Mont-Saint-Michel just draws you in each time you look at it, and it seems like people have thought the same since the Middle Ages. Before there was any bridge or causeway, pilgrims were more than willing to brave quicksand and the strongest tides in continental Europe, making it France’s most popular site that isn’t Paris.
Due to the traffic, a causeway was built in 1878 for easier access. However, it damaged the landscape. The tides carried silt and it accumulated in the bay, affecting and threatening the island abbey.
Not all hope is lost, though. UNSECO World Heritage site has come up with a new project to ensure sustainability in the abbey. The organization began the initiative in 2015, after completing an engineering project to restore the Mont’s maritime character, ensuring its island status.
Such initiatives are important to the abbey because of its long-lasting charm which is not going to stop flocks of visitors from coming. Moreover, in modern times, some people don’t go to the abbey for pilgrimage anymore. In fact, tourists now also come to enjoy the surrounding bay.
The fascinating surrounding of the abbey
According to the abbey’s historian and tour guide, there’s been an explosion in the demand for bay crossings. These modern visitors are keen to learn about the area’s flora and fauna while also trying to know how medieval pilgrims cross the bay at low tide.
The bay, which is also within the scope of the UNESCO classification, is home to breathtaking nature as awe-inspiring as the abbey.
Sébastien Provost, an ornithologist who launched Birding Mont-Saint-Michel, said, “It’s one of the best birdwatching spots in Europe, with … observed species totaling 356 in 50 years of ornithology here.” The bay is a hot spot for diverse populations of migrating birds like the Brant Goose, which flies from Siberia to winter in the bay.
The engineering efforts, thankfully, helped restore the supertides. Then, the Mont can be completely surrounded by water—something that hadn’t happened since 1897.
With the engineering project and other changes, Mont-Saint-Michel won’t just become a place of religious pilgrimage or casual sightseeing, but also natural heritage and landscape.
And, the parking lot has been moved inland to a site where you can hop on a shuttle service to go to the abbey. This way, the base of the Mont can be more spacious and beautiful, and visitors stay a lot longer.
Slow tourism and natural beauty are now the new experience of this island abbey. There are events such as theater shows at the Couesnon dam and exhibits in Avranches which draw attention to other places nearby the Mont.
That’s why visitor experience has become a priority as well. There used to be many small stalls selling souvenirs and trinkets to remind them of the magnificent Mont, but to avoid congestion, they’re now significantly reduced, focusing on shops that sell artisan goods.
Other than that, a new company (Keolis) operates the shuttle service, now powered by biofuel instead of diesel and you can see the wait times.
Also, a team of seasonal agents will welcome tourists at the parking lot. You can find out about crowd conditions in real time as well; basically, the new reinvention will help you, as visitors, have a better experience during their visit.
Thomas Velter, director of Epic du Mont, the new governing body overseeing the site’s renewal, said, “Our goal is to guide the renewal of Mont-Saint-Michel. The approach is sustainable tourism, better management of the tourist flow, and valorization of the surroundings [and] natural setting.”
Well, let’s hope that the project and future initiatives can guarantee the longevity of the Mont so that we can still marvel at the abbey as well as its surroundings in the future.
Another place for monasteries that are just as magnificent
Now, Mont-Saint-Michel isn’t the only holiday destination with a rich history, religious setting, and breathtaking environment. Among many places, the one that stands out to me most is Meteora, which roughly means “suspended in air,” referring to the area’s pillars of rock.
Meteora is a place of unique topography which happens to be an important place of religious place dating back to the Middle Ages, just like the Mont. Here, you can see large pillars of rock; some stands out on their own while others stand near the hillside to form valleys.
As you can imagine and see from the picture, the environment itself is gorgeous enough to make you want to go there. But, the Greek Orthodox monasteries are also enchanting, as they’re built on the cliffs of the rocks.
These monasteries were built in such a way to avoid the invading Turks. There used to be two dozen monasteries across Meteora, but now, the only active ones are six. As visitors, you can visit the six monasteries, and you can still find monks and nuns there.
Plan well before you go to Meteora
Similar to Mont-Saint-Michel (including the bay), Meteora has an expansive range. So, consider how much time you have and what you want to get from this place. If you don’t have much time, you can opt to enjoy this place by tour or driving. If you do, you should try walking or hiking on Meteora.
Compared to driving, going on foot is more tiring and slower. However, you’ll see a lot more of this place and take in as much as natural (and architectural) beauty. You can start hiking from Kastraki and Kalambaka—there are hiking trails that lead through the countryside up to each of the monasteries.
Speaking of Kastraki and Kalambaka, you can choose to stay between those two. Each village is located at one end of the main monasteries of Meteora, that’s why you can drive or walk from either. It’ll also be no problem to get between the two villages when you want to, because they’re around 2 km from the center of one to the other.
It’s entirely up to you as to which village you should choose, but as the larger of the two, Kalambaka generally has more accommodation and restaurants, and it’s where the bus and train arrive.
If you prefer fewer modern views, and a quaint atmosphere, then Kastraki is a good choice. It’s not underdeveloped—you’ll still find restaurants and many accommodation options, it’s just that you’ll have to make your way here from Kalambaka.
The best time to have your journey here
Basically, you can go any time you want, regardless of the seasons.
Although of course, summer will be packed with tourists, especially since Meteora has cooler temperature than Greece’s islands during summer.
During winter, temperatures can drop below freezing and the villages are quieter with businesses not operating during off-season, meaning that it can be harder to find accommodation and places to eat.
In summer or autumn, the landscape of Meteora bursts with color, making your sightseeing a lot more enjoyable.
Whichever time you choose, it would be the safest bet to visit Meteora during shoulder season. Tourist numbers are more manageable, and the weather is most comfortable.