Normandy's iconic sea fortress besieged by tourists

Mont Saint-Michel draws more than 3 million visitors a year

Mont Saint-Michel on France's Normandy coastline forms one of the country's most recognisable and beautiful images - a walled Benedictine abbey and surrounding buildings literally rising from the sea and built in A.D. 966. There's no denying that Mont Saint-Michel is stunning from afar, especially if your timing allows you to see it both encircled by water and surrounded by mud flats that resemble quicksand.

But for much of the year, the site is an unbelievable mob scene; more than 3 million visitors annually trek through narrow alleyways that were meant to serve some contemplative monks and medieval visitors to the church honouring the Archangel Michael. Pilgrims of the time called it "St. Michael in peril of the sea." Today, it's more like St. Michael in peril of selfie-taking tourists.

Under seige: Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is well on the beaten track. Photo / Artur Widak, Getty Images
Under seige: Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is well on the beaten track. Photo / Artur Widak, Getty Images

The combination of ancient walls and surrounding sea makes crowd control difficult. Visitors start in the vast inland parking area, and either hop a free shuttle bus (after waiting in line), or brave the chilly Atlantic winds as they walk the two-mile paved footbridge out to the island, which affords long-distance vistas. Then, they wait a bit longer to get into the abbey and cloisters at the peak of the hill.

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Pack a picnic, or shell out around $45 for La Mere Poulard's famous omelette, which is more like a soufflé. (Or stand in the window and watch the cooks whip them up in copper bowls and pour them into pans, free.)

Well signed secret: St Malo. Photo / Getty Images
Well signed secret: St Malo. Photo / Getty Images

Peak periods to avoid include the summer, weekends, French school holidays and the St. Michel Bay marathon at the end of May.

Location: On the Normandy coast, about a four-hour train ride from Paris.

Refuge in the restored Birttany keep

In Saint-Malo, a fraction of the tourists and room to roam

For a more relaxing seaside refuge, head west to Brittany. Beautiful Saint-Malo, about an hour by car from Mont Saint-Michel, is an ancient walled citadel with wide ramparts perfect for strolling. World War II Allied bombing destroyed much of the original city, but Saint-Malo has done an impressive job of restoration.

Devote time to wandering the narrow, cobblestone streets or looking down into this elegant and beautiful city from the ramparts.

It never feels crowded: Saint-Malo and surrounding towns in Brittany host about 550,000 tourists a year, the Saint-Malo tourism office says.

The impressive walled city of Saint-Malo from Dinard. Photo / Getty Images
The impressive walled city of Saint-Malo from Dinard. Photo / Getty Images

For fans of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "All the Light We Cannot See," Saint-Malo is a literary pilgrimage site. You can imagine how the blind Marie-Laure memorised the winding cobblestones streets "intra muros" - inside the walls. Today, bikini-clad sunbathers lounge on the rocks just below those walls. At Bon Secours beach, a natural pool with a couple of diving platforms beckons anyone brave enough to face the chilly English Channel water.

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The streets are filled with historical sites, such as the birthplaces of the writer François-René de Chateaubriand, the founder of Romanticism, and of Canadian explorer Jacques Cartier. It's also the city of corsairs, the privateers who would cache their treasures in the city's deep cellars.

The ramparts of Saint Malo and the National Fort guarded by 'une mouette'. Photo / Getty Images
The ramparts of Saint Malo and the National Fort guarded by 'une mouette'. Photo / Getty Images

These days, Saint-Malo is a foodie town. Try out the Brittany specialities, such as galettes (savoury crepes); one nice spot just inside the Porte de Dinan is Le Mole. For a top-notch dining experience go to Le Cambusier, named for the crew member on a boat in charge of food and drink. A fish-intensive menu might include mackerel, cod or ceviche (about $47 for three courses; $36 for two courses). And don't forget to sample the local apple-based drinks: a brandy called calvados and a hard cider that is often served in a wide ceramic cup.

Location: On the Brittany coast, about a three-hour train ride from Paris.