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The real-life Minas Tirith from 'Lord of the Rings': A tour of Mont Saint-Michel

Rising from the sea like a location from a fantasy film, Mont Saint-Michel has a mythic presence and an epic real-life history. Here's a full tour of this legendary castle, commune, and abbey that sits on a tiny island off the coast of France.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

When looking for inspiration for the city of Minas Tirith in the "The Lord of the Rings," Peter Jackson and his crew at WETA used Mont Saint-Michel. When looking for iconic locations for Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (and Revelations) Ubisoft Montreal also used Mont Saint-Michel. Countless other video games and movies have used the unique and iconic castle and abbey either directly or as inspiration.

Its real-life story is even more impressive, dating back over 1,000 years. It has been a castle, a monastery, a village, a prison, and often several of those at a time. It has withstood many sieges, sackings, and the steady smolder of time.

It is one of the coolest places I've ever been, epic in every way, and I took many, many pictures. Here are a bunch (and some words to go with them).

Even through the fog, the unnatural distant shape of Mont Saint-Michel catches the eye. The rolling fields of France descend toward the sea, ready to disappear into the water, except for one vaguely pyramidal shape, a mere shadow on the horizon.

As you get closer, details emerge. Buildings cling to each other and to some unseen, steeply sloped, surface. It is unlike anyplace I'd ever been: a castle, a village, and a cathedral, all wrapped together.

You park on the mainland, and take a wood-clad bus (or walk) to the gates of the castle. I was a bit disappointed how many people were there. But it was early June, the weather was perfect, and it's not like the place was a secret.

Seeing the walls and buildings rise above me, this place I'd seen in pictures since I took French in high school, was surreal. It's a medieval castle, yet alive with shops and people.

As I entered, through a drawbridge, I was a little worried that it would be touristy, with kitschy shops spoiling the atmosphere. Somehow, despite numerous gift shops, the place resists the sort of Disneyfication that so sours countless other famous locations.

Perhaps it's because these buildings were always shops, with merchants setting out their wares, for centuries. As you start walking up the curved ramp you pass restaurants and bars, some looking new, some old, but not a Starbucks in sight.

There are few flat pathways on the Mont; it's mostly ramps and stairs. As you continue up, the stores end and you're faced with the looming walls of the Abbey. Not only is it tall, but it's high, built right over the top of the rocky peak.

At the base of the Abbey's walls, but above the shops and restaurants, is the residential area. A few dozen people live permanently on the Mont, but these areas were much more heavily populated at other points in history.

The Abbey itself is not just the rather impressive cathedral, but also catacombs, huge vaulted chambers, and even gardens. These aren't obvious as you look at the Mont from a distance, but behind the visible walls are room after epic room.

I stayed three days and two nights on the Mont, affording me some experiences day visitors would sadly miss. Like walking through the empty streets at night, my footsteps on the cobblestones hauntingly echoing back to me.

Or one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen: dawn fighting its way past clouds, creating a perfect rainbow over the Mont Saint-Michel.

An unforgettable experience. Highly recommended. If you can't make it to Normandy, here are a few dozen pictures, at all different times of day, to give you a feel for how cool this place is.

Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer and photographer for CNET. In addition to many tech articles on topics like HDMI cables all being the same, 4K TVs being stupid, and more, he has toured the battleship USS Missouri, the Pacific Aviation Museum, Omaha and Utah beaches on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, experienced the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and many more. If you have a question for Geoff, send him an e-mail! You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.