Mont St Michel: On Omelets, Stairs and Quicksand
Famously rising from its tidal bay, the Mont St Michel is an island abbey that has attracted pilgrims in Normandy since the 10th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nowadays, tourists far outnumber pilgrims and the island has been disneyfied to the extreme, but it remains a beautiful nature spot with an amazing history.
On January 1st, 2020, I took my husband to visit the Mont St Michel on a day trip. This was my fifth visit (the last one was in 2014) and his second, his first visit going back to his early teens. Needless to say, a refresher was in order and he was not disappointed. Or rather, disappointments happened but not the ones we expected.
Mont St Michel Weather & Tides
Whenever you visit the Mont St Michel, two factors can significantly impact your experience – weather and tides.
Because of its unique location back inside a sandy bay, the Mont St Michel experiences the strongest tides of continental Europe, the tidal differential between high and low tide reaching 15 meters/49 feet at its highest. On spring tides, the sea withdraws 15 kilometers/9.5 miles out and comes back rushing in. Literally, rushing in. Victor Hugo famously wrote that the tide at Mont St Michel comes in “as fast as a galloping horse.”
When I was a kid, we had to look at tidal tables to reach the island via a raised causeway built in 1879, park our family car on the sand (low tide) at the foot of the island, visit the Mont and return on time to drive away and avoid being trapped by high tide. Over the years, this raised causeway badly impacted the area’s ecosystem and resulted in sedimentation of the bay. Sand kept piling up and the island was at risk of losing its island status.
In 2014, local authorities built a light bridge to reach the island and moved the car park a few miles away. Not only does this restore the area’s natural look (imagine the eyesore of a giant parking lot at the foot of the pyramids), but it allows free flow of tidal water around the island and saves tide table headaches to visitors. Unless you’re visiting during a king tide, you’ll always be able to reach the island on foot or via the shuttle bus.
Since we visited at low tide, tides weren’t so much an issue. The weather, on the other hand…
The keywords “Mont St Michel weather” are quite popular on search engines and for good reason. We visited on a foggy day. At the parking lot, we had two options to reach our destination: walk 2.7 kilometers/1.6 miles or hop on a shuttle bus. Seeing as lines were forming at the shuttle bus stop, we started walking and very much enjoyed the stroll. It was all flat on a wide trail and allowed us to take in gradual views of Mont St Michel taking shape as we got nearer.
The Force was strong with this fog. As in, wait for it…
And closer yet, here I am on the walkway.
Spot the Mont St Michel! For the record, I’m less than a mile from the iconic mount. Famously, the statue of Archangel Michael atop the spire of the abbey makes for a picture perfect view of the Mont St Michel. On foggy days, make that the picturesque stone wall surrounding the city.
Being a medieval city, the Mont St Michel is surrounded by thick stone walls that protect it from invaders (not that it’s needed anymore) and provide great viewpoints for tourists over the bay. Of course, no self-respecting walled medieval city would be complete without a main gate, so here it is.
It is remarkable in its simplicity and you can see a pedestrian rounded door to the left of the main door for horses. I almost wrote horse-carriages and quickly deleted the word “carriages” as there’s no way the narrow streets would have allowed for carriages.
This photograph gives you an idea. Streets are so narrow that even on January 1st, we were shoulder to shoulder on some busy parts.
Now through the gate, we were hungry. Our first stop at the Mont St Michel, as my first stop last time in 2014, was the famous omelet at La Mère Poulard – only our experience this time was highly unsatisfactory.
Omelets at La Mère Poulard
When I asked my 14-year-old daughter what she remembered from our 2014 visit at the Mont St Michel, her words were “oily omelets and lots of stairs.” Okay, then. Never mind that La Mère Poulard, the 19th century restaurant at the entrance of the city, features on the Michelin food guide and is one of the must-dos on any foodie list in France.
The reason the four-egg omelets at La Mère Poulard are so famous is that they are whisked until frothy in a copper mixing bowl…
… before being cooked in melted butter over a wood fire for a few minutes.
If you are lucky, your omelet comes out slightly burnt over the edges and quite delicious. If you are unlucky, say if you visit on January 1st and the restaurant is understaffed, you end up with raw egg all over your plate.
Shockingly, this is what I got. What you are looking at is a folded quickly-cooked omelet (darker pancake-shaped part) and frothy raw egg oozing out of said omelet spilling out onto the plate. It was properly disgusting. Our neighbors sent back their first omelet with the same complaint – it was all raw egg. The maitre d’ was slightly short-fused and made a loud show of sending it back to the kitchen, requesting a “very well done” omelet. The second omelet they got was identical to the first. I heard my neighbor whisper to her husband, “It’s embarrassing. I don’t want to send back a second omelet at the famous La Mère Poulard.” When discussing with them – we had ample time, we waited one hour and 20 minutes for our omelet – they confided that they’d decided to come at La Mère Poulard for lunch “despite the reviews.” We checked French reviews on TripAdvisor. They were scathing. The restaurant got a 3-star rating and most people were complaining that it was overpriced (true), service was bad (true too) and the omelet was bad (sadly true).
