When is the best day of the year to visit a Unesco World Heritage Site with a family? December 25th! Because that’s when you beat the crowds…
So if you have no obligations around Christmas, why not head over to beautiful Mont Saint Michel at the tip of Brittany (or Normandy, depending on whom you speak to, an old debate in France). Any child into knights and dragons and princesses and dungeons would be excited by this getaway.
We headed there last year just after a christmas lunch in Paris, I was 6 months pregnant back then. It was a 4hours easy drive (all highway) and we stayed in a wonderful place called Chateau La Ballue, a castle from the 17th century just 20km from Mont Saint Michel (ps: a GPS is a must). Needless to say we were alone and had the best room. La Ballue is very famous for its perfectly manicured gardens (including a labyrinth and an open air theater) which are open to non-guests as well. Breakfast was to die for, freshly baked croissants, all sorts of local cheeses and homemade jams. It’s the perfect place to stay with a family because you can have adjoining rooms with shared bathroom and you’re just a quick drive away from Mont St Michel, through the atmospheric countryside. It’s spacious and although it’s “chateau life”, it does not feel precious and uptight at all (Ceki managed to break the window in our bedroom because it was too frosted when he tried to open it! The owners took it easy, they had bought the place from a state of abandon, and were used to problems).
Back to the purpose of the trip, Abbaye du Mont Saint Michel. Believe it or not, as a French in my 30’s, I had never visited this most touristy spot in France. And one of the most beautiful. It’s a full day visit because there is not only the abbey and the guided tours explaining how Benedictine monk life was, what the site went through over the centuries etc, but there are also plenty of small museums. One on the maritime and ecology to understand the tides, the bay and why the island is slowly becoming part of mainland. One on the history of the area with life in prisons and dungeons. Check out here for details. It’s worth getting a ticket that gives you access to all the sites, rather than buying them individually.
The visit involves a lot of walking up and down on cobbled-stone alleys (or carrying a stroller! so don’t forget your babybjorn). The sound of the blowing wind and the crispness of winter definitely consume a lot of energy, but it’s such a healthy feeling to come home to Chateau La Ballue and seat in front of the fireplace, with lots of medieval stories to share. They don’t serve dinner but can recommend & reserve plenty of places for you nearby.
Don’t bother eating at La Mere Poulard inside the Mont Saint Michel as it’s quite cheezy and a scam, or go there if you want to have the most expensive omelet of your life (Eur40) – that’s what it is famous for.
To get to the region, you could also take the TGV to Saint Malo (3.3hrs from Paris). It is a very pretty old town with a fortress, on the coast and about 20min drive from Mont Saint Michel via an incredibly beautiful road going along the bay. You will eat delicious crepes (butter and sugar please) and oysters (not for me thank you).
The whole region and the Abbaye du Mont Saint Michel are about medieval times, very old churches and ancient rituals. So there are plenty of stories to bring back. My son’s favorite is le Chevalier, La Princesse et le Dragon from Orianne Lallemand with beautiful illustrations from M Clavelet, but it’s only in French. I’d love to know what is your child’s favorite one in English.