Mention a vacation on the French Riviera and it usually evokes visions of the Casino in Monte-Carlo, the International Film Festival in Cannes, topless celebrities in Saint-Tropez, and glamorous hotels like the Negresco in Nice. But seasoned locals like myself prefer to head to a tranquil monastery located in the Mediterranean Sea a mile off the coast of Cannes.
The monks at the Abbaye de Lerins on Ile Saint Honorat have, I admit, always been my kind of guys. Early to bed and early to rise, they lead simple, structured and disciplined lives. Silent and humble, they meditate, chant and are ecologically minded.
Easily reached by a regular ferry service, Ile Saint Honorat has sweet-smelling eucalyptus groves sprinkled with lavender, thyme and rosemary; generally rocky beaches; and nicely shaded paths. There are no cars, though the monastery guard rides a noisy motorbike, or fast-food joints, though a gift shop sells CDs of the monks exquisite chanting, jars of their homemade honey and bottles of their wine.
After walking the island's one-mile circumference and noticing a number of "For Monks Only" signs, a guest checks in with Brother Jean-Marie, the frere hotelier who often reminds visitors that he seldom returns to "the other side," which is what he calls Cannes and beyond. When I arrive, we usually spend an hour discussing things like Aristotle, Saint Augustine, the human condition and contemporary affairs before he reminds me of the house "rules." "Do not talk to monks, go into the monks living quarters, or chat with other 'guests' inside the abbey grounds," he explained. "Otherwise, pax vobiscum."
Brother Jean-Marie, who wears the unbleached white habit which gives his order the nickname "The White Monks," sometimes comments on the pros and cons of monastic life on an island where in summer many women sunbathe topless just a few body lengths away from the abbey walls.
"We cannot ignore the reality of the world but we realize that flesh is but flesh," said the tall, bespectacled Frenchman in his mid-thirties. "We are monks. Prayer, silence and work rule us and, we hope, rule people here on a spiritual retreat."
Of course, I'm far from the first pilgrim. At the end of the fourth century, Saint Honorat founded what was to become one of the most famous and all-powerful monasteries in the Christian world when he launched his monastic order here. Later the monastery suffered the fate of Christianity elsewhere -- 500 monks were massacred in 782 and Saracen pirates frequently conducted raids until a fortified monastery jutting out into the sea was built in 1073 to protect the monks from such sacrilegious invaders. Like all valuable real estate, the island and monastery changed hands numerous times before they were turned over to the current order of Cistercian monks in 1869.
The present-day abbey, which is like a mini-Stanford University, features red-tiled roofs, stone-hewn buildings, cloisters with pointed arches, stained glass windows, a square courtyard, well-tended gardens and sprawling palm trees. There are modern touches -- a fax in the office, solar panels in the garden -- and the wing in which visitors stay was renovated between 1990-1993.
The forty identical rooms in the "hotel" are clean, simple and separate from the monks' cells. There is no telephone, carpet, air conditioning or television but instead a small wooden cross above a pine writing desk, a parquet floor, a wash basin, a closet covered with a curtain, a small bed and a reading light. Guests are encouraged to clean the showers and toilets at the end of the corridor, visit a spacious reading room on the ground floor, relax on stone benches in the garden and help in the kitchen and vineyards.
The balanced life, for the monks anyway, begins at four a.m. when bells which define the pace at the monastery peal to announce the Vigils, the first of eight communal prayer, meditation, mass and choir sessions during the day. Each service is punctuated by serene and tranquil chanting.
Though visitors set their own schedules, the two dozen monks-in-residence are in bed by nine p.m. In addition to a contemplative life of reading and prayer, they also cultivate lavender, oranges, wine and bees. They even manufacture and sell a liquor called Lerina, which some pilgrims have used to heighten the spiritual experience. They have also launched reforestation programs throughout the island and save kitchen scraps for compost.
After my most recent visit, I recalled Saint Paul's words that the monastic life aims to form, prepare and offer to God souls seeking supreme wisdom. Acknowledging that I have a way to go, I book another room for New Year's Eve in 2006. Brother Jean-Marie assures me that he'll pass on my request to his successor, Brother Gilles.
Then, a new man, I board the ferry back to Cannes. I resolve not to speak unless spoken to and to be humble. However, within ten minutes I step into some dog droppings and am reminded that, even after a week at the Abbaye de Lerins, I cannot long ignore the reality of the contemporary Cote d'Azur.
Getting There, Staying There 1. Fly to Nice and take a ferry from Cannes to Ile Saint Honorat.
2. A stay for the lay (women are permitted, men are permitted and couples are permitted, but kids are not) is usually limited to one week. The suggested price for a room and three meals is 32 euros per day, though larger donations are accepted. No credit cards.
3. Bookings can be made directly with the monastery by letter or fax, preferably in French. Contact: Frere Hotelier, Abbaye de Lerins, Ile Saint Honorat, 06400 Cannes, France. Fax: (33)-492995421. Reserve as far in advance as possible.
4. The Mediterranean Sea is just out the door and the restaurants, casinos and bright lights of Cannes and the Cote d'Azur are only a ferry ride away.
This article is copyrighted by Joel Stratte-McClure.
Photos copyrighted by Russ Collins, www.beyond.fr.