abbaye de silvacane1Set in a peaceful wooded area by the river on the edge of La Roque d'Anthéron, the lovely mediaeval Cistercian Abbaye de Silvacane is one of Provence's best kept secrets.

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The Cistercian order started life in Cîteaux in Burgundy in the early 12th century. It was a splinter group from the Benedictines, which the founders thought had become too wealthy and worldly.

By the Middle Ages there were over 700 Cistercian monasteries across Europe, always in remote and beautiful spots and often by water.

There are three in Provence, the other two being the Abbaye de Sénanque, near Gordes, and the Abbaye du Thoronet, between Draguignan and Brignoles. Collectively they're known as the "trois soeurs" ("three sisters").

The most famous, the Abbaye de Sénanque, has the huge bonus of being surrounded by lavender fields which have made it an iconic image of Provence, familiar from posters and postcards everywhere.

avenue silvacaneThe downside, from a tourist point of view, is that Sénanque is a working monastery and discourages visitors in order to preserve the brothers' privacy. The only way to see it is on a guided tour, and it's hard to avoid the crowds.

Silvacane, on the other hand, welcomes you with open arms, and you can either take a tour or explore it freely on your own.

Its tradition of hospitality dates back to the abbey's origins. Silvacane (the name means "forest of reeds") sits by a crossing point over the Durance river.

The result: a steady stream of pilgrims and traders seeking to spend the night at the monastery in the guests' annexe.

They would arrive at the abbey along an imposing avenue and its pond filled with fish and water lilies, pictured.

It's one of Silvacan's unusual features: most Cistercian abbeys, such as Sénanque, have discreet entrances in line with the order's belief in humility.

Like other Cistercian abbeys, Silvacane impresses you with the simple harmony of its design and the purity of its light. And it's large enough to swallow plenty of visitors and tour groups without seeming packed and noisy.

However there aren't any spectacular must-see sights inside the abbey and the explanatory plaques on the walls are in French only. So, if you want to do more than meditate and soak up the serene atmosphere, you're advised to go on a tour or to rent an audio guide (a self-guided visit takes between an hour and ninety minutes).

 

 

THE GUIDED TOUR

Carole Pauvarel, the Director of the Abbey showed us around. She explained that Silvacane is the youngest of the "three sisters" - actually more like a cousin to Sénanque and Thoronet, since it was founded in the mid twelfth century following a split in the Cistercian order's complex "family tree".

dormitory silvacaneThe architecture of the abbey is mainly Romanesque but displays the beginning of the transition from rounded arches to pointed Gothic ones.

It was a small community (22 monks and 17 "converts" , or lay monks) and initially prospered.

But from the 13th century onwards Silvacane fell prey to a series of disasters, from an attack by the rival, Benedictine order, to plagues, the Hundred Years' War, other invasions and the flooding of the Durance. The abbey was finally abandoned.

The buildings began to crumble. And, like many other abbeys and churches, Silvacane was sold off during the French Revolution and became a farm. It was bought by the French government in 1846, but restoration was a huge process and didn't begin in earnest until the late 20th century.

It's still underway. When we were there, in spring 2015, the great rose window over the altar, which dates back to the late twelfth century, was being removed.

It will be renovated, put on display in the abbey and replaced by an exact copy. The excavations are constantly yielding new discoveries, Madame Pauvarel said.

The tour, self-guided or otherwise, follows the traditional layout and rooms of a Cistercian abbey. As in the Abbaye de Sénanque, the dormitory, pictured above, is on an upper level.

silvacane cloisters lavaboMonks slept there on the floor on simple mattresses, ready to shuttle quickly into the main church for their constant prayer sessions. It's astonishingly huge when you consider how few monks lived there, even in the abbey's heyday.

In the cloisters is the lavoir, pictured, where monks washed and shaved their heads and beards.

There's a salle du chapitre (chapter room) where the monks would meet; a chauffoir - the abbey's only heated space - where they painstakingly copied manuscripts by hand; the large refectory, the last room to be completed at the end of the 13th century; and an unexpectedly tiny library.

Above this little space, and on the front facade, Silvacane once had turquoise and black ceramic decorations, called baccini and probably of North African origin or inspiration. It seems that the reclusive monks were open to other cultures and religions!

Fragments of polychrome decoration are visible elsewhere too. This too is unusual in a Cistercian abbey which is normally bare of ornament, so that the monks would concentrate on higher things.

Madame Pauvarel unlocked a door to show us a garden on the north side of the abbey. Surrounded by restanques (typical provençal drystone terraces), it was being planted and would shortly be opened to the public and used for open-air concerts and screenings.

One thing we really liked about the restoration is that it includes some bold decisions.

For example, when new windows were installed in the refectory in 2001, they weren't careful replicas of the originals but were commissioned from a contemporary artist, Sarkis Zabunyan.

isa barbier silvacaneHis design consists of thousands of fingerprints (those of Sarkis and members of his family) on translucent glass which bathes the room in a warm amber light.

He also created the crystal bar on the lectern and some very uncomfortable looking minimalist chairs.

The Abbaye de Silvacane stages a busy programme of cultural events between the spring and the early autumn, for which its pure architectural lines provide a perfect backdrop.

This includes temporary exhibitions: when we visited the abbey was hosting exquisite, ethereal installations of white feathers by Isa Barbier, pictured.

In summer there are choral recitals and concerts as part of the International Piano Festival of La Roque d'Anthéron, as well as open-air, live screenings of operas from the Aix Festival of Lyric Art.

Guided tours are offered every Sunday at 2.30pm from September to June and twice daily at 10.30am and 4pm in July and August.

The signage is in French only, but audioguides are available for a small extra charge in English and French: allow between an hour and 90 minutes to go round.

There's no snack bar, but you can get cold drinks at a vending machine: the aim is to encourage visitors to go into the centre of La Roque d'Anthéron, rather than to view the abbey and then move quickly on elsewhere.

However you'll find a little cluster of tables by the entrance and plenty of room in the grounds to sit with your own drinks or picnic. The gift and book shop is very well stocked.

Insider tip for the Abbaye de SilvacaneThere is an entrance fee to visit the Abbaye de Silvacane. Several key sights in the area have banded together to offer a tourist package: buy a full-price ticket to one of them and get an (unspecified) discount at all the others.

As well as Silvacane, they include the Château de Lourmarin, the Conservatoire des ocres in Roussillon and the Mines of Bruoux in Gargas.

HOW TO GET TO THE ABBAYE DE SILVACANE

Where: The Abbaye de Silvacane, D561,13640 La Roque d'Anthéron. Website for the Abbaye de Silvacane. The abbey is open all year round except for some public holidays.

By car: Silvacane is 1.4 km / 0.6 miles east of La Roque d'Anthéron. There is a tiny car-park at the entrance which can accommodate a dozen or so cars.

But carry on along the road out of La Roque for about two hundred metres and you'll find, off to the left, a much larger parking area, mainly for coaches.

As you drive in, there's a grassy space that can house a hundred or so cars. Note that, wherever you park, wheelchair access to the site is along an unmade track and tricky.

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By bus: Bus no.250 from Aix en Provence will take you right to the abbey. The journey time is about forty five minutes. Bus no.251 from Pertuis and Le Puy Sainte Reparade also goes to the abbey. It takes about twenty five minutes from Pertuis. Click here for the timetables (choose the relevant route number in the menu tab).

Photo credits (from top): © ABrocke for Wikimedia Commons, Afer92 for Flickr, Jacqueline Poggi for Flickr, Abbaye de Silvacane, SJ for Marvellous Provence.

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