Travel: France: Some enchanted evensong

France is home to some fine examples of religious song, and there are serene monastic settings to match.
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The Independent Culture
Seizing on the monk as he descended from the organ loft at the abbey of St Wandrille, near the Seine, I asked him whose composition he had been playing with such enthusiasm at the end of the service. "Oh," he replied, "it was mostly my own improvisation," adding with a smile, "and a little bit of Fats Waller."

The number of those seeking ordination in the Church in France may be falling catastrophically. But the number of those entering monasteries is on the rise, and not for reasons of pure escapism. There is an urge to the ethereal, among listeners as well as the faithful, to judge from the extraordinary rise in sales of religious chant.

Which gives France, in addition to its other attractions, a particular seduction as far as holidays are concerned. You can listen to, as well as view, the great medieval ecclesiastical tradition in its liturgy, performed against a backdrop of some of the finest architecture in Europe.

In England, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII enriched the local gentry (not the government, which had to use all the proceeds to build defences against threatened invasions by Catholic Europe). The architecture of the local manor-house was greatly improved, while the monasteries disappeared.

In France, the sequestration during the French Revolution benefited local builders and stone merchants. Monastic buildings were torn down for their stone and convents were turned into schools or institutions. It has only really been in this century - and since the war in many cases - that the cowl and the church have returned to the cloister.

St Wandrille lies in a valley close to Caudebec-en-Caux on the Seine, the high tidal point of the great river that still serves as a route for the barges to Paris. Only a few arches still exist from the 14th-century abbey church.

Instead, the monks worship in a great 13th-century tithe barn, the gift of a farmer, removed post by post in 1969 from its original site some 30 kilometres away. Inside, its cavernous emptiness is broken at one end by the white of a marble dais and altar. The sight of the Benedictine monks in white and black cowls, arriving with bowed heads to take their seats on the platform, is theatre indeed - especially at Sunday Mass, when the whole hall is filled with a lay congregation.

On our last visit, out of service hours, both my wife and I were struck silent by the sight of a monk kneeling before the host with a look of ecstasy such as you usually see only in Spanish paintings.

The high point of Gregorian chant is heard at Solesmes on the Sarthe, south west of Le Mans. Solesmes, as its name implies, is very solemn indeed. Famous, and justly so, for the quality of its plainchant, it takes itself seriously. A friend was turned out for appearing in shorts and was allowed to re-enter only when he put on his full habit as a genuine English monk. The liturgy is superb; the abbey is 19th-century and, like its village, rather sombre. You go there, I think, to listen to, rather than participate in, the ceremony.

For the full majesty, and grace, of the Benedictine High Mass you need to go to St Benoit itself, where the bones of the saint are buried, having being wrenched from their resting-place in Monte Cassino in an armed smash- and-grab raid in the late seventh century. The abbey, built on the Loire to accommodate the pilgrims who flocked here in tens of thousands, is one of the truly great glories of Romanesque architecture. The soaring elegance of the chancel is matched by the energy and the dignity of the biblical sculptures in the porch.

Daily services in the crypt are quiet and dignified. But parish mass is a real occasion, the congregation sporting the loden coats, feathered hats and country wear that the Loire so likes. And if the singing is sonorous, so is the sermon. French abbots certainly know all about proper enunciation and how to convey a carefully thought-out message.

Orleans is only 30 miles to the west, but the little crossing town of Gien, 20 miles to the east, has a chateau that houses a wonderfully eccentric museum of the hunt (not for protesters) and the factory of Gien pottery where seconds are sold cheaply in the factory shop. You can stay in the Rivage, a business hotel of the old sort with a first-class restaurant (one Michelin star) and nothing fleuri about it.

But, of all the living monasteries in France, a favourite must be the Cistercian Abbey of Senanque in Provence. It was the Cistercians who brought Britain the abbeys of Fountains, Tintern and Rievaulx, built according to architectural rules that have never been surpassed for their simplicity, gravity and austerity. Senanque, one of three gracious sisters of Provence (the others are the deserted abbeys of Silvacane and Le Thoronet), is approached through a canyon in the Luberon hills, across fields of lavender.

It nestles - as a good monastery should - by a stream and was preserved thanks to a sympathetic purchaser during the French Revolution. The monks returned only a decade ago.

They are few, and the congregation on a Sunday is not large. But a Cistercian abbey was made for meditation and acoustics. And the chant at Senanque is a special one, deep-toned and eastern-influenced - Byzantine-based, as one of the monks explained. Isolated the abbey may be, but as it is situated in the Luberon - made unfortunately famous by Camus and lesser British writers - there is no shortage of places to stay and eat. Gordes is nearby, as is the antiques dealers' town of l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, where we spent a very pleasant time at the Mas de Cure Bourse.

Abbey services are about occasion and being present at, even part of, these great edifices of faith. But they are also about something that is apart from the modern world and can perhaps only be sustained apart from it - which is devotion. The visitor doesn't have to understand the service, or even the language, to feel that.

Fact File

Getting there: The closest airport to the le de Re is Dinard, served by Ryanair (0541 569 569) from Stansted. Arcachon's closest airport is Bordeaux; British Airways (0345 222111) flies there from Gatwick but fares from Stansted on Ryanair may be cheaper. An alternative is to go to Lille or Paris on Eurostar (0345 303030) for around pounds 79-pounds 99, then use a Domino pass (around pounds 105 for three days' travel) to complete your journey.

Accommodation: Simon O'Hagan paid pounds 1,000 for a family of four for five nights' half-board accommodation, booked through VFB (01242 240300). Adrian Hamilton paid 480FF (pounds 50) per person with dinner, bed and breakfast at the Mas de Cure Bourse, l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and 350FF (pounds 37) per person per night at the Auberge des Vieux Puits at Pont-Audemer.

More information: French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, premium rate); www.franceguide.com

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