Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Trip Report: Mont Saint-Michel from Paris

Several weeks ago my partner organised a secret weekend for us to Mont Saint-Michel (MSM). The Mont is somewhere we have wanted to get to since we moved to France, however it can be a little difficult to get to from Paris by public transport.

We made a weekend of it (two nights away) although you could probably do it in less.

We left Paris, from Gare Montparnasse, on Friday evening. The train ride from Paris is about 3 hours to a small town called Folligny. Folligny is a small town in the middle of nowhere, with little to see and do, but thankfully the connecting train didn’t take too long to come through.

The closest town to MSM which has a train line associated with it is Pontorson. We arrived there in the evening and stayed at a great Bed and Breakfast called Le Belle de Mai. The rooms are clean and well decorated and the proprietor is very friendly, but the highlight was definitely the breakfast. One of the best breakfasts I have had in Europe. Fresh breads, pasties, hams, local cheeses, cereals, fresh fruit, confiture, etc.

Pontorson is 9KM from MSM. There are a number of places in town that rent bikes at reasonable rates. The one we chose was the Pontorson camp site. They have good 18 speed bikes available. The camp site backs on to the river and there is a path beside the river on which you can bike down to MSM completely avoiding the roads. The bike ride is a flat, easy 9K with great views along the river and of some of the small towns closer to MSM. If you don’t want to bike there are buses and taxis from Pontorson down to MSM.

There is a parking area before you reach the causeway to MSM where all cars need to park and where you can catch the free bus over to MSM (although it is an easy walk as well). There are places here to park your bike as well.

We walked over to MSM rather than take the bus. There is a main entrance to MSM which is easy to find, although at high tide the water can cover this entrance meaning you need to use the less easy to find side door. It is on your right as you walk onto the wooden walkway for the main entrance. It isn’t always open, but it appears to be unlocked.

Inside MSM there are a number of routes you can take, although they pretty much all lead to the abbey, which is the focus of the island. Most people walk up the main road/path which is steep and filled with shops and restaurants on both sides. If you take a side road to your right and climb the stairs you end up on the ramparts which have a nice view over the bay as you climb around. This route is generally less busy and has more stairs. If you take a left turn you can climb up through the cemetery and through the backroads. This route has the least people of any of the three, however there is a lot less to see.

However you climb up through the Mont (and it is a reasonably steep climb) all roads lead to the abbey at the top.

The three roads mentioned lead to the forecourt of the abbey. From here it is a steep set of stairs up to the ticket counter. There are a number of options available at the ticket counter. General entry, Simple Tour (offered in multiple languages), full tour (offered only in French). We took the full tour, although we are not fluent in French we spoke enough to take in what was being said in general terms. The advantage of the full tour is that you get to see rooms not available on the other tours, but it does take 2 hours. There is also an audio guide option.

The MSM abbey is effectively several layers of buildings, built on top of each other, to give the end result that is the abbey today. All the tours start at the top, in the main church, and move through the various eating and entertaining halls. The full tour shows you some of the smaller chapels, including the original 13th century chapel, inside the abbey complex.

Once we had finished the tour we took lunch at one of the restaurants on Mont-Saint-Michel. Our experience was that many of these are very touristy, more expensive than on the mainland and that, at least in the restaurant we went to, the food was adequate but nothing to write home about. After lunch we explored the rest of the island. There is another church to visit, and some small streets to walk around, but by early afternoon we had done much of what there was to see on MSM (and this included a nap).

Given we had the bikes, we took the opportunity to bike through the countryside. There is a bike map available from the Pontorson tourist office and may also be available from a hotel (we got ours from our B&B) which has some marked trails. They aren’t especially well marked on the roads, but the trails take you through a number of small French villages and give you some different views of MSM. We biked out to the German War Cemetery at Huisnes-sur-Mer which was a sobering experience (although be warned, they close around 5pm). Biking around this part of Normandy is reasonably easy. We don’t usually bike and are only moderately fit and found it relatively easy going (with the exception of the hill into Huisnes-sur-Mer).

As it became evening we biked back to MSM to watch the sun go down. On the rampart section of MSM (on your right as you go into the main part of MSM) there are a number of bars and restaurants with views over the bay. Some have better views than others. It is a great opportunity to take a small diner. We took a cheese plate and a plate of sliced meats which we then followed up with dessert. As the sun set on the opposite side of MSM we could watch the shadow of the abbey as it grew. We also got the opportunity to watch the tide come in. The tide at MSM is one of the fastest and strongest in Europe. It is literally like a tsunami coming in. It is fast and high. The ground around the base of MSM goes from mud to covered in water in about 10 minutes. If you get the chance to watch it, it is worthwhile.

