Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Abbey of Senanque

This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1148 and is only a few miles from Gordes. It was established according to the ideals of the great St Bernard of Clairvaux, whose monastic reform movement stressed a life of isolation, poverty, simplicity, and prayer.  Pious reading, chanting the daily hours of the divine office, and strenuous labor filled (then as now) the monk's day.  Silence was (and still is) maintained as much as possible.  The austerity of this ascetic movement is reflected in the simplicity and purity of the unadorned architecture of the buildings. By way of contrast with the Romanesque grandeur of St-Trophime (Arles), for example, the Cistercian abbey eschews decoration, ornamentation, statues, stained glass, etc.

Senanque prospered, as did many Cistercian communities. The rigors of life in such harsh and isolated places lead the monks to practice a very frugal, deliberate, and quasi-scientific form of agriculture. Daughter houses were soon established and Senanque flourished throughout the 13th century. In the mid 1500s, however, the abbey was largely destroyed in a violent uprising. It was secularized and privatized for many years, but since 1989 it has again been home to Cistercian brothers. The monastery is renowned as a producer of much high-quality lavender.

Click here for a few pictures.


The village of Gordes (pop. 2031) is situated high up on terraced cliffs overlooking fertile valleys below. It has been inhabited since the Neolithic Era and is only a few miles away from the cluster of "bories" that we visited. It has a Renaissance chateau, charming (and steep!) narrow streets and alleys, good food, and magnificent views over the countryside below.

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"Bories" are drystone shelters (i.e., no mortar or cement) built by rural peasants who used the limestone they removed from their fields to build dwellings, barns, animal pens, ovens, etc.  There are over 3000 known sites in Provence alone, some of which may date back to Neolithic times. We visited a cluster of about 20-30 structures near Gordes.  These remarkable buildings are dark but quite solid and snug, built with the exterior courses of stone sloping slightly downward to help with runoff from rain or snow. There are usually two rooms for the residents and smaller adjacent enclosures for sheep, pigs, etc.  This particular village was inhabited until the beginning of the 19th century. We saw other bories in privately owned fields in the vicinity.

Click for a few pictures.