France is full of amazing castles, Roman ruins and architecture that is simply out of this world. I particularly love walking around Paris on a summers evening just looking at all the wonderful buildings that line the streets and the boulevards. Notre-Dame is magnificent as is Montmartre and you cannot help but feel very small when you stand in front of them. For me they represent a golden era of sheer splendour on an enormous scale and one which we would never be able to recreate no matter how much technology we have at our finger tips.
When you leave the city and head south to the wonderful regions of Provence as well as the spectacular Cote D’Azur, you have to take in all the marvellous architecture that surrounds you too. This is particularly true of the abbeys and monasteries that nestle in valleys, hidden away from the rest of the world.
There is a story about the Clunis monks who ruled as lords in the 11th century. They ruled over 1200 abbeys that were dotted all around Europe. They became extremely rich accumulating untold wealth and were not afraid of displaying this to the world. Although the population at the time, who were devout to their faith were living in poverty, the Cluny monks carried on regardless. These tremendously wealthy monks had no thoughts of working the land instead they spent all their time dealing with the politics of the era.
But this could not continue as the time of the Templars was arriving and with others believing that monks should show more humility and be sympathetic to the poor by acting like true Christians, new orders of monks started to form. The first one was in Cîteaux and it was to become a reformed Benedictine abbey that kept itself far from politics, they were humble and Christian as true monks should be. This new Cistercian order was finally bought out of the shadow of the powerful of the Cluny monks by a man who it is said had amazing charisma, he was called St Bernard of Clairvaux.
This strong and peaceful man undertook a cultural and architectural change that spread throughout France and Europe with abbeys being built in every region. Three of these abbeys were in Provence and they became known as ‘the three Provençal sisters’. These magnificent abbeys are Thoronet, Senanque and Silvacane.
If you are planning a trip to Provence then you have to visit these amazing abbeys. They are superb in every detail. When I visited Senanque many years ago, I was so impressed by the fields of lavender and the approach to the abbey as you drive down the hill that I have travelled back there many times over the years. I find this abbey so peaceful and so very beautiful.
Thoronet Abbey one of the sisters of Provence is another gorgeous place to visit. It is in Var region and is probably the most beautiful of all the three sisters. I went there one summer and the beauty and freshness of the abbey and the surroundings was almost tangible. During the French revolution the abbey was closed but the State bought it back in 1854 and since then it has remained as it should be, a wonderful impressive building that is steeped in history.
The third of the sister abbeys is Silvacane Abbey which situated in the region of La Roque d’Antheron in the Bouches du Rhone. This gorgeous abbey sits quietly on the River Durance. It is no longer an abbey so if you do want to go and visit it, you have to phone before to let the people know you are coming.