The monastery of Chartreuse du Val de Benediction (what a mouthful) was the largest Carthusian monastery in France during the Middle Ages, and a veritable advert for the monastic lifestyle!
The monastery was founded by Pope Innocent VI in 1352 who owned an estate here when he was a cardinal and he donated the land to the order to found the monastery once he became Pope, thus gaining enormous celestial brownie points. Innocent took up permanent residence here ten years later (see my other travel tip).
Like many other religious institutions, the monastery took a battering in the French Revolution and fell into disrepair. Happily, most of it has since been restored to its former glory, and is the focus of cultural events - the day I was there, for example, there was some sort of film festival on. I was also highly amused to note that some of the cells are available for hire by writers, and I for one think that it would be a delightful place to retreat to catch up on my backlog of VT pages still waiting to be completed!
If you consider the hardships of everyday peasant life during this period, it's not hard to see why there were so many recruits to the religious life in the Middle Ages - probably not all of which were motivated by a burning religious vocation. Granted, life was disciplined and regimented, but provided that you were willing to sign up to poverty, chastity and obedience, in return, you were rewarded with relative security and were fed and housed in a manner that would have been way beyond the means of the peasantry. Still, living in the shadow of Fort St Andre on a river that was a boundary between antagonistic territories held by quarrelsome dukes and kings mustn't have been all that comfortable, and it seems no accident that the exterior walls of the complex are well fortified.
The cloisters of the monastery are gorgeous and very serene, giving the impression that life here was contemplative and unhurried. Domestic touches such as the well, washhouse and a kitchen garden full of herbs hint of a tranquil lifestyle and even the bits that are now in ruins are picturesque!
One of the more touching aspects of For St Andre is looking at the carvings made by prisoners on the stone floors. These are protected by glass and highlighted with little spotlights, but can be quite difficult to make out until you get your eye in, which rather adds to the experience (and might be a good way to keep kids occupied for a few minutes).
Not surprisingly, the themes are primarily religious, given that most of these poor sods must have been in fear of their lives.
I did pause to wonder what they used to carve these, as I can't imagine that prisoners would have been afforded ready access to sharp objects ...
To describe the Belvezet chapel in Fort St Andre as tiny would be understating the case - which leaves me to conclude that the garrison in the fort were either an ungodly lot, or went to Mass elsewhere!
The chapel is so understated that you could be forgiven for missing it. Which would be a shame, as it is an understated gem of stark, clean Romanesque lines that is very much in keeping with its fortified surroundings - a chapel of warriors who had no time for frippery.
Apparently it was used as a parish church until the 14th century (must have been a small parish!), but sadly this no longer seems to be a place of worship. However, it's not hard to imagine it as a place that people would have retreated to an attempt to invoke divine intervention in times of strife.
P.S. The official guide (in English) helpfully informs me that "on the left of the entrance. the gallery stairs are remarkable for the absence of a central newel" ... if you have any idea of what this means, please let me know, as it sounds interesting!
It's hard not to be impressed, intimidated and otherwise awed by Fortress St Andre ... the embodiment of the fortress that little boys - and girls - envisage when they play games of medieval knights in armour ... hence my rather fanciful travelogue as an exercise in childish make believe (hell, it's my leisure time, so I'm allowed to play)!
To understand why such effort was expended on Fort St Andre, it's necessary to realise that for a very long time, this was the border between the jurisdiction of France and that of Provence (then a separate territory). Any hill commanding a good view over the river was always going to be prime real estate in terms of fortification, so when the French King Louis XIII signed a treaty with the abbot of St Andre over Andaon Hill in the 13th century, the outcome was a fait accompli!
The town of Villeneuve had been founded by Philip le Bel a few decades previous, and was fortified by Jean Le Bon (kings over this period seem to have been notable for either their virtue or good looks!) in light of the conflict associated with the Hundred Years War. The fortress continued to have immense strategic importance until 1481, when Provence was incorporated into the kingdom of France (by which time those pesky Antipopes over the river had also thankfully gone away).
The current fortress was constructed in the 1360s during a period when the region was at the mercy of brigands known as the Routiers, opportunists who exploited the chaos caused by the Hundred Years War for their own gain. The fort was constructed despite the French domestic exchequer having been effectively emptied by the ransoming of John le Bon from the English (who clearly put a high price on his goodness).
The present complex is remarkable for the fact that it is so intact: doubtless with some restoration, but nevertheless, you have the sense of an intact fortress as it must have been at the height of its influence. I found it particularly charming that a small community still live within the fortress walls, but please observe the signs indicating which areas are out of bounds in order to respect their privacy.
