WASHINGTON, March 12, 2012 — It’s France’s most visited site outside Paris (about three million visitors annually) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s been beloved by faith travelers for centuries.
Though it’s been cherished through the centuries as a pilgrimage site, the visitor experience has changed in the last century with the advent of motorized vehicles and irrigation to create pasturelands. Instead of retaining its natural “floating” island setting, the mount has been enclosed by mud.
On April 28, the ambitious restoration project to reclaim the maritime environment and improve visitor access to Mont St. Michel — sometimes known as the “Marvel of the Western World” — is scheduled to complete. The French government devoted nearly $200 million to build a dam that allows a nearby river to remove the accumulated silt of the last century, making it again a dramatic island sentinel by 2040.
A new visitor park about a mile away on the mainland will prevent vehicle stack-up at the base of the mount. Instead, environmentally friendly shuttles will get visitors to the base. A new visitor center made of traditional Norman granite design is also part of the project.
Why is Mont St. Michel so popular? Layers of history and spiritual connections have drawn visitors for centuries. It’s also an architectural marvel. And with the restoration, a renewed scenic beauty will draw many.
Perched on a nearly 300-foot rock about a mile off the Normandy coast, Mont St. Michel was first a stronghold of power during the Romano-Breton period after the Romans left in 460 AD. The first monastic settlement was established in the eighth century, when according to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to a bishop in 708 and told him to build a church on the rocky islet.
By 933, the mount was in the hands of the Normans, and it’s depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (now displayed in a Bayeux, Normandy museum) which commemorated the 1066 conquest of England. The mount played a role in other wars, only to demise as a pilgrimage center following the Reformation. After the French Revolution, the abbey closed and became a prison. In 1836, the French poet and activist Victor Hugo was campaigning for the mount’s restoration in what he and others regarded as national architectural treasure. In 1874, the mount was declared a historic monument and in 1979, it was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
What visitors see today at Mont St. Michel is a collection of buildings of varied designs, created over several centuries. The abbey with its church and adjacent buildings called Le Merveille date to the 13th century. The cloisters have 277 slender columns of pink granite, and offer spectacular sea views. The Knights Hall was the original scriptorium, or copying workshop. This was the gathering place for the Order of St. Michel, founded in 1469 by King Louis XI to compete with the English Order of the Garter and Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece. Members came from high nobility or military distinction, There’s also a Guest Hall, where lines of esteemed guests met at Mont St. Michel over the centuries.
For more information about Mont St. Michel, visit http://us.franceguide.com/. Train service from Paris is available to the nearby village of Pontorson. Other standout sites in Normandy include the World War II D-Day landing beaches; Claude Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny; and charming seaside resort towns such as Deauville.
Read more of Ruth Hill’s columns about faith travel Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities.
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