After this disappointing experience, we decided that we would not return to La Mère Poulard and I would inform the Michelin Guide of our below-average meal. Ironically, all other restaurants in the city feature a “Mont St Michel omelet” on their menu, riding the omelet wave on their own terms.
Next up, after our meal, we tackled item 2 on our daughter’s list: stairs.
The main street was undergoing works but fortunately, access to the stairs on the right leading to the ramparts was open. Right we turned and up a short flight of stairs. From there on, stairs and more stairs, climbing the line of the rock the city is built on.
On the left, a simple wooden door with the following words: “Local police. Ring here” and an arrow to a rusty doorbell hiding inside the stone walls of the city. Loved this. Further up, restaurants with bay views. We checked every single menu for “Omelet” and scored every single time. Take that, La Mère Poulard.
More stairs. Almost no crowds and views to die for, especially on a misty day.
The going was getting vertiginous and it was exhilarating too. Same ramparts on a sunny summer day would probably be packed with crowds.
Looking inside the city down at narrow medieval alleys was equally fascinating. As you can see, it gets quite dark and narrow at street level.
This trash pile in an untidy backyard was a colorful reminder that the city lives on a daily basis, trash bin after trash bin. (Quiz night question: how do they collect waste & recycling at the Mont St Michel?)
Legend of Tombelaine
And then we spotted the other famous tidal island of the bay, Tombelaine. When I was younger, much younger than today, I always liked the sad legend of Tombelaine and its ghost. According to local legend in Brittany, Hélène, daughter of King Hoël, was kidnapped by a giant. I couldn’t find the exact details but from memory, the giant kept her prisoner in a cave on a small island off the Mont St Michel. Surrounded by quicksand and treacherous marshes, the island was a tough place to get to. To keep Hélène from escaping, the giant had pushed a large stone to bar the cave’s entrance.
Seeing that the tide was rising and knowing full well how high it could rise, Hélène had called for help and her father’s army had set off to rescue her following her cries but it was a misty day and on horses, the knights had a hard time finding their way. Alas, the army were too slow to reach the island. The giant was killed while trying to escape. Hélène drowned and she was buried on the island that now bears her name — Tombelaine being a contraction of “Tombe Hélène.” It is said that fishermen still hear Hélène’s cries for help in the mist when the ride rises.
Nowadays, you can take guided walks to Tombelaine but do not, by any means, attempt a solo walk to Tombelaine without local expertise. Quicksand is a real threat in this area. Someone almost died in 2019 and three people had to be rescued since the summer of 2019, one being helicoptered out as nothing else was working.
Abbey & Church
After climbing countless stairs, we had to reach the top of the small island at some point.
Which we did, eventually. But hey ho, visiting on January 1st means no abbey visits at all. The abbey happens to close only three days a year – January 1st, May 1st and 25 December. How thrilled we were to plan our trip exactly on one of these three days, I cannot say loud enough. A few swear words may have been muttered. My husband was rather miffed, as was I, as he had no recollection of the inside of the abbey (which, I assured, was very beautiful).
We moved on to the next best thing, the Catholic church dedicated to the archangel St Michel below the abbey.
Inside the church, a small chapel is dedicated to the St Michael with a striking statue of the archangel defeating the dragon.
Walking behind the church through a covered passageway…
…we found the tiny graveyard attached to the church. Amongst some of the tombstones, the Poulard family name featured on two of the graves.
We weren’t able to find which one could have been the final resting place of the famous Mère Poulard as very few individual names were engraved.
On to our favorite part to the day.
My husband and I decided we could easily bypass the many “medieval museum” tourist traps and walked out of the city onto the infamous sandy bay. Excited, I texted my cousin that we were walking around the Mont St Michel. “Beware the quicksands!” she texted back. She lives an hour away, she should know.
A white egret broke the shades of grey created by ripples of wet sand as far as the eye could see. Suddenly aware that each step could be treacherous, we were surrounded by miles and miles of low tide sands mixed with the occasional spot of quicksand that will gobble you up and never spit you out.
Why we thought this was a good idea, I’m not sure. And yet, we walked on.
At one point, I started sinking slightly and tried to pull myself out to firmer dry sand, but my foot kept sinking deeper. My brand new yellow boots! There was no way I was leaving my yellow boots behind so I jumped and jumped again until I found a safe spot. Phew. This is why local guides advise people to hike barefoot on the sand. No boots left to sink behind!
You don’t mess with Mont St Michel quicksand.
Judging by deeper footprints around the island, we decided to avoid these spots and stick to higher drier ground. Much good it did us too. This was a level view of the sandy bay with Tombelaine in the background, one I could not tired of.
Around the bend, we admired the walls of the city rising from the rock and culminating with the abbey. We were even surprised to spot a few trees, when we thought that the island was all mineral.
Last view before we returned to civilization, this was a portion of the city walls. With nobody in sight and a low hanging mist, it really felt like we had the Mont St Michel to ourselves. What a thrill.
Before returning to the carpark, I spotted this horse-carriage on the bridge as well as day trippers.
As much as we were bummed to be in front of the abbey’s closed doors, visiting the Mont St Michel on January 1st was maybe not such a bad idea. I can’t even begin to imagine the summer crowds. When we return, because we will, one thing is for sure – no omelets for us.