Senanque with lavender fieldsIn its remote secret valley of lavender fields outside the village of Gordes, the mediaeval Cistercian Abbey of Sénanque is one of the most instantly recognisable icons of Provence.

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Many visitors are content just to pause and admire its soft grey stone and pure, graceful contours from the road that winds high above the abbey or even from the car-park.

But the Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque - to give it its full name - is also a working monastery with a rich history and magnificent architecture. We took a guided tour to see what's inside.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

The Cistercians started life in Cîteaux in Burgundy in the early 12th century as a splinter group from the Benedictine order, which the founders thought had become too wealthy and worldly.

Senanque from the airBy the Middle Ages there were over 700 Cistercian monasteries across Europe, always in remote spots.

Sénanque is one of only three such abbeys in Provence, the others being Thoronet and Silvacane. They're sometimes called the "three provençal sisters".

Sénanque was established on the Sénancole river in 1148 and took a century to build. At first it prospered, perhaps a little too much, given its ideals of austerity. Certainly the local Vaudois (Waldensians) thought as much, and laid waste to the abbey during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century.

After that, like many churches in France, its fortunes fluctuated hugely. It was sold off after the French Revolution then eventually reacquired by Lérins, a Cistercian abbey based on an island off the coast of Cannes.

Monks returned and left again and in 1969 Sénanque temporarily became a cultural centre: it was during this period that the lavender was planted.

The current small community (just six monks as of 2016) has lived there since 1988. Their Abbot is based in Lérins and today Sénanque is technically a priory rather than a full-fledged abbey.

HOW TO VISIT THE ABBAYE DE SÉNANQUE

You can attend some services in the church, go in for silent private prayer at certain times or visit the public areas of the abbey independently in the morning (9.45-11am, except Sundays: arrive early as numbers are limited).

Senanque cloisterThe Abbaye also runs week-long spiritual retreats. Details from the Frère Hôtelier, Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, 84220 Gordes France. Pictured: the cloister.

Other than that, your only option is a guided tour. You can do this in one of two ways: either with a commercial tour group (which must itself make a reservation in advance) or, if you are travelling alone, on one of the abbey's own tours.

This lasts an hour and - strangely, given the popularity of Sénanque with foreign visitors - is offered in French only. There are no multilingual audioguides.

Leaflets are available in English and other languages to help you through, but these focus rather narrowly on the abbey's architectural features. Though the building is extraordinary, it's the detail and stories which really bring the place alive.

If your guide is anything like ours, he or she will be fascinating and informative - and will talk at top speed. The booming acoustics of the vast rooms can make the explanations hard to hear, especially as these official tours take up to 50 people. Therefore fluent French is desirable if you want to make the most of the visit.

The groups are likely to be fairly full, as there aren't many tours (these have to fit around the monks' intensive prayer schedule of seven sessions a day).

Senaque bell tower with lavender fieldsYou are advised to make a booking well ahead, either online, by mail, email or telephone on the cumbersome - and French language-only - page of the abbey's website.

The abbey strives to preserve the peace and privacy of its monks (who stay discreetly out of sight) and imposes a series of stern requirements.

Visitors should come dressed appropriately: no shorts, low-cut T-shirts, singlets or skimpy cycling gear.

Parents with young children are asked to stop them from running around and making too much noise.

Note, too, that the visitors' toilets are in the gift shop and can only be accessed before or after the tour. Dogs must remain outside.

The tour goes up and down steps at several points and isn't suitable for wheelchairs, though there are disabled parking spaces if you want to see the abbey from the outside.

The abbey has no frescos or paintings that might be damaged by a flash, but it was still a pleasant surprise that photography is permitted.

 

 

THE GUIDED TOUR

It sounds from all this that the monastery is deliberately making it difficult for tourists, and to be honest, there's an element of truth in this. The abbey needs the income, of course, but the monks also need their peace and quiet. So is the visit worth it?

We'd say: definitely. It's hard not to be impressed and moved by the atmosphere of this serene, mystical and very lovely building, despite the crowds. Five areas of the abbey are visited on the tour.

The first stop is the monks' dormitory, which is above and next to the church, to enable them to shuttle there quickly for the constant prayer sessions.

With a very high vaulted ceiling, it's unheated, enormous and echoing, to discourage chatting. Around 30 monks slept there on straw mattresses until they were allowed the relative luxury of individual cells. Steps lead down to the church which, remarkably, has no grandiose main entrance, in line with the Cistercians' emphasis on humility.

Like all else here, it's unadorned: its beauty lies in the perfect, Golden Mean proportions - which mediaeval builders achieved using a system based on feet, hand-spans and other body measurements.

Your guide may also tell you how professional masons worked alongside the monks and point out the "bandages" in the ceiling put in place to keep an eye of the cracks opened up by an earthquake in the early 20th century. The altar faces north instead of, as conventional, east because of the lie of the land.

Passing through the cloister at the heart of the abbey, you get a good close view of the squat bell-tower before seeing the chauffoir, or warming room / calefactory, the only heated space in the building, where manuscripts were copied.

Senanque devilThe final stop is the salle du chapitre (chapter-house), where the monks came as close as it was possible for a Cistercian to get to socialising.

It was the only place where talking was permitted. On a pillar opposite the door, a tarasque (sculpted devil), pictured, keeps an eye on the proceedings.

Here new Abbots were voted in - and anyone who won unanimously was barred for life for pridefully voting for himself, a lesson politicians might learn from.

We were worried that the abbey's spiritual aura would be let down by a loud and vulgar gift shop.

In the event, it was huge but with a very wide-ranging collection of books on different aspects of religion and spirituality, including such issues as gay marriage, as well as architecture and Provence itself. They were mostly in French, though there was a handful in English and other languages.

You can also buy rosaries and religious statues, CDs and various lavender products, herbs, honeys and so on made at the abbey and other monasteries. Some items may also be purchased online at the Abbaye de Sénanque website.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

When to go:The Abbaye de Sénanque is closed to the public for a couple of weeks in early January.

The lavender (which is actually lavandin, a hybrid, not true lavender) is in bloom in midsummer. The exact weeks vary from year to year depending on the climate.

Fields are left fallow in rotation to allow the soil to rest, so the view you see may not be exactly the one on the postcards. You're asked not to wander through the lavender, let alone pick it.

How to get there: Take the D177 from Gordes. The Abbaye de Sénanque is about 5 km / 3 miles north-west of the village. This very narrow road is one-way all year round for larger vehicles and from mid-March to the end of September for all vehicles.

To return to Gordes, you have to drive around a loop: continue along the D177 towards Venasque, then turn right on to the D244 and D15: the return part of the journey is over twice as long: 11 km / 6.5 miles.

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The Grande Randonnée GR6 long-distance hiking footpath passes by the Abbaye de Sénanque. In the immediate area this section of footpath also leads to such nearby attractions as Rustrel and its "provençal Colorado", Roussillon and the ochre trail and Gordes. Buy a large-scale hiking map IGN 3142 of the Gordes area.

The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes more information about the Abbaye de Sénanque and other attractions in the area.

Photo credits (from top): © EmDee for Wikimedia Commons, Greudin for Wiki, RWS for Marvellous Provence, EmDee for Wiki, Greudin for Wiki.

 

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