Sound of matins, scent of lavender

Christian Walsh puts his life in order at a Cistercian retreat in Provence
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The Independent Travel
Ten years ago, when a friend said that he was spending his summer holiday in a silent commune in Cornwall, some of us were bewildered, a few tried mime routines and others were downright scornful.

Ten years ago, when a friend said that he was spending his summer holiday in a silent commune in Cornwall, some of us were bewildered, a few tried mime routines and others were downright scornful. Today, however, going on a "retreat" is almost as popular as a week by the pool. From Buddhist surfing in Devon to silent meditation in Nepal and chanting in Wyoming – you can take time out to customise your retreat and spiritualise your special interest.

While retreating into a 12th- century working monastery in Provence might seem a little extreme, the great lure is the location. Van Gogh, Cézanne and, of course, Peter Mayle all sought spiritual succour and a sense of peace in the mountains, orchards and rustic hamlets of this region.

The Abbey Notre-Dame de Sénanque lies in the Senancole valley, four miles north-west of the ancient hilltop settlement of Gordes. Surrounded by fields of lavender, wooded crescents and gushing rivers, it is certainly one of Provence's most secluded spots.

A rural retreat was just what the Cistercian monks were looking for when they claimed the site for their own in 1148. Reviving the rule of austerity taught by St Benoît in the fourth century, the monks lived off the land. They became expert cultivators and were self-sufficient so that they could isolate themselves from the rest of society. The only decorative motifs to adorn the abbey are inspired by this pastoral lifestyle – entwined water lilies in the cloister, a head of corn and a scythe in the chapter house.

This large Abbey, along with Cîteaux, Clairvaux and Fontenay, is one of the purest examples of primitive Cistercian architecture in existence. Simplicity became the rule that determined the monks' physical and spiritual lives. The Abbey's expertly balanced proportions and lack of ornamentation is an indication of the Cistercians' sense of order and clarity. Overt ornamentation is seen as an unwelcome distraction from meditation and prayer. Only light, a symbol of God, is allowed to transform the space. The concept is startlingly modern, and the effect sublime. The church, chapter house, dormitory and cloister have been created from hand-hewn stone, which gives off a golden glow, enhanced by the Mediterranean sun. Light plays along graceful curves and vaults, shining through occasional rose windows and across the cloister's 12 arches.

In summer, as you approach the abbey, an electrifying lilac blush emanates from the valley. The monks cultivate lavender and honey, as they have done for hundreds of years. An on-site distillery produces essence of lavender, renowned for its ability to soothe rheumatism, nervous tension, infection, headaches and indigestion. If praying, singing and meditation don't help you to relax, the lavender probably will.

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: Gordes is 20km north east of Cavaillon, itself 20km south east of Avignon. The calmest approach is by train from London Waterloo via Lille to Avignon TGV on the new line (08705 848 848, www.raileurope.co.uk), costing £145 return in first class or £95 in second; for this fare you must book by 24 July and travel by 12 August. You then take a local train to Cavaillon, and a bus from there to Gordes. Staff in the tourist office in Gordes (00 33 4 90 72 02 75) speak English and can provide more travel details.

Day visitors are welcomed at the Abbey.

Accommodation: You can stay at the Abbey regardless of your gender or faith. If you are interested in a retreat (limited to eight days), write to: Frère Hôtelier, Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, 84220 Gordes (00 33 4 90 72 05 72). Board and lodging is provided in the hôtellerie within the Abbey grounds at Fr150 (about £14.50) per day.

Daily schedule: The monks of Notre-Dame de Sénanque follow a rigorous routine that those on retreat are encouraged, but not obliged, to follow. Traditionally, the Cistercian Order observes five offices every day.

The first, Vigils, is at 4.30am, and the last, Vespers is at 8.30pm. Sunday starts later, with Mass at 9am. Silence is observed in the Abbey, except in the Chapter House. Here, the monastic community gathers each day to listen to a reading of the Benedictine Rule.

The rest of the day is devoted to reading and meditation in the cloister, and work in the Abbey's vegetable garden and beehives.

The lavender is usually harvested in August and distilling continues throughout the following month.

Walks from the abbey: Particularly spectacular is the Grande Randonnée 6, which leads directly to Gordes. You are asked not to use your car during the duration of your stay to preserve the atmosphere.

Local attractions: If the Abbey of Sénanque sounds appealing, then make sure you stop off at the other Provençal abbeys of Le Thoronet and Silvacane ­ known as "The Three Sisters of Provence", they were established by the same order within 100 years of each other. Le Thoronet offers Gregorian chants in July and half of August.

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