THERE are moments on any road trip when out of a dusty tailback a perfect stop-off materialises. Let’s call it, since we are in Provence, Le Wow Factor. When it happens twice, as it did, it has to be Le Double Whammy. And, of course, on each occasion, it involved lunch.
'If de la Celle is a mite chic – think Marie Antoinette playing at shepherdesses – Sainte Croix is all French Hogwarts, an atmospheric monastic ruin that came back to quirky life'
I’m sure Southern French monks kept a good table, offering succour to the weary traveller. Today’s secular, culinary establishments occupying their ancient sites maintain the tradition. If you plan wisely and ignore the hype, you’ll be OK. France has more than its share of gastronomic disappointments.
That wasn’t the case with the Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle and L’Abbaye de Sainte Croix. The first was a proper planned lunch break just off the frantic A8 Autoroute between the Cote d’Azur and Provence proper; the second, our final hotel base before heading home on the TGV from Avignon. We arrived there early with no intention of dining before dinner, but a glass of pale rosé on a stupendous scenic terrace later and we succumbed to three courses across the afternoon.
There are more austere ways of experiencing medieval abbeys (see Cistercian checklist downpage), but sitting in the midday shade in the Hostellerie’s garden savouring artichokes a la barigoule, Provencal lamb, John Dory with spinach and fennel, figs and strawberry ice cream, all local, all offering the intense flavours of their terroir, is my preference.
It would be even more impressive if this were a simple local inn. Not quite. It is a simple local inn viewed through the eyes of serial Michelin starred superchef Alain Ducasse. He has gushed in print: “Inns are the hymns praising the art of the innkeeper, made from an encounter between a story and a mood. They translate a faith in Man’s generosity, in his innate sense of hospitality”.
Ducasse has top-end restaurants around the world but developed his rustic Provencal side by creating the Bastide de Moutiers nearly two decades ago in Moustiers Sainte Marie. In 1999, 80km south, he took over and transformed the Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle in La Celle en Provence outside Brignoles. Lunch starts at 38 euros, dinner is twice at much at this Michelin-starred establishment.
The Hostellerie itself is a graceful, three-storey 18th century mansion, fetchingly salmon pink with green shutters. It operates as a stylish, art-filled boutique hotel. Similarly, the lush grounds are dotted with sculptures. There are also lodgings in former convent cells, which link back to scandalous past times here, when Garcen de Queen of Provence took the veil. The affluent “nuns” who joined her lived in some luxury and received “tender friends” in their bedchambers.
The solid 12th century Benedictine Abbey Royale de la Celle hosts musical soirees, while on the other side of the Hostellerie there is a state of the art Maison des Vins des Coteaux Varois, a state of the art tasting salon showcasing local wine.The rosés here are especially good. Since my lunchtime drinking was restricted by my need to drive afterwards it was good to pick up a couple of bottles for later.
If desire the full-on staying-in-an-old-Abbey experience (without all the spartan self-flagellation stuff, of course), then the Abbaye de Sainte Croix is for you. If de la Celle is a mite chic – think Marie Antoinette playing at shepherdesses – Sainte Croix is all French Hogwarts, an atmospheric monastic ruin that came back to quirky life.
Pollination at Sainte CroixIt is 90km to the west, outside Salon de Provence, and stands on a bluff soaring high above the Provencal plain. From the terrace where we ate that simple but satisfying lunch (carpaccio and goat cheese) on arrival, you can see as far as the Camargue, the Alpilles and beyond. You can climb even higher, through the aromatic garrigue behind this Relais & Chateaux hotel, to the cave, where Nicolas de Montgallet, aristocrat at the court of Louis XIV turned penitent monk, subsisted on bread and water in the 16th century
Christianity came to this area in the fourth century; the Abbey itself dates back to the 12th century. Inside the complex we were staggered to view the magnificent Romanesque chapel with four bays, chancel, gallery and Renaissance porch. Almost equally impressive was the great vaulted dining room dominated by its fireplace and two fifth century sarcophagi uncovered during the restoration in the Sixties and Seventies (the Revolution shut the place as a college; much of the fabric was devastated by an earthquake in 1909).
