abbey has been a part of important events in French history, such as its transformation into a fortress during the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries and its resuscitation from a British siege that lasted 30 years.
During the 18th-century French Revolution, it became a prison. In the “Bastille of the Seas,” where tides and quicksand made it impossible to escape, 14,000 prisoners had spent time by 1863. Pilgrims who had once walked the village streets were replaced by prisoners’ families.
The monument gradually evolved into the global tourist destination that it is today during the Belle Époque era prior to World War I. The well-known Mère Poulard Inn, named after its founder, the brilliant cook Annette Poulard, has been a popular tourist destination since 1888.
According to legend, Ernest Hemingway, who was working as a war correspondent at the time, sat at La Mère Poulard’s table in 1944 to talk about the D-day landings and one of the most important battles for the liberation of France and Europe, which took place a few kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel, near the town of Avranches, which had been completely destroyed.
Problems with overtourism
Throughout its history, Mont Saint-Michel has attracted millions of pilgrims, making it a very popular destination. Before Santiago de Compostela, it was the largest Western pilgrimage site,” Thomas Velter, managing director of the Mont Saint-Michel National Public Establishment, told CNN.
The site is currently visited by approximately 3 million people annually, with some weekends being busier than usual. Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Ascension Weekend in May, the site was flooded with visitors, a number that officials normally only anticipate during the peak summer season.
Velter stated to CNN, “We sold 10,500 tickets at the abbey, which is a record.” Usually, Ascension Weekend is very busy, but in this case, there were a lot of people all at once.
There were approximately 33,000 visitors to the site in total, which is not a record but still a significant number for the Mont, which typically anticipates this number of visitors during the peak tourist season of August.
According to Velter, who spoke with CNN, “It’s primarily the visitor who suffers because the Mont is less comfortable.” Since Covid, tourists have become less tolerant of jam-packed days like this because they experienced the joy of visiting sites with few people around.
Initial projections for the year 2023 indicate that Mont-Saint-Michel will continue to be a very popular tourist destination due to the celebration of the millennium, which presents some challenges for the town’s dozen residents, shops, and natural landscape.
Because they can’t keep up with the demand from customers, I don’t think it’s a good thing for restaurants, hotels, and shops. One shopping street and one square kilometer make up Mont Saint-Michel. “I don’t think it’s very pleasant when you put more than 5,000 people on the street at once,” Velter stated.
The buses that connect the site now run on biofuels rather than diesel in an effort to improve sustainability. During the off-peak hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and after 6.30 p.m., free parking is available in the surrounding bay area. “Take advantage of the nature and boat tours we’ve set up, for example.” Velter stated, “There are seals, eels, and Atlantic salmon here.” We frequently overlook the fact that there is the largest dolphin colony in Europe, so this is also a chance to see Mont Saint Michel in a different light.