The Cistercian Abbaye de Sénanque is Famous for its Lavender Fields:
One of the most beautiful and photographed sights of Provence is the Abbaye de Sénanque and its lavender fields. This medieval abbey is one of the purest examples of primitive Cistercian architecture and it has a long and interesting history. But what attracts visitors and brings them here in droves are its famous lavender fields. From early July to early August when the lavender bushes are in full bloom, the sea of purple lavender against the backdrop of the heather-gray stone colour of the Abbey makes for a magical sight.
Arriving in the Land of Blue Gold
We are very familiar with of the Abbaye de Sénanque and its lavender fields, especially during the Tour de France when images of this iconic site are beamed into our living room. It’s one of those Wow sights that had stayed with us and nagged at us to visit it. So when we were planning our Luberon trip, a visit to the Abbaye de Sénanque was one of our targets.
The Abbaye de Sénanque, or Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque to be precise, is set in a serene valley in the Luberon. It’s about 4 kms north from Gordes and we got here by taxi from Cavaillon. On arrival, it became apparent quite quickly that most of the visitors had come to Sénanque by car. The car park was quite full and there was no sight of any bus stop or taxi rank. We appeared to be the only people who had made it here by public transport.
Although I did get an initial sinking feeling about how we were going to get back, the sight of the lavender was enough to overcome any transport worries. Without exception, everyone in our group of seven was thrilled to finally be at this magnificent site. It was exactly as we had imagined it to be.
The approach to the abbey is from the north. We walked amongst the rows of lavender towards the abbey, taking snaps along the way. The million dollar view is from the wall of the monastery. If there were a thousand angles of snapping the Abbaye de Sénanque and the lavender fields, we must have covered them all. Needless to say, there were lots of selfies being taken as well.
Brief Historic Background
The Abbaye de Sénanque is one of three Cistercian abbeys in Provence, with the Silvacane Abbey and Le Thoronet Abbey being the other two. They are sometimes referred to “les trois soeurs provençales” (the three Sisters of Provence). The Sénanque monastery was founded in 1148, when land was donated by lords of the area. The first community of impoverished monks at Sénanque lived in temporary huts when the abbey was being built. The existing Abbey structures were built and expanded over time. At the height of Abbaye de Sénanque’s prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries, it owned four mills and large estates in Provence.
The Abbey also went through troubled times. It was ransacked by the Huguenots during the War of Religion in the 16th century. During the French Revolution its lands were nationalized.
In 1854, the site was repurchased for a new community of Cistercian monks. They were expelled in 1903, but in 1988, a small community returned to Sénanque.
Abbaye de Sénanque is still a working abbey today and a small community of monks live here. The Cistercian monks follow the monastic tradition of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation – the four steps to their encounter with God. Work is an integral part of monastic life and the monks grow lavender and produce honey for their livelihood. Money from the gift shop sales and entrance fees also go towards paying for the upkeep of the buildings.
Visiting the Abbey
After the excitement of being amongst the lavender, we thought we would pay a visit to the Abbey. Unfortunately for us, the Abbey can only be visited on a guided tour and we had missed the tour time. If you’re keen on seeing the interior of this 12th century Abbey, bear in mind that you have to dress appropriately. Shorts or cycling gear are not allowed and the tour is conducted in French only. The church, the cloister, the chapter-hall, the small calefactory and the ancient dormitory are some of the rooms you will visit. There are other do’s and don’ts so it’s advisable to familiarise yourself with these before your visit.
It is possible to arrange an overnight stay at the Abbey for a spiritual retreat. But for us it was time to figure out how to get back to Gordes and then to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The cashier in the gift shop confirmed that there is no public transport from the Abbaye de Sénanque and so we had to retreat on foot. It was a shame that we didn’t get to visit the Abbey, however it was the lavender that we came to see and so we left happy.
Please have a look at our our video “Summer Lavender at Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque“
Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque
The Luberon Coeur de Provence tourist office has some more details on the Abbaye at this link: Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque, together with lots of other helpful information about the Luberon region.