Over 1,300 hundred years ago in 709 BC, in the center of an immense bay invaded by the highest tides in Europe, a small church was built atop a great rocky outcrop reachable only at low tide. Named for the saint who ordered its construction, Mont Saint Michel became, during centuries of pilgrimage and erection of ever-larger churches, one of the world's most unique places of worship.
A village grew up at its base during the Middle Ages. Surviving a 30-year siege during the 100 Years War, the Mont eventually became a site of pilgrimage for tourists (now 3,000,000 annually), emboldened by tales of pilgrims drowned in the rush of its enormous tides, rising, as described by Victor Hugo "as swiftly as a galloping horse." The pinnacle of its famed 11th to 13th century Benedictine abbey stood as a beacon for the faithful willing to hazard the tides.
But today the nature of those tides has diminished. No longer a threat, the sea only timidly approaches the Mont, failing to reach it walls or the parking lot that stretches seaward. Plants and pasture populate much of the former tide-covered bay bottom. Human intervention has unintentionally destroyed the one thing that made Mont St.-Michel different from every other site of pilgrimage - it's challenging inaccessibility.
For decades, this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage site (since 1979) has been in danger of becoming landlocked and its lively eco-system threatened. This is due to an accumulation of human intervention over the past 130 years: land-reclamation projects, an ill-advised dam on the Couesnon River, a causeway-dike that prevented the river and tides from circling the mount, and the 37-acre parking lot at the foot of the island.
Because of this, sediments have accumulated and the sea receded, despite the incredible amplitudes of the tides (up to 49 feet from low to high tides).
Evaluation of different projects to remedy the situation, as well as ecological and sustainability studies, were started in 1995 and work began 10 years later. Now extensive plans to restore Mont-St-Michel to its maritime high-tide setting are well underway.
Step one was the full completion in early 2011 of the new state-of-the-art dam on the Couesnon river (a captivating visit in itself) to use the power of the river and the tides to clear the Couesnon river channel and return water to the Moidrey cove. In the next 10 years, tides and the river will fully flush away the sediments that now fill the Mont-St-Michel Bay.
Step two will be the opening of a new parking and visitor center near the dam, but a mile and half away from the Mont, from which visitors will be able to access the site either on foot, by shuttle bus or horse-drawn carriage.
The last step will be in 2014 with the completion of a new specially designed causeway road, with at its end a foot bridge to the island, which will allow the tides and waters to move freely around the mount - and perhaps over the bridge - once again.
And then finally Mont-St-Michel will rise again from the waters.
For more information on the project to restore Mont-St-Michel to the sea, see Restoring Mont St-Michel