I mean an honest-to-goodness, medieval castle that looks like it would be the perfect home for Harry and co. I’m talking about Mont Saint Michel, a castle off the coast of Lower Normandy in northern France. When you think of Hogwarts, you might as well think of Mont Saint Michel.
To be clear, getting to Mont Saint Michel from Paris can get a little complicated. If you rent a car, it’s probably the cheapest and easiest option, and if you get an early enough start and don’t mind returning to Paris late, a day trip is a doable – if tiring – option. For my Paris-dwelling friend and me, though, trains were the way to go. There are a few options, but we chose to go from the Gare Montparnasse station in Paris to Rennes, and then change over to another train until Pontorson, a tiny town near the castle. There are buses to MSM from Pontorson, but we chose to walk instead.
Walking to MSM meant that we didn’t have to work our schedule around bus timings, so we grabbed lunch in Pontorson. I love France…so by default I love French food. Crusty bread, more kinds of cheese than I could dream of, and pastries that make me swoon? Sign me up. In Pontorson, I got my first taste of aligot, the heavenly offspring of mashed potatoes and melted cheese (usually Tomme de Laguiole, but sometimes mozzarella or cantal). Between the cheese, potatoes, butter, and cream, it will have your tastebuds singing and your cholesterol weeping. The thing that sets aligot apart is its smooth, elastic texture; you know you’ve got good aligot when you can stretch a forkful away from the plate without the string breaking. Spread on a slice of baguette, it is carbohydrate heaven. If you go to France, for the love of Eric Ripert and Julia Child, eat aligot.
I also got to try kouign-amann, a Breton pastry specialty that’s basically a crusty cake with layers of butter and sugar folded in. My sweet tooth and I could write a love letter to this beauty…when it bakes, the butter puffs up the pastry and the sugar caramelizes into a perfectly sweet outer crust that banishes every thought of dieting from your mind. Its interior is flaky and buttery, a perfect complement to the sweet crunch of the caramelized sugar crust. Basically, it’s the stately grandfather of the cronut.
Eventually, we did finally make it to MSM, which sits on a tiny island connected only by a thin road to the mainland. MSM has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, and the abbey is the most famous structure on site. It rises out of the sea during high tide, and no matter the time of day, your eyes are drawn to it. You can’t help it. Once you’re on the island, winding alleys and steep staircases twist and turn as they lead up to the entrance.
Another note about MSM: it’s not really a budget location. The food on the island is ridiculously expensive, especially when you consider that most of the fare consists of crepes, galettes, and omelettes. Same goes for the drinks, especially alcoholic ones. There are the usual gamut of souvenir shops, as well. And unless you’re made of money, forget about staying on the castle’s island; accommodations are cramped and rather expensive. You’re much better off staying on the mainland and taking the three-minute free shuttle bus to the castle.
In the Benedictine abbey itself, it’s difficult to say what’s more impressive: the gorgeous architecture or the expansive views of the surrounding sea and flats. The beauty of MSM is a heady mix of man-made and natural, architectural and atmospheric. Entrance to the abbey will run you about nine euros, but it’s well worth it.
After my friend and I had wound our way through the abbey, we snagged a spot in one of the alcoves looking out to sea to watch the tide come in. This might sound a bit boring, but the rising tide around Mont Saint Michel is one of the fastest in the world. So fast, in fact, that helicopters circle the island as the tide is coming in to ensure that no one is still traipsing around on the surrounding flats.
MSM has its fair share of small walled gardens that look out towards sea, and we eventually relocated to one of them for dinner. Another thing I love about France: stop at a bakery, buy a loaf of bread; walk a bit; stop at a supermarket, buy a bottle of wine, a few different cheeses, and an apple or two. Dinner is served!
It was while we were lounging with our cheese, bread, and wine that we discovered just how significant of a change that the tide around MSM made. I walked over to the garden wall overlooking the base of the island, which included the gate through which we had entered. Our following conversation basically went like this:
Me: “Remember that bridge we crossed to get here?”
Me: “It’s not there anymore.”
The rise of the tide is so major that the footbridge gets covered by about a foot or so of water, which leads to loads of tourists carrying their shoes with their pants rolled up around their knees wading across to the mainland. Obviously there’s another gate (that I assume) doesn’t get flooded during high tide to ensure there’s a way to get on/off MSM in case of emergency, but it was definitely a surprising moment to see that our path had basically disappeared.
That resulted in a spontaneously lengthened stay of a few hours, but when you get to spend them with a glass of wine in a garden at Hogwarts? It’s not exactly the worst thing in the world.