Mont-Saint-Michel, one of France’s most spectacular tourist destinations, is celebrating one thousand years since its founding.
Mont-Saint-Michel is a rocky island only a few hundred miles off the shore of Normandy, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. It is close enough to shore that visitors could walk to it at low tide, though today there is a bridge elevated above the sand banks.
According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared in 708 to the bishop Aubert of Avranches, instructing him to build a church on the rocky little islet. He built a small monastery then with four crypts, which became a destination for religious pilgrims despite the subsequent 300 years of political upheaval in the area.
In 1023, the first stones of the current abbey on Mont-Saint-Michel were laid, to deal with an ever-growing number of pilgrims. It was financed by Norman dukes. In the following centuries, it was used as a fortress in the Hundred Years War, and a prison for the wealthy and influential in the French Reformation, before being restored as a national monument in the late 1800s. Since then, tourists have outweighed the pilgrims. Currently, over 2.8 people visit each year. Fewer than 30 people, most of them monks, live on the island.
Today, the tight winding streets of the island are lined with dozens of shops and restaurants. Until November, they will be celebrating the Abbey’s thousand years. The celebrations will feature exhibits, dance shows, concerts, and speeches. French President Emmanuel Macron visited on Monday, giving a speech inviting the French to “push themselves further” against challenges like climate change, social matters, and rising tensions in Europe.
He drew a comparison with the abbey that has stood strong over time and embodies the “French spirit” of “resilience” and “resistance.” It was veiled rhetoric, coming one day before another protest against his contested pension reform law that has been passed.
An exhibit to celebrate the anniversary opened last month in the abbey, featuring the complex process of building such a grand structure with such geological difficulties.