The serene Abbaye Saint Hilaire, near Ménerbes, may not be as overrun with visitors as nearby Abbaye de Sénanque. But the remarkable architecture, setting and story behind it make this Carmelite abbey one of Vaucluse's best-kept secrets.
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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
The Carmelites originally lived in caves on Mount Carmel in Palestine. When unrest in the Holy Land forced them to flee in the 13th century, some of these hermits ended up in Provence, attracted, perhaps, by the rolling hills carpeted with vines and olive trees which reminded them of their homeland.
This land just outside Ménerbes, a steep slope overlooking the Luberon valley, was already a religious site when the hermits arrived there. They lived in caves at first then, when it was built, the abbey itself. A stone in the cloister marks the date of its construction: 1254.
It's a quirk of French culture that individual citizens own some of the country's major monuments (another example in the area is the Château d'Ansouis). And that's the case too with the Abbaye Saint Hilaire. After the French Revolution it fell into private hands and eventually became a farm for nearly a century.
Then in 1961 René and Anne Marie Bride, a couple from Reims in the Champagne region, bought it as a holiday home for their family of seven children. "Nobody else wanted it," their daughter, Anne, recalls today. "But they had a coup de coeur" (it was a case of love at first sight).
It's not difficult to see what had deterred potential buyers. Only part of the abbey had electricity and there was no running water (its supply came from a spring and a fountain in Lacoste).
The earthquake of 1909 - which caused widespread damage throughout the region - had left the Abbaye Saint Hilaire with cracks and subsidence. And the olive groves tended by the monk had been devastated by the bitter winter of 1956.
Not much remained of the monastic life. The previous owner had used the chapel as a barn, the refectory as a sheepfold and the kitchen as a stable.
The abbey had also been divided into two due to a split legacy (this is common in France due to the country's rigid inheritance laws). A wall ran down the middle of the chapter house and the cloister, which was full of rabbit hutches.
So it was all in a terrible state, and the restoration has been a true labour of love. The website for the Abbaye Saint Hilaire includes many old photographs of this titanic task, some with family members apparently helping out. Madame Bride's parents are buried in the chapel and her family retains its living quarters on the first floor.
The Abbaye Saint Hilaire was officially named a Monument Historique, or Historic Monument, in 1975, in part to protect the surrounding land against property developers.
Today it welcomes around 20,000 tourists and pilgrims a year, yet retains an aura of intimacy and privacy.
"We don't want more visitors," says Madame Bride. "We want to keep it peaceful and simple." She organises a small annual programme of conferences, concerts and masses, notably a traditional service to mark the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, but is always turning down requests to stage events in the abbey itself or its spectacular grounds.
You can take a guided tour of the Abbaye Saint Hilaire by appointment. But it's easy to go round on your own and most people do this. The abbey is compact so you're unlikely to get lost and a leisurely visit, including the grounds, would take around half an hour.
Brochures are available in several languages, including English and German, and there are explanatory panels and QR codes for smartphones along the route, which is marked by blue arrows.
If you want to find out more, you can also read a very detailed and learned account of its architecture and history on the Abbaye Sainte Hilaire website (although most of these explanations are in French only).
Built in a mix of Romansque and Gothic styles, the abbey is unadorned with church ornaments; its beauty comes from the harmonious proportions and purity of light.
You enter through the Romanesque main chapel, pictured above, with its Gothic side chapel to the north dedicated to Saint Antoine (the vaulted ceiling includes a little stone sculpture of a pig, the saint's symbol, while on the wall is a 15th century fresco of the Crucifixion).
Next to this is the sacristy, an earlier structure which may have predated the arrival of the Carmelite hermits, as did the several ancient troglodyte "cave-chapels" carved into the adjacent rock face.
Behind the altar stands a bell tower and the "chevet", or apse courtyard. Its walls, pitted with square holes, pictured, were used as a dovecote, one of the oldest in Provence.
At the heart of the complex, the cloister (now minus that dividing wall!) leads to the refectory, pictured below, furnished with handsome long wooden tables, the kitchen and the chapter house, the monks' meeting room.
It now houses a small exhibition of photographs and has a graceful vaulted ceiling and high windows overlooking the valley.
Then the path leads you along a colonnade shaded by vines and down to the lower terraces (called restanques locally), which have been replanted with olive trees to replace those killed by the frost. The grounds offer imposing views across the Luberon and up back towards the abbey towering majestically above them.
The Abbaye Saint Hilaire is open from the weekend before Easter until the All Saints' feast day (La Toussaint) at the beginning of November. There's a very small admission change. Website for the Abbaye Saint Hilaire
Note that from 1 July to 15 September there is no access to the Abbaye Saint Hilaire on days of "exceptional fire risk". Such days are rare, but you can check whether the ban is currently in force on this link (the danger zones are marked in red) or by phone on (+33) 4 88 17 80 00
How to get to the Abbaye Saint Hilaire: take the D109 between Ménerbes and Lacoste. The abbey is not visible from the road (though you can see it from the other side of the valley).The unobtrusive turn-off is on your right about 4 km / 2.5 miles out of Menerbes and on your left about 3 km / 2 miles out of Lacoste.
The main car-park is near the top of this steep, bumpy little unmade road. The abbey itself is 400 metres / 440 yards along it. There are disabled parking spaces closer to the entrance.
Note that, due to the uneven terrain, this visit would be tricky (though by no means impossible) for visitors of restricted mobility, who are advised to bring a companion. There's no coach access.
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The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism en Provence includes more information about the Abbaye Saint Hilaire and other attractions in the area.
Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence, RWS for Marvellous Provence (three images), Véronique Pagnier for Wikimedia Commons.