By Train, Bus, and Foot: Sénanque Abbey

Senanque Abbey.JPG

For years, I’d admired photographs of the purple lavender fields in front of the stark-grey Notre-Dame de Sénanque, a Cistercian abbey in Provence. With our time in Paris dwindling, and with the lavender season a brief mid-summer event, if I was going to see the abbey in full glory, the time was now.

With that goal, I rented a tiny room from Airbnb in the center of the hilltop village of Gordes (the closest village from which I could walk to the abbey) and booked a train ticket from Paris to Avignon. My Airbnb landlord recommended that I Uber from the TGV station, but shortly before the trip, I discovered a bus from the TGV, connecting to a second bus in Coustellet, which arrived in Gordes in time for a late lunch.

The last Tuesday in June, I left Pat in Ireland and returned to Paris. Wednesday, I caught the first train to Avignon. After delays and dashes, I settled into a van for the ride to Gordes. There, on the main square, I found a classic French bistro. In the absence of any restaurant planning, I used the crowd as an endorsement.

Nothing bad has ever happened in a classic French bistro. That day was no exception. As I finished my coffee, I worried that my landlord had not responded to my message from the morning. Then a text. His office was next door. There, he took me through maps and helped me plot the best walk to the abbey.

Fortunately, storms had broken the prior week’s heatwave. Occasional rain showers settled over the region, warm days and cooler nights. Each morning was forecasted to dawn perfectly for the hike down to the abbey. My goal was to start out as early as possible, before the crowds and temperatures swelled.

The next morning, I didn’t set an alarm but hoped to be on my way in the hour before the 6:05 sunrise. I wasn’t going to push too hard. When I awoke at 5:30, I nearly deferred the trip to the next day, having allowed three mornings for the hike in the event of poor weather, but I decided to go. By 5:45, I was on my way.

The longer hiking paths in France are called Grandes Randonnées (GRs or Big Hiking Trails). One GR in this region runs through Gordes and on to Sénanque. These paths, I would learn over the course of the next three days, are spottily marked, inadequate for anyone who doesn’t know the area. Fortunately, my landlord had taken me through every turn and had insisted I take notes. Where signs were lacking, his directions sufficed.

First glimpse of Senanque

My first glimpse of the abbey

Forty minutes after leaving Gordes, I stopped at an overlook, my first glimpse of the abbey and lavender fields. I stood for a moment and savoured it. Ten minutes later, I cut through the forest and dropped into the parking lot.

I had feared tour buses, mobs climbing over the lavender, photographers dotting the fields with tripods. Instead, there was one couple. She was wearing a dress and a wide-brimmed hat. He carried a professional camera. In most of her poses, she was looking over a chin-high, stone wall that surrounded the field. The hat was on her head. Click. In her hand. Click. On the fence. Click.

I sat on a nearby rock for an hour and sketched; he continued to take her photo. The only noise was his soft whispering of instructions. The only smell was lavender.

Before arriving, my impression was that the fields dominated the abbey. But sitting there, it struck me as the reverse. The abbey was massive, impressive, and decidedly ancient. Nestled against the Luberon hills, it was the only building visible in any direction. It had been founded in 1148, ransacked during religious wars, rebuilt during peacetime, added to over the centuries. If the abbey was a beautiful woman, the fields were her purple Hermes scarf.

The monks farm the lavender and tend the bees. Over my hikes in the next three days, I would learn that the insistent buzzing of a thousand bees was the first indication that a lavender field was nearby. Then I would see the purple rows of bushes. Lastly, I would smell the characteristic perfume. Lavender and honey, as business ventures, go hand in hand.

BAck of abbey

The gardens in the back

With my sketch finished, and the sky growing increasingly black, I decided to explore the back of the abbey before heading back to Gordes. As I approached, I heard chants and smelled incense. The door was open and a sign welcomed congregants, so I went in.

Perhaps 15 white-shrouded monks lined the alter and progressed through a series of poses: standing, sitting, bowing. Their voices echoed in the stone church, the sound a cross between Gregorian chant and a hymn. This morning service was called “Lauds” (Praises). And although I couldn’t understand a word, that’s exactly what it sounded like. Praises. I mimicked their actions, mesmerized. Thirty minutes later, I left Sénanque.

By 9:30, I was back in Gordes and stopped by my landlord’s shop to tell him I had made it and to thank him for his help.

“It was lovely,” I said.

He smiled, “I know. I lived in the abbey back when I wanted to be a monk.”

He was busy; I was hungry; there was no time to continue this story. Besides, he’d just given me the greatest gift: a reason to return.

Side shot abbey.jpeg

One final shot, just because…

Categories: Life in Paris, Western Europe

Tags: , , , , , ,

21 replies

  1. Oh, Julie, I envy you this adventure! We are in Paris Sept 16-Oct 11. Will you be there then? Lets do dinner or….

  2. Beautiful! Thank you for this!

  3. Thank you, my friend. I love that some of our travels pass each other especially when they are in real time and place….

    As always, love seeing things (sights, smells, sounds etc) through you. In this particular venture, I have 1st hand experience albeit a bit different as to time of year and our exact experiences but we too went when it was uncrowded and we could explore and savor on our own. Your time spent renewed my memories just as running your hand over dried lavender buds will release their scent just as it was when they were still in the ground.

    A grand way you start my Sunday morning.

  4. Beautiful story and beautiful journey. Your sense of adventure and wonder are awe inspiring. Just booked a trip to Provence/Paris for next May…hopefully you will renew your lease and we can visit for coffee again. In the meantime..keep wondering/wandering. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  5. Beautiful! I will be there some day and from your beautiful writing will then recall the lavender smell.

    Give Pat our best.

    Debbie & Marty

  6. I have been reading your blog for years and always enjoy your impressions. Would love to do this trip in particular. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Love this story, we remember you setting this up when we visited, sounds like your love affair with the lavender fields and Provence was revitalized.
    We are recovering from or extended trip and will leave again for two weeks in Mexico at the beginning of August.
    Please say Hi to Pat, I was just looking at Paris photos last evening with friends and in particular revisited Bellvue and the graffiti artists. Great memories of our Paris visits and adventures.

  8. Wonderful adventure. We went there and loved it. There is a lavender farm just outside Boulder. In fact, it’s just west of IBM near the ranch where I keep my horse!

  9. We just returned from our European vacation including the Lavender Fields of Provence. We were there in late June/early July and the lavender was fabulous. Unfortunately the crowds and the fields at the Abbaye were a little disappointing this year. Not yet in full bloom.

    • Hey John…. bummer. I’m an extremely early riser, so I had the fields largely to myself (and it was still June). That said, the photos don’t look like the fields. I think most photographers go far back and shoot with a telephoto lens, which compresses everything (those photographers can be cagey that way). Plus this year we had a dismal, rainy winter and spring. The flowers in Paris were a big disappointment versus last year. Yet still, I thought the abbey was beautiful without flowers!


  1. Continued… Questions from new nomads – The World In Between

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