The fortified island-village of Mont St-Michel ranks among the wonders of the Western world, drawing more than 3 million visitors a year—second in France only to the Eiffel Tower. The ancient abbey and town, on the
summit of a dramatic granite outcropping rising from a flat seabed, are a marvel of engineering and sheer audacity. Originally the site of a small oratory, built
in 708 after a bishop reported a sighting of St. Michael, over several centuries the island became a complex of churches, Benedictine monasteries, ramparts, and a village. Once a pilgrimage site, an unassailable fortification, even a prison after the French Revolution, it now stands as a tribute to French medieval architecture.
Much has been made of the dangerous “galloping” tides—the highest in Europe—which can rush in as high as 45 feet, then rush out again just as quickly (the highest tide occurs 36 to 48 hours after a full moon). Many medieval pilgrims lost their lives sinking into dangerous quicksand when picking their way across the bay; a half-mile-long causeway was finally built in 1879. Over the years, silt buildup has inexorably joined Mont St-Michel to the mainland; a new dam and an elevated bridge replacing the causeway let tides circulate naturally and will return the monument to its true island state by 2015.