We were thrilled to be allocated a turret bedroom – with a sun lounger among the ramparts – reached via a vaulted corridor of thick stone. Dinner, though not Michelin-starred, offered cooking of a sophistication belying its medieval surroundings, a fine mix of classic and innovative. Sainte-Croix’s a family-run place, in parts a touch scuffed and random, but that’s all part of its charm. Oh, and I imagine there are ghosts, but I didn’t like to ask. Who was that cowled figure on the landing?
Contemplate visiting the three great Cistercian Abbeys of Provence...
Abbaye du Thoronet
Dating from the 12th century this austerely beautiful Romanesque edifice in the depths of the Darboussiere Forest was the first of the Cistercian foundations in Provence. It is built of warm pinkish stone, held together by gravity alone and features dormitories that haven’t changed since the Middle Ages and lovely cloisters.
15km south-east of Cotignac via Carces on the D13/D279. http://thoronet.monuments-nationaux.fr/en/
Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque
A small monastic community is still present at this cluster of Romanesque buildings north of Gordes, one of the Luberon’s touristique honeypots. Senanque, in sharp contrast, is a place of contemplation, set among lavender fields.
4km north of Gordes on the D177. http://www.senanque.fr
Abbaye de Silvacane
Built in the middle of a swamp between 1175 and 12.30, this architecturally severe establishment boasts a magnificent chapter house.
6km south-west of Cadenet, across the Durance river on the D943 and the D561. http://www.abbaye-silvacane.com/#&panel1-1
...and a quite different monastic experience at the Abbaye de Montmajour near Arles.
Benedictine hermits founded it in the 10th century on a great rock amid marshes. Today it is surrounded by the great dusty plain of Crau. It was massively restored in the 18th century, then built and re-built after that until it resembles today’s overbearing limestone hulk. Don’t miss the 11th century hermits’ cells and writer Alphonse Daudet’s windmill nearby.
Route de Fontvieille. http://www.monuments-nationaux.fr/en/
Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle offers rates from 250 euros per night based on two adults sharing. For bookings and further information please visit www.abbaye-celle.com or call +33(0)4 98051414. It offers three menus (46 euros, 66 euros and 90 euros) and an a la carte option.
10 Place du Generale de Gaulle, 83170 La Celle-en-Provence. For bookings and further information visit www.abbaye-celle.com or call +33(0)4 98051414.
Ducasse’s other Provencal project is La Bastide de Moustiers http://www.bastide-moustiers.com
L’Abbaye de Sainte Croix offers room rates from 135 euros to 365 euros, according to season. Suites range from 345 euros to 525 euros. Breakfast is 20 euros a head.
Route du Val de Cuech, 13300 Salon de Provence.
L’Abbaye de Sainte Croix is among 520 Relais & Châteaux properties, recognising the finest hotels and restaurateurs worldwide. For reservations call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit www.relaischateaux.com. Alternatively, visit the Maison des Relais & Châteaux at 10 Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1NQ, where the English-speaking Relais & Châteaux team will be delighted assist with your holiday plans.
The concept grew from the vacationing traditions of well-heeled French society, who traveled to a variety of "relais" (lodges) and "châteaux" (castles) which, while different in architecture, scenery and cuisine, presented consistently high standards.
Fares from London to both Avignon and Antibes start at £119 standard class return per person. To book, contact Voyages-sncf (formerly Rail Europe)on 0844 848 5 848, visit www.Voyages-sncf.com or call into their Travel Centre at 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU. They are the experts in train ticket distribution, covering over 30 countries across Europe.
To make the breakfast time Eurostar train to Paris from St Pancras, Neil Sowerby stayed at London Central Euston Travelodge at 1-11 Grafton Place, a two minute walk from Euston Station and a further 10 minutes to St Pancras International Rail Terminal. The Euston, like Manchester Central, is among the Travelodges revamped to include Dreamer Beds and other fresh facilities. Double rooms at Euston start from £78.
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