We then caught the bus back and picked up our bikes from the bike park. It is worth noting that there is quite a lot of construction going on at MSM at the moment as they remove the old carpark (right by the entrance to the city) and build a new access way. They are attempting to make it more similar to how it used to be before the carpark at the entrance which will be a very nice change as the existing car park is not a nice addition (and also gets covered with water at high tide –hence it is no longer in active use).

We chose to stay at Pontorson for a second night in order to maximize our day at MSM. It would be possible to take a train back to Paris in the evening.

We had to be back in Paris on Sunday afternoon so we caught an early train out. We took a routing through Caen where we had about an hour between trains so we explored the castle of William the Conqueror who had his base in Caen, although there are other things to see there as well. If you are doing a tour of Normandy, Caen has a great WWII/D-day museum called the Caen Memorial Centre for History and Peace. It is an excellent museum which could easily take a day in itself. We spent a half day there previously and in the morning took their D-Day beaches tour, which was through, informative and excellent value. It would be possible to do Caen and MSM over 2 days before heading back to Paris.     

Photos and specific itinerary information is available at:

Currently working behind the scenes

Just to let you know that I am currently working behind the scenes on this website to improve the search engine optimisation and ensure all the basics are right.

Once I have this fixed I will focus on adding new content.

In the works are the following:
1. A series of blog posts on the different train stations around Paris, how to get to them and what to be aware of;
2. A new section on places a little further afield;
3. A section on how to access and use the trains, RER, and Metro
4. A number of new destinations profiled. These include: Mont-Saint-Michel, D-Day Beaches, Vaux le Vicomte, Provins, Auxerre, Angers among others.

Train Tip: What's the difference between the TGV and the iDTGV

Sometimes, especially when you are looking at the longer train journeys (down to the south of France for example) you will be given two train options. The TGV and the iDTGV. They go at the same time, and the iDTGV is normally cheaper.

What's the difference between the two?

Essentially.........nothing - except the iDTGV is cheaper than the normal TGV.

The iDTGV is essentially SNCF (the French train company's) low cost alternative. The main difference is that everything is done online. You need to book your ticket online, print your ticket online, and bring it to the train station. With the normal TGV you can print your ticket at the train station and make changes up until the train leaves at the train station.

The second difference with the iDTGV is that you need to 'check-in' before you board the train. With the normal TGV you arrive at the station, find your seat and at some stage in the voyage the conductor will come through the train to check tickets. With the iDTGV this is done on the platform before you are able to board the train. In practice this also means that you need to be at the station 15 minutes earlier, as they close the check-in about 5 minutes before the train leaves. Note: You are required to carry photographic ID for the iDTGV (technically also for the TGV), although no one has ever checked mine. But you should ensure you have an ID card or, preferably for non-French nationals, a passport.

The final major difference is that iDTGV is divided into two types of 'zone' or carriages: 'ZAP' and 'ZEN'. Zap zones are for normal conversations, playing games, watching movies etc (in fact you can rent movies and DVD players on the train). The Zen zone is for peace, quiet, and resting. You choose your zone when you book your tickets.

There are a couple of minor differences as well. The iDTGV, in my experience so far, has electric outlets at most of the seats, so you can plug in your computer or charge your phone. This is generally only found in first class on the regular TGV. Also, the food options on the iDTGV are different than those in the TGV - but not in any serious way. But the upside is that in the ZAP class, at some stage during the trip (at least on the Paris-Provence train) the food carriage comes through the train. This doesn't happen on the regular TGV.

Other than this (and perhaps, depending on the train you catch, slightly older decor), there is no difference. In fact, the iDTGV is actually physically connected to the normal TGV. You will find that when you book there will be an iDTGV train listed at the same time as a normal TGV. They will have different train numbers, but this is for administrative purposes only as while the iDTGV has its own engine, it is connected to the TGV running the same route. They leave and arrive together.

So to sum up. The key differences are
1. It's cheaper
2. It's all done online
3. It has different types of zones
4. You get a little better service (if you want power at the seat)

So if you have access to a computer and a printer (no they don't do mobile ticketing yet) the iDTGV can save you some money on your get away.

You can find out more about the iDTGV and book tickets on the official iDTGV website (most of it is in English).

You can also book tickets, and compare prices with the regular TGV, on the normal SNCF booking website (in French, but reasonably straight forward).