At first, it is necessary to know where you are, visitors generally forget to take this precaution which is necessary here to see thoroughly the many buildings of which Mont Saint-Michel is composed. The church can be used as a compass, if this expression may be employed, for its large longitudinal axis extends from east to west and of course its transverse axis and its transepts go from north to south.
Therefore we counsel the visitors to go first to the church; we will refer to this again later on, but we think that before examining details it is better to see the general appearance of Mont Saint-Michel, which we suppose to be without the embankment which encumbers it on the south.
How to start the visit of the Mont Saint Michel?
The approach to the Mount is easier at the time of the neap tides, corresponding, as everyone knows, with the first and last quarter of the moon, because you can drive there independent of the tide, for the sea does not then surround the Mount or, in any case, does not prevent crossing the shingle. You can see, on arrival, the south front of Mont Saint-Michel and you can always, when the sea is low, walk around it. You must then go near the rock or the ramparts and the sight of the Abbey is necessarily shortened, and entirely changed, for being so near its most beautiful aspects are deformed.
Always at low water, but principally at neap tide, you can advance on the shingle on the east, and see one of the most beautiful views of the Mount and its whole development; but the west and north coasts are not so easy to be reached by the same means, because you must cross the river on the west, and the shoals on the north, which it is not prudent to do without a guide, these expeditions not being always practicable on account of the sands more or less moving according to the tides which change and shift the ground.
When is it better to visit the Mont Saint Michel?
We think it is better to choose the occasion of the spring tides, especially when there is a full moon, which permits us to go round the Mount in a boat; visitors easily find small vessels manned by fishermen of the Mount, who are courageous, experienced sailors and the safest guides that can be found. By embarking at the gate of the town, this voyage of circumnavigation may be made in less than an hour; it is the best means of seeing all the beauty of the Mount.
The sight changes at every movement of the oars, if we can use this expression, and all the fronts of the old monastery seem to be unrolled, offering successively the most imposing and most majestic aspects, especially on the west, on the north, on the northeast, and on the east; it is a magnificent succession of views as picturesque as can be imagined, and nothing can better help the study of the exterior architecture of the different edifices of the Mount.
A trip made at the time of the spring tides we have just spoken about offers other advantages which will be especially appreciated by artists: chiefly the advantage of seeing Mont Saint-Michel, its Abbey, its ramparts and its shingles surrounded and covered with the sea, brilliantly lighted by the moon and offering, particularly during the beautiful summer nights, the most fantastic and the most unexpected effects. But what is invaluable is the incomparable view which can be seen either from the ramparts on the east and on the north, or still better from the large upper platform on the west, and which the shingles of Mont Saint-Michel offer alone, i. e. the “arrival” of the sea. We use on purpose this expression: the arrival of the sea because it suits alone this occasion.
The sea having withdrawn more than 12 kilometers from the Mount when it is low water, arrives at the moment of the surge, announcing itself by a roaring at first confused and which soon becomes a frightful noise and forms a formidable bar, an eddy of water, in the rivers which flow on the shores and on the whole the extent of the vast estuary which it soon covers entirely. This immense sheet of water overflowing the shores not with the rapidity of a horse going full gallop, as it has been hyperbolically saying, but going forward by a continual movement, with an implacable strength, produces an extraordinary effect.
If the phenomena of the tides are always so interesting to be studied and so curious to be seen, they are especially surprising on the shores of Mont Saint-Michel, where they are manifested, principally at the time of the equinoxes under special conditions and present majestic views which leave on our mind the liveliest impressions.
When the wind forces the tide, the waters leap over the first two gates of the town and bathe the English bombards, trophies of the assault of 1434, which adorn the Avancée of the town.
The sea falls almost as quickly as it rises; an hour after the retiring of the tide, you can go out of the town, and a very little time afterward, walk around the rock and the ramparts.
When you have seen the general view of Mont Saint-Michel under its exterior aspects, and finished your trip around the island which you began on the southwest, you land on the south on the narrow rocky shingle or on the ground which is in front of the Avancée and after crossing it as well as the Barbican forming the exterior defenses, you arrive at the King’s gate which leads you to the town, the only street of which conducts you to the Abbey.
We will speak about these interesting buildings on coming back, and supposing that the reader continues to follow us, we will ascend the street of the town while giving him some details about its origin, in order to reach quickly the top of the rock and the church which is going to be the point of separation for the methodical visit to the Abbey and its dependencies.