Go North, Young Man.
Our first destination was an island monastery called Mont Saint Michel. From Nantes it was a short, two-and-a-half hour drive. We made it in three. But we made it in one piece and with no tickets, police intervention or trips to the hospital so I think what speed we sacrificed was well worth it.
Mont St. Michel can trace its roots back to 708. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, said he saw Michael, the Archangel, in a vision. Michael commanded Aubert to leave Avranches and built a sanctuary in his honor on Mont Tombe, a tiny island just off the coast of Avranches. Now, if it were me, I'd be a bit skeptical about building anything on a tiny, rocky, coastal island - especially if I came from a town that bore a name suspiciously close to "avalanche." Aubert had some doubts, too, since it took the Angel several admonitions and finally burning a hole in Aubert's head before Aubert finally began construction.
In order to boost the local economy (I mean, increase the spirituality of the sanctuary), Aubert had several of his followers make a trip to Italy to find a certain grotto (holy cave) where Michael was already being worshiped. Aubert instructed the pilgrims to "obtain" a piece of the rock in the Italian grotto upon which Michael was said to have alighted and to get a piece of Michael's holy, golden mantle (which I guess Michael left behind). No one told me how the followers were able to get them but they returned with the relics and enshrined them at Mont St Michel (MSM). By the end of the 10th century MSM had become a popular pilgrimage sight and an order of Benedictine monks settled there.
A village grew up around the monastery on the island to support the vast numbers of pilgrims visiting the site. In 933 William, Duke of Normandy, annexed the area. Financed by the Duke, the monastery enjoyed expensive and grand Norman architecture.
Speaking of architecture, this place was INCREDIBLE. Because the architects were severely limited by the pyramid-shaped top of the island, they literally had to wrap the buildings around the granite dome of rock. They built several innovative crypts under the monastery, whose arched ceilings served to support the massive structure above. Given the spatial challenges MSM is unlike any other monastery in the world and represents unique examples of both style and mathematical precision.
MSM withstood English sieges during the Hundred Years War, thanks largely to its military fortifications (quite necessary due to its strategic placement near the English Channel). Thus, MSM has become a national French icon, much like Masada has for Israel.
MSM lost much of its prestige following the French Revolution and in the 1800s it became a prison. After becoming an official historic monument in 1874 MSM underwent extensive restoration and is listed as a World Heritage Site. I guess the prisoners were transferred. Or released. Or guillotined. Not that it really matters - dirty criminals.