A solitary place

Last week’s post was about the first half of a wonderful day out with friends in the hills near Lodeve.  I’m going to continue the story with this post.

Following our delicious lunch at La Petite Fringale in Saint Jean de la Blaquiere, we drove towards Lodeve, to visit the Priory of Saint Michel de Grandmont.  This monastery belonged to the little known order of Grandmont, an order founded at the end of the 11th or the beginning of the 12th century, according to which historian you believe.  The rules of the order were incredibly austere, even for mediaeval times: possessions were forbidden, heating was only for visitors, monks walked barefoot all year round and lived in strict silence.  Their lives were more like those of hermits, even though they lived in communities.  Lay brothers were an integral part of each monastery – they had to look after the day-to-day running of the monastery.

The set of buildings at Saint Michel de Grandmont is one of the few Grandmontine houses left more or less intact.

The entire order was dissolved in 1772 due to lack of monks, and the monastery was attached to the diocese of Lodeve.  The last monks left Saint Michel de Grandmont in 1785.

During the French revolution the buildings were sold, but lucky for us, they were not demolished, and not hugely altered either.  The picture above shows the buildings overlooking the courtyard – you can see part of the gable end of the church on the left.

The audio guide (available in several languages, including English) which was part of the entrance fee was very helpful!  The visit started in the visitors’ room, a sturdy vaulted room with an enormous fireplace, where visitors to the monastery were welcomed.  This fireplace was the only one in the monastery, as physical comforts were a no-no for the monks.

A wooden model showed the cloister, with the vaulted chapter house area on the ground floor and the monks’ dormitory above.

The double doors at the end of the visitors’ room led to a small, dark room, and from there a door led to the cloister.  The cloister is supposed to be the only one of all the Grandmontine cloisters to be remaining intact.  The architecture is very simple and austere!

A doorway led from the cloister to the church. In the time of the monks, there would have been some ecclesiastical furniture, but today the church’s walls are bare and the building is almost completely empty.  The proportions of the church were impressive – 28 metres long, 6.7metres wide and 11 metres high!  The acoustics were wonderful, and during the summer season concerts are being held in the church on a regular basis.

The chapter house was just off the cloister – a large vaulted room with arrow slit windows on one side.  The chapter house was the place where the monks gathered every day, to listen to the rules of the order being read, and to do penance.

From the chapter house, we stepped out into the sunshine.  The guided walk took us around the back of the chapter house and to the apse of the church.  I got the feeling that the mullioned windows above the arrow slits of the chapter house were a later addition.

By the apse of the church, excavations had revealed the remains of Visigothic tombs.

The audio guide took us back to where we had exited the chapter house – a terrace shaded by chestnut trees.  The facade of the building along the terrace had been remodelled in the 18th century and given a more classical look with a pedimented door and other architectural elements (not visible in the picture below).

Our walk continued to the park, across another terrace, this one planted with plane trees, which had not yet leafed out.

A little climb brought us to a rather surprising feature – an ornamental lake with an island in the middle! The plinth bore an inscription in Latin and a date of 1850.  At that time Etienne Vitalis was the owner of the property.  The audio guide explained that the lake was created where the stone for the monastic buildings had been quarried.  The lake is fed by a small stream and the water was no doubt used to irrigate fields and gardens.

On we went, through the woodland surrounding the lake, to the next point of interest: vestiges of pre-historic man’s occupation of the site!

The views from there were spectacular!

After a brief walk, we reached a dolmen, the final point of our guided visit.  It sits all by itself and the views from there were also spectacular!  Legend has it that the monks used to sit inside the dolmen to be healed when they were sick!

On our way back to the abbey, there was a lovely view of the buildings across a green field:

The priory of Saint Michel de Grandmont is open from February to the end of December, from 10am to 6pm.  It is closed on Mondays during the off-season.  Full details can be found on www.prieure-grandmont.fr

I leave you with a video of the fountain which plays on the courtyard wall.  It sums up the peace and serenity of Saint Michel de Grandmont on the day that I visited.

 

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What a cracker

The round of Christmas markets has started and this past weekend I visited two: one in St Chinian and the other at the Chateau-Abbaye de Cassan near Roujan.  Since I wrote about the St Chinian Christmas market last year, I’ll write about the at Cassan instead.  The market at Cassan goes by various names – there is the Marche de Noel a l’Anglaise (Christmas market in the English fashion), La foire de Noel (Christmas Fair), and finally the Cassan Cracker Fair.  This market was established eight years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

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The Cassan Christmas market now attracts almost as many French visitors as British ones, and there is a great mix of nationalities among the 120+ exhibitors.  To cope with the number of visitors, the market is being held on Saturday and Sunday.  For me the attraction was two-fold: to visit the Chateau-Abbaye and the Christmas market.  Granted, it’s not the best time to visit the buildings when hundreds and even thousands of other people are there too, but still.  A reduced entrance fee of 2 EUR (the regular entrance fee to the Abbey is somewhere around 7 EUR) is charged during the two days the Christmas market takes place, so it’s worth the trip for that alone ;-).

The Abbaye de Cassan was first established in 1080 as an Augustinian priory, and in its heyday numbered 80 priors.  The church was consecrated in 1115, and until the plague and 100 years war in the 14th century all was going swimmingly.  Then the rot set in and decline continued until in 1605 there were only 7 or 8 priors left at the priory.  And then, in the middle of the 18th century the abbey was completely re-built, except for the church, not all that long before the revolution chased the remaining priors from their new palatial quarters.

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For palatial they certainly would have been.  The facade on the garden side is worthy of any stately home, and the salons on the ground floor would have been very beautiful.  Unfortunately the gardens are somewhat neglected, the parterres inexistent and the pond looks as if it has been dry for some time.

The facade onto the main courtyard is no less impressive than the garden side, and provided a good foil for the stalls which were set up outside.

I was hoping to indulge in my favourite fish-and-chips, but I was too late – there was no fish left.  The chips were excellent though, and more than enough to keep me happy for the rest of the afternoon!  The galleries inside the three wings which surround the main courtyard look as though they could have been serving as a cloister at one point, though if that were the case,  the fourth wing is perhaps missing – or was never built?

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The church is incredible – only slightly modified in the 18th century – and is one of the largest romanesque churches in the area.  When I arrived a cellist was playing at one end, and the sound beautifully filled the whole building despite the ambient noise.  A concert would probably sound fantastic here!  The stalls in the church, and elsewhere, offered a wonderful selection of goods:  some traditional British Christmas food such as mince pies, Christmas cake and plum pudding, a good amount of jewellery, textiles, gift items, gardening tools, glasses, wine and champagne, carpets, handicrafts, and there was a stall selling beautiful lampshades made with traditional Japanese and Nepalese paper, which was my favourite.

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The cupola on top of the church is called “lantern of hope”.  Legend has it that a fire was kept burning in the lantern each night to help guide the pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela to the abbey, where they could spend the night before continuing on their pilgrimage to the Spanish sanctuary.

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Plans are afoot to develop Cassan into a corporate retreat, so plan to visit as soon as you can, while you still can!  For more reading on Cassan have a look at Wikipedia in French and English.  A virtual tour is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyxJGy_K1iU and there is also the official website at http://www.chateau-cassan.com/

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