If it’s peace and tranquility or a bit of interesting history you’re after, you should visit one of Provence’s three iconic 12th century Cistercian abbeys – Sénanque, Le Thoronet and Silvacane.
At the end of the 11th century, monks ruled as lords from more than 1,200 abbeys in Europe, handing out their own justice and accumulating outrageous wealth while leaving the working of the land to the poor, faithful peasants. Then, while warring orders like the Templars were developing, others once again turned to vows of poverty and humility.
In Provence, this new Cistercian order founded three abbeys, later dubbed the ‘three Provençal sisters’: Le Thoronet near le Luc, Notre-Dam de Sénanque near Gordes (pictured above), and Silvacane at la Roque d’Anthéron.
For setting up the abbeys, founder St Bernard of Clairvaux advocated sites favorable to both meditation and human occupation. Harmony and simplicity led the monks to use local rock and stone for their buildings, revealing local geology of tufa grey, yellow marl, and pink bauxite.
Interestingly, Cistercian abbeys all followed the same basic floor plan. They were the first to consciously practice ‘form follows function’ architecture, a simple, functional design, stripped of any ornamentation that would take the mind away from prayer: gothic arches, simple openings instead of stained-glass windows, and excellent acoustics – an echo averaging ten seconds.
The monks’ days were long, divided between prayer and working the fields side-by-side with the laypeople. Meals were taken in the common refectory: meagre dishes accompanied by a little bead and wine.
Unlike other brotherhoods, the Cistercian abbeys had no defence, as their poverty would have discouraged pillagers. Their philosophy was to avoid excess in any form and practice poverty, simplicity and seclusion (the abbeys are still quite hard to find!).
Each abbey was essentially a farming estate, with orchards, stables and fields that were worked by lay brothers and hired workers. However, as their farms grew, so did their wealth and ambition. The Cistercians, now bishops and popes, became very successful at running their agrarian estates and went from self-sufficient to prosperous to downright decadent. By the 14th century they’d became just as disreputable as other orders and discipline slackened.
In Le Thoronet, gourmet monks enjoyed feasts of game and fine fruit. Inevitably, bands of Vaudois pillaged, sacked and burnt a part of the Sénanque abbey, while Benedictines of the arrogant abbey of Montmajour besieged Silvacane, killing some monks and driving out the rest. Only the abbey of Le Thoronet, which remains the most interesting of the three, came out more or less unscathed.
Sénanque is once again a working monastery; monks re-settled here in 1988. You can visit – take a guided tour in French or there’s a gift shop selling books, lavender and honey products from the abbey. Visit Sénanque in summer when the lavender is in bloom; go early to beat the crowds.