Cistercian Abbeys in Provence

If you enjoy wandering around historic churches and abbeys, you’re definitely spoilt for choice in Provence. But if you fancy setting yourself a target for your trip, you may like to plan to see three of the more renowned abbeys in the region – although they’re located quite far apart. Called the Three Provençal Sisters of Provence these three cistercian abbeys were founded in the 12th century: Sénanque, Thoronet and Silvacane.

Sénanque

This is a beautiful and still-working 12th century abbey, tucked into an isolated valley north of Gordes. It’s perhaps the most famous of the “three sisters” as it’s located in the well-visited Luberon region, and in summer is surrounded by glorious fields of lavender. It was the first of the three abbeys to be built, founded in 1148. It’s possible to stay at the abbey on a spiritual retreat of up to eight days. But it’s certainly not a substitute for a B&B as you’re asked to “share in the life of prayer of the community, in silence and contemplation” and meals are taken in silence. They also ask that you don’t use your car during your stay!

Thoronet

This fine old Cistercian abbey is located in forested hills between Draguignan and Brignoles, just below the Argens river. In spite of its isolated location, it’s easy to get to – it’s only 13 km northeast of the A8 motorway and the N7 road. Thoronet was the second of the Three Provençal Sisters to be builtthe abbey buildings, church and cloisters were constructed between 1160 and 1190. The simplicity of the architecture have inspired many architects such as Le Corbusier who wrote after his visit in 1953: “In these days of ‘raw concrete’, however fêted, welcome and blessed it may be, this was such a marvellous encounter along the way.”

Silvacane

This former 12th-century Cistercian monastery on the plains of the Durance northwest of Aix-en-Provence is the least active the “three sisters of Provence”. The last of the three abbeys to be built between 1175 and 1230, it fell into disrepair in the 17th and 18th centuries and has only recently been restored. Silvacane is no longer a working abbey or a church – but, although empty, the abbey is an excellent example of the beautiful Romanesque style architecture and the historical image of the Cistercian life. Plus the abbey is also used for some musical events, such as the Piano Festival of La Roque-d’Anthéron and the Silvacane Festival of Vocal Music.

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