Magnificent Mont-St.-Michel rises out of a bay, an abbey perched on a pinnacle of rock. Dramatically silhouetted against the sky of Normandy, it is one of Europe's greatest religious edifices.

The granite outcrop lies several hundred yards offshore. Depending on the positions of the moon and sun, the difference in sea level between low and high tide here can be an astonishing 45 feet.

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Mont-St.-Michel experiences the highest tide differential on the European continent.
©Corbis
Mont-St.-Michel experiences the highest
tide differential on the European continent.
See more pictures of famous landmarks.

When the tide is out, the Mont is surrounded by a sandy expanse that extends for miles. But when the tide shifts, roughly six hours later, the incoming water rushes across the flat floor of the bay at the speed, according to legend, of a galloping horse. (Actually, the pace is closer to that of a person walking quickly.)

Unwary visitors have been caught by the racing seawater or trapped in perilous patches of quicksand -- the same hazards that once endangered medieval pilgrims coming to the abbey.

In the eighth century, construction began here after Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, beheld a vision of the Archangel Michael that inspired him to build a devotional chapel. Three centuries later began the improbable feat of building an abbey on the 264-foot-high summit of rock, a labor that lasted half a millennium.

The abbey housed increasingly powerful Benedictine monks and, having just one opening in the ramparts, has been described as an ecclesiastical fortress. Mont-St.-Michel was the only place in this region of France to withstand English assault during the Hundred Years' War.

The monastic buildings, known as La Merveille ("The Wonder"), include the abbey church, a winning hodgepodge of architecture with a Romanesque nave and a choir of Flamboyant Gothic style. It is topped with a gilded figure of the Archangel Michael. Exquisitely carved arches set on pink granite columns line the cloister.

How did the stones needed to build this amazing abbey get here? They were brought from nearby quarries in boats, then hauled up the steep slope by ropes and sheer human strength. The mighty labor took centuries -- and paid off beautifully.

Here are links to dozens of other world-famous landmarks:

Abu Simbel, EgyptEiffel Tower, FranceThe Leaning Tower of Pisa, ItalyRoman and Georgian Bath, England
The Alhambra, SpainEllora Caves, IndiaMachu Picchu, PeruSt. Mark’s Basilica, Italy
Angkor Wat, CambodiaThe Forbidden City, ChinaMont-St.-Michel, FranceSt. Paul’s Cathedral, England
Arc de Triomphe, FranceThe Golden Pavilion, JapanNeuschwanstein Castle, GermanySt. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, Italy
Borobudur, IndonesiaThe Great Buddha, JapanPalace of Versailles, FranceShwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Chartres Cathedral, FranceThe Great Wall of China, ChinaThe Pantheon, ItalyStonehenge, England
Christ the Redeemer Statue, BrazilGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao, SpainThe Parthenon and the Acropolis, GreeceSydney Opera House, Australia
CN Tower, CanadaHagia Sophia, TurkeyPetra, JordanThe Taj Mahal, India
The Colosseum, ItalyHouses of Parliament, EnglandPompeii, ItalyThe Temple at Karnak, Egypt
The Dome of the Rock, IsraelThe Kaaba and Al-Haram Mosque, Saudi ArabiaPotala Palace, ChinaThe Terra-cotta Army, China
Easter Island Statues, ChileKrak des Chevaliers, SyriaThe Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx, Egypt
Edinburgh Castle, ScotlandThe Kremlin and Red Square, RussiaPyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, Mexico


To learn more about other landmarks and vacation destinations, see:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jerry Camarillo Dunn Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.