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.
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.
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.