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Mont St Michel France French Holidays

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On your way from Cherbourg to Mont St Michel, stop off in Coutances to see the exceptional 13th century Gothic Cathédral de Coutances that so inspired Victor Hugo, then walk off your lunch with a stroll around the 19th century landscaped Jardin des Plantes. Or, if you are heading east, drop in on Barfleur, a pleasant port that, although it has seen better days, retains a number of charming hotels and restaurants, such as Le Moderne at 1 place de Gaulle (02 33 23 12 44).

Further towards Mont St Michel is Granville, Normandy's answer to Brittany's St Malo, with its history of piracy and citadel. The citadel holds less interest than the one in St Malo, although there are stunning views of Mont St Michel and the coastline. Also, the town is overrun with tourists in the summer, making it uncomfortably crowded.

Avranches is the town with the closest connections to Mont St Michel. Apparently, back in the 8th century, the Archangel Michael prompted Aubert, a bishop of Avranches, to establish the church on the Mont and then poked a hole in the bishop's skull when he was slow to make progress. The skull can still be seen in the St Gervais basilica at Avranches. There is a good hotel and restaurant, the Croix d'Or, at 83 rue de la Constitution (02 33 58 04 88) with lovely gardens and rooms from €40 55.

The church on the Mont is a mix of Gothic and Romanesque fortified buildings perched on a rocky outcrop where around forty Benedictine monks lived and worked from 966 until 1789, when revolutionaries made it into a prison. On its thousandth birthday, the abbey was returned to the Benedictine order, and a dozen monks and nuns hold fort there today.

When visiting the island you can park on the causeway or sands below for €3, although parking on the mainland and walking is a good option in summer. Entrance to the abbey costs €7 and includes multilingual guided tours that last 45 minutes. Your efforts are well rewarded when you witness the architectural genius of the buildings, which prompted Maupassant to describe the abbey as "delicate as a piece of lacework". The cloisters and grand hall are particularly awesome, with light playing as much a part as the stonework itself.

Pilgrims are parted from their silver on the way up to the abbey as they pass through streets full of the usual overpriced souvenir shops, and restaurants are notoriously bad here. There are several decent hotels, however. The most expensive is La Mère Poulard (02 33 89 68 68) with rooms from €85 100 that have previously welcomed Thatcher and Trotsky at various times. More reasonable is the Mouton Blanc (02 33 60 14 08) with good rooms from €55 70.