Tour Mont Saint-Michel, the real-life Minas Tirith (pictures)

Covering a tiny island just off the coast of France, Mont Saint-Michel looks like a fantasy, yet it has stood the test of time for over 1,000 years. Here is a photo tour of this legendary castle and abbey that has inspired the imaginations of so many.


Geoffrey Morrison

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The Mont

Countless video games and movies have used the unique Mont Saint-Michel as inspiration, with the most famous example being Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Wandering minstrel Geoffrey Morrison climbs over the velvet ropes to show you this iconic medieval marvel.

It's a little over half a mile from the shore to Mont Saint-Michel, but a bit further from where you actually park. There are free buses that shuttle you from the parking lot to the main entrance.

Check out the full story here: A Tour of Mont Saint-Michel.

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Raise the gate!

An actual drawbridge and portcullis greet you as you enter. It doesn't seem like either has been used in a while.

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Shops and hotels

As you enter (that's the drawbridge entrance in the center there), you pass restaurants and shops. This isn't an innovation for tourism; shops were here for centuries. Behind me the path curves up toward the abbey, but when I arrived there were so many people, I decided to head up to the ramparts first (the stairs on the left).

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Main Street

This is the opposite view from the previous slide. After a reasonably wide entrance, the pathways narrow quickly. Some you'd have to turn sideways to pass through.

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From the ramparts

There's something so cool about being on the ramparts of a castle. A tie to history, perhaps? Or just how different it is from modern buildings.

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Restaurants with a view

It's hard to tell from a distance, but most of the buildings along the front are restaurants. Not a bad view to add to your meal.

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Looping around

After you turn the corner from the front of Mont Saint-Michel, you can come back in toward the shops. Here's a view down the main drag. The entrance is around the corner in the distance.

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Up and up

Or you can continue upward. The abbey and cathedral loom over the town.

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Above the shops, but below the abbey, is a residential area. People do actually live on Mont Saint-Michel: according to a 2009 census at that time there were a total of 44 residents.

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This gives you a good idea of how crammed in everything is.

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Rooms and spaces

I wanted to go into every building, just to see what was inside. While you can go into many of them, some are privately owned. So that would be breaking and entering.

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Little touches

Here you can see one of the original artifacts of the Mont: "La machine automatique d'horlogerie de distribution de l'argent."

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Not sure what these ancient devices are, however.

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In the mud

The tides can vary up to 14 feet here, some of the greatest variances in the world. Not, however, the days I was there. So I sadly didn't get that Mont-surrounded-by-water photo. Got some other amazing ones instead.

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Around the back

The pictures you usually see of Mont Saint-Michel are from the front. Well here's one from around back. Trees, mostly.

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The steepness of the island here acts as a natural defense, but that didn't stop them from putting walls up there anyway.

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Mini chapel

I wasn't quite sure why they'd have this mini chapel around the back, until I saw what happens back here at sunset (you'll see those pictures a bit later).

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Back inside

After looping around the outside, you come back in here, beneath the abbey. The maintenance crews have smartly used the ramp that the monks used to use to haul up supplies as their own ramp for hauling up supplies.

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Even though the tides were low, this is one of the more dangerous photos I've ever taken. The tides come in fast, and the mud is sticky, so you can get swept away, or drown, pretty easily (there were warnings everywhere).

Smartly I went out here alone after midnight.

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Ah, much better

The main benefit of staying on the Mont is being able to explore it without a crowd of people. I spent hours walking around, hearing just the echoes of my footsteps, glancing off the stones.

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Ok, it was really creepy. I'm not a superstitious person, but walking around here alone was eerie. Awesome, but eerie.

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Main drag

OK, so here's what the main street looks like, without people. Shops and restaurants, cool signs. Love it.

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Lights on

However, even in the wee hours, I could occasionally hear people, their voices bouncing off the cobblestones and walls. Other guests at other hotels? Employees ending a late shift? Not sure.

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They sure know how to light stuff in France.

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Out on the water

You can see how much water there often is between the Mont and the mainland. In this case, there are mudflats, but you get the idea.

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Abbey and stars

This is why you buy a tripod. At the top of the spire is a golden Saint Michel.

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Such a view

Just can't get over how cool these buildings are, even at night.

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On the left there is my hotel. Location, location, location.

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Up to the Abbey

From the inside, the walls around the abbey are no less impressive.

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For a century there's been a causeway connecting the Mont and the mainland. You used to park right out front, which sort of ruins the view, in my opinion.

Well, due to growing amounts of sediment, and a desire to spruce the look up a bit, the French government is building a gorgeous elevated roadway, and demolishing the causeway. This, in addition to a dam nearby, is intended to flush more of the sediment out to sea, preserving the island as an island.

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Inside the abbey

Impressive, especially when you consider how long it must have taken to get all this stuff up here.

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You have to figure it was quite a hike to get here for Sunday services.

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Ever look up in buildings like this? I'm always impressed how huge they could make buildings back then, with pretty limited (by comparison) technology.

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Minas Tirith

Ah yes, now we see some more of that Minas Tirith action. This broad "patio" offered some impressive views...

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Down the side

...Like this one. Walls and terraces all the way down.

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Out the back

Here's the view out to sea. Notice the little chapel we saw earlier.

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Ever play World of Warcraft? Look like Scarlet Monastery much? That mini boss with the dogs would be off to the right, perhaps?

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Lovely quiet

Who would have thought there'd be this huge open space up here?

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Halls of might

And just when you thought the cathedral wasn't epic enough, there's a room like this. Multipurpose, presumably, though here you can see it's set up with tables.

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I'm standing in one of the massive fireplaces. I couldn't touch the walls with my arms outstretched. The shadow you see is the camera's lens. I hate using a flash, but since this was pitch black, I felt obliged.

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Heating challenge

The fireplace I was standing in (one of two, here), likely wasn't enough to fill all of this room with warmpth.

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Some of the huge columns that help keep the abbey rooted on the Mont.

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Remember the sled/ramp earlier the monks hauled supplies up (if not, the next slide will refresh your memory)?

This huge wheel is what they used.

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Ah, so that's how

Using the huge wheel, it would have been a LOT easier to haul up heavy stones.

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Seems like it would be a good workout for anyone in here.

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Stairs and stairs

It seemed like every room was on a slightly different level. Either that, or the whole place was designed by M.C. Escher.

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Seemingly just a hallway

This gorgeous area, windows and all, seemed just a hallway to get from one place to another.

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Knight's Hall

This is the appropriately named Knight's Hall, an incredible space of light and curves, and sadly, the last room on the tour of the abbey grounds.

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In June the sun doesn't set until after 10 p.m. This was one of the best spots to watch it from, and a half-dozen people quietly enjoyed the sight with me.

That would have been it, but I wanted to see sunrise too, and I'm glad I did, because I got the next picture...

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Worth it

After just a few hours of sleep, I trekked out onto the mud one more time. Clouds had come in overnight, and obscured the sun as it rose over the horizon.

As I took a few last pictures of Mont Saint-Michel anyway, rain started to fall and a rainbow formed before my eyes. and then the traces of another right above it.

An incredible end to a magical few days.

Check out the rest of the story at A Tour of Mont Saint-Michel.

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