Spiritual retreats on the Riviera

Karen Armstrong has a look at some places to find peace and God on the Riviera

If you believe ‘God is everywhere’, you will have no difficulty with the idea that he puts in an appearance here on the Riviera. However, it is sometimes difficult to find him as work and family openly compete for our time, not to mention sunbathing, shopping, technological gadgets and the other pleasures we experience being here.

Whilst living our busy lives, it is important to occasionally take some time out for a heavy dose of peace and tranquillity. Where better to stay than at a local abbey?

abbey lerinsAbbaye de Lerins, Ile St Honorat
Photo: Abbey de Lerins
There are ten abbeys, both monasteries and convents, open for guests in the Alpes Maritimes, with six on our doorstep including Nice, La Trinite, Menton, St Paul de Vence, Ile St Honorat and Castagniers. It is possible to get away from it all while just driving down the road. You can spend from one or two nights to one or two weeks staying in an abbey with monks or nuns, by contacting their ‘hôtellerie’. 

The beauty of such a retreat is that you can make of it exactly what you want, whether that is silence, contemplation, prayer, meditation, or to develop a skill such as writing or drawing. You could even spend your days engaged in a leisure pursuit such as walking or even exploring the local shops. 

Eliza Klein of the ‘Abbaye de Lerins’ explains “this type of retreat gives our guests the opportunity to see a piece of the monastic life, as well experiencing their own spiritual calm”.

If you are religiously orientated, Catholic services take place throughout the day; starting with ridiculously early morning Vigiles (around 4.30 am) followed by Laudes (08.00 am). The Messe service varies from abbey to abbey and is carried out from 8.30am to 11.00am. Sexte usually takes place just before lunch, proceeded by None just afterwards. Vepres is around 6.00pm with the final service at 8.00pm: Complies. Services vary in length from 15 minutes to an hour for the traditional Messe service. 

abbey lerinsMesse at the Abbaye de Lerins
Photo: Abbey de Lerins
On my visit to the Abbaye de Lerins, my activity of choice was sleeping, but amidst my fatigue I found myself transcended by the deep guttural Gregorian style chants of the monks. At the Abbaye de la Paix at Castagniers, the nuns’ voices take a more angelic tone. The words of the psalms are available to follow or to join in with the chanting. These services give a focus to your day combined with a spiritual slant if you wish to attend. 

Another focus is mealtimes. There is no need to consider preparing food as your breakfast, lunch and evening meal are served at regular intervals, allowing you to devote your time to your activities or non-activities. Eating takes place in silence or to classical music, which allows appreciation of the food and an insight into the monks’ and nuns’ lifestyle in the abbey. 

During my stay at the Abbey de Lerins I was talking during the meal and was kindly told to “Shhhh” by a brother, albeit most lovingly and with a huge smile. Oops!

Guests are expected to wash, dry and put away cutlery and crockery and set up for the next meal, which is also undertaken in silence. Working together creates a bond and is highly efficient taking a matter of minutes. 

Meals are delicious, well balanced and include the usual French fare of starter, main meal, cheese course and desert followed by coffee, accompanied by wine at lunchtime. The evening meal is a lighter affair but still delightful. 

At the Abbaye de Lerins, we were treated to a delicious array of salads, meat, fish and vegetables. The monks cultivate vineyards and produce and sell high quality wine (it’s really good too). They also produce olive oil, which amongst books and other delicacies, including their famous wine is available to buy at the shop adjacent to the Abbey.

You can witness the most stunning sunrises if you can get up early enough. If you like exercise, walk or take your running shoes to jog around the 4-kilometre perimeter.

abbey CastagniersAbbaye Notre-Dame de la Paix, Castagniers
Photo: Metropole NCA
At Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Paix, Castagniers the food was simple, although delicious and abundant. The sisters produce chocolate at the abbey; the cocoa derives from fair-trade sources and created from the heart, coming in many delectable varieties.

There are signposted walks amidst scenic mountain countryside, both from the abbey grounds, which include a beautiful walk into the village of Castagniers, or by road to the neighbouring village of St Blaize, followed by a descent to the tiny village of St Antoine de Siga.

Guests don’t eat with the brothers or sisters of the abbey but there are plenty of opportunities to talk to members of the community throughout your stay. In my experience at the smaller abbeys a monk or nun greeted me on arrival.

Accommodation is basic but sufficient; often the bathroom and shower will be outside your room, reminiscent of university days with a washbasin, a desk and a Bible inside. There is usually a library and prayer room to visit during the day if you want to stay inside to read or pray. At some of the larger abbeys there is the option to have a room with WC and shower. 

In winter it can become cold, as magnificent as the buildings are, they are large and do not warm up easily. From March to October is the most pleasant period for a stay, although if you choose to visit during the winter months it can also be agreeable if you are prepared (take another blanket). Usually, guests are required to bring a towel, although these can be hired for a small price.

A stay in an abbey is a bit of an open secret, with availability being a huge benefit. I recently tried to book a hotel or a gîte in the Hautes Alpes during the school holiday period and found it impossible. I discovered and telephoned the ‘Abbaye Notre Dame de Laus’ to find rooms with WC and shower available for 46€ per night full board, a stay I am thoroughly looking forward to as this appears to be a larger abbey with organised activities such as skiing weeks, pilgrimages and activities for young people and families.

It is not expensive to stay in a monastery or convent with prices from 35-50€ per person per night including food. Most abbeys welcome and cater for couples too, providing double rooms with double beds. This is not a luxury retreat, but then sometimes isn’t that just what we need to get back to basics to rediscover time, our true nature and possibly God?

© Karen Armstrong

  • Guide for all abbeys and spiritual retreats throughout France, Switzerland and Belgium: http://www.guide-st-christophe.fr
  • Abbaye de Lerins: http://www.abbayedelerins.com Tel: 04 92 99 54 20.
  • Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Paix, Castagniers. Tel: 04 93 08 05 12.
  • Dominicaines de la Sainte-Famille, St Paul de Vence. Tel: 04 93 32 53 93.

Access to Castagniers and St Paul is by car or bus with parking on the grounds. Ferry to Ile St Honorat departs regularly from Cannes.

Minimum and maximum stays vary from abbey to abbey.

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