à l’abbaye

January 4, 2013

Abbaye St Hilaire03

A few of the visitors to this blog know that I am house hunting – an occupation that, on reflection, seems to have taken up a good part of my life. Being one of those unfortunates who, whenever they travel and visit new places, decide that this is ‘it’ finally. Whether Africa, the Far East, South or North America or Europe, my initial reaction is to immediately decide to decamp and make a new home as fast as possible (my problem is that I feel a complete and uncomfortable stranger in my homeland).  So, quickly back to the point, I thought to spend time in the Luberon (maybe this would be ‘it’), an area that on paper ticked the boxes, and naturally, see Menerbes. Some friends were quite scathing about this town that benefited? from the Peter Mayle experience and I discovered that my friends have good judgement. Too much gentrification and tweeness mixed up in one decorators pot for my liking ( purposefully no photos here). Also sad to see that someone decided black limestone should be spread over all flat surfaces giving a totally urban effect and with little differentiation to road and pavement. Town councillors of Menerbes need to visit St Remy -de- Provence and Avignon to note good use of materials and craftsmanship. We are great meddlers and consequently, destroyers. But, turning a negative into a positive, just close by the town on the opposite side of the valley sits the Abbaye de Saint Hilaire – the history and narrative of this building and surroundings –  brought back my faith in mankind.

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Ancient man inhabited this wooded land area of cork oaks and now pines  – it’s easy to see why – perfect hidden but confident in the outlook with natural water source and gently sloping land suitable for cultivation – so perfect example of the prospect and refuge theory. The Romans built the Via Domitia close by and there is documented reference to a Carmelite convent built on the site in 13C. Cistercian monks constructed, farmed, and prayed here in the footprint of this building in 15C. A fresco in the side chapel, finely executed stairs and the courtyards remain from this time as do the boulins – holes for the roosting birds – in the dovecote part of the courtyard walls. The monks would also have grown olives, vines and had a supply of fish on hand.

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In the mid 20C, the abbaye was bought by a couple who faithfully restored it to the original 13C layout and construction. Inside the walls, the privy garden retains the original character even if empty of monks in habits doing what they had to do . . . .

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. . . there’s an element of the ‘clipped balls’a la Vezian but that’s to be expected. The spaces are still simple and so easy to absorb, comprehend and enjoy and perhaps the restfulness will melt away in this landscape ?

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Again and again, however we know the landscape of love
and the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,
and the frighteningly silent abyss into which the others
fall: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lie down again and again
among the flowers, face to face with the sky. Rainer Maria Rilke

4 Responses to “à l’abbaye”

  1. Sinclair 3168 Says:

    Beautiful. At first I thought you were going to say you’d finally chosen The Place to buy – the abbey…


  2. I enjoyed this—the writing and photo essay. It brings to mind the way we have to imagine a past people by their use of land and arrangement of structures. A site like this can be, for the observer, a kind of time travel. Thanks.

    • julia fogg Says:

      Very atmospheric and quite humble in the way it has been revitalised. Off the beaten track, tucked away for protection and so, just a joy to discover walking down the modest approach. Good to hear from you Chris – your posts are always a discovery too.


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