This is as close as it gets to Little Boy Heaven (with no age restrictions) so allow yourself sufficient time to tour the complex ... but more importantly, to imagine how it must have been!
Philip le Bel's tower is one of the defining features of the Villeneuve skyline and dates back to the early 14th century.
Looking at the map, and extending the remaining portion of Pont St Bénézet in Avignon across both channels of the Rhone - and Barthlasse Island in between - I have a hunch that the tower used to stand sentinel over the Villeneuve end of this bridge. Can anyone enlighten me on this point?
Sadly I can't tell you what the view is like from the top as - due to time constraints - I only managed to walk past.
Unfortunately I only had a scant morning to explore the myriad delights of Villeneuve, so I simply didn't have time to explore the charms of the Abbaye within the confines of the Fort St Andre ramparts.
Apparently the gardens of the Abbaye in particular are stunning and must be a wonderful retreat from the heat of a Provencal summer - if you visit and can confirm that this is so, then why not write a tip? :)
Here lies Pope Innocent VI, founder of Chartreuse du Val de Benediction, and buried in a side chapel of the monastery he founded (see my other travel tip). And when a newly elected Pope chooses to call himself 'Innocent', don't you just have to suspect that he has something to hide???
Actually he did, because prior to the conclave at which he was elected, all the papal candidates agreed to a 'party line' should they be elected, and as soon as Innocent (formerly Étienne Aubert) became pope, he nullified this gentlemen's agreement!
Having said that, history has been pretty kind to Innocent. After the profligate, spendthrift papacy of Clement V, who spent money like water, Innocent was a much needed reformer who put a brake on expenditure and generally seems to have tried to downscale the bloated bureaucracy that had developed around the Antipopes of Avignon.
Legend has it that he protected himself from the Black Death (a terrifying reality of life in the 14th century) by sitting between two fires to dissipate disease-borne miasma (air). And whilst the image of an old man perched between braziers in order to repel disease may be a laughable one in modern times, it is a potent image of the terror that the plague (and its then unknown method of transmission) struck into the hearts of medieval citizens, however humble or exalted.
Innocent's tomb is a particularly fine confection of Gothic workmanship, and is yet another reason to visit this wonderful monastery!
Maybe it's my Germanic roots showing (and, let's face it, never has a nation been more in touch with its collective bowels!) but toilets fascinate me!
Modern plumbing, dentistry and antibiotics seem to me to be some of the advances of the last couple of centuries that have added most greatly to our present quality of life. As children, we used to spend the summers at my grandmother's house in Ireland and as she only got connected to mains water and sewerage in the early 1980s, I used to dread using the outside toilet in the daytime (and, worse still, using the po - stored under the bed - at night!).
But I digress ...
Fort St Andre offers you the perfect opportunity to appreciate the 'no frills' medieval sanitary infrastructure in the days before Thomas Crapper (yes, that was really his name) invented the flush toilet and simultaneously lent his name to a verb! The main photo shows the 'privy' arrangement, and the second photo illustrates the long drop below ... seems to me that this must have been one of the more effective means of repelling intruders!!!
I just love the sentiment that this wonderful piece of municipal sculpture conveys about Villeneuve's lazy, laid back lifestyle!.
Roughly translated, the associated plaque reads as follows:
"Symbol of the good life in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the lizard invites you to spend some 'lizard time' in our town and discover its history" (excuse the schoolgirl French, but there's a reason why I ended up in a technical profession!)
Couldn't have said it better myself - if you needed persuasion to visit here, then surely this is it!
This market was underway the Saturday morning that I visited Villeneuve - it was the last Saturday of the month, and I'can't say whether this is a weekly event or happens less frequently.
To describe it as an 'antiques' market is probably a little generous on my part, as from the little I saw, there was more bric-a-brac than priceless heirlooms on sale ... however, having a mother who's absolutely addicted to this sort of thing, I would imagine that this might serve as an incentive rather than a deterrent! Certainly it looked like the sort of place where you might pick up a little 'Provencal quelque chose' to add some panache to your home decorating (how you it it into your luggage is your concern)!
The market takes place in an open area that I think serves as a car park during the week, just by Philip le Bel's tower - you can't miss it if you're coming from Avignon on the navette, in which case it will be on your left hand side.
In the apse of the church is the Tomb of Innocent VI which is made of white marble. The figure lies on a raised level. In a small chapel beyond the refectory are frescos on the walls by Matteo Giovanetti.
The Carthusian order was founded in 1084. The leader was called the Dom. The individual monks lived in separate cells. In the deeper part of the courtyard some cells face into the cloister with a well at the center. The order was closed during the French Revolution.