This fine old Cistercian abbey is located in forested hills between Draguignan and Brignoles, just below the Argens river. In spite of its isolated location, it's easy to get to: only 13 km northeast of the A8 autoroute and the N7 highway.
Three Cistercian abbeys called the Three Provençal Sisters of Provence were founded in the 12th century: Senanque Abbey, Thoronet Abbey and Silvacane Abbey. Thoronet was the second of the Three Provençal Sisters.
The abbey was started by Cistercian monks who moved here from the Mazan Abbey in the Ardèche (after a stay in Florège River valley near Tourtour, about 20 km to the north) around 1140. The abbey buildings, church and cloisters were built in 1160-1190. In the 14th century, religious wars and politics resulted in the abbey being abandonded. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that the abbey started to be used again, and then during the French Revolution it was sold off and abandoned again. In the 1850's, the state bought the abbey and began rebuilding it. The rebuilding has continued, slowly, until the present day.
There's an entrance fee to visit, which allows you to roam freely inside or join a guided tour. The abbey is all stone, and includes a church, adjoining chapter house, dormitory and store room, and cloisters. The church is built of stone blocks, cut and assembled by hand, without the use of cement or mortar.
The Thoronet Abbey church has only one small entrance, set near the corner of the west end, because the church was only for the monks. Inside, one small doorway on the left leading to the cloister side-aisles was for the Lay brothers [Photo-07, church interior]; to the right of the Lay doorway, a second doorway leads into rooms for the monks.
A shallow recess is built into the south wall of the church [front of this photo]. Unique in provence, this is a receptical for the outsiders, villagers and farmers, to leave the body of their dead. The monks can then bless the deceased without any contact with the outsiders, as their order demands.
On the west side of the cloisters are the Storerooms-Cellar and the Lay Brothers' buildings [Photo-05] that goes as far as the river on the north. On the east side of the cloisters are the Chapter House and the Parlour and passage leading to the outside gardens.
Monastery issues were also discussed here, to sort out questions about community life (such as administration issues). Only the monks were allowed to speak. The Converts (Lay brothers entering the monastery withou orders; essentially learner monks from the "civilian" world) were allowed to participate but not speak.
The Chapter House ceiling has Gothic cross-ribbed vaults, and seating was built in to the stone base of the room. This room is very similar to the chapter house in the Senanque Abbey.
The Parlour (or parloir) is the "speaking place". This passage between the cloisters and the outside gardens to the east is the only place where Monks and Converts could speak freely. Here they would discuss work issues and problems, and share out the tasks before heading out to the fields.
The Cellar, Lay Brothers' Building
The Cellar or Storeroom [at the right], was where the monks made wine and olive oil, the main resources of Thoronet Abbey. The room included ventilation chimneys to prevent the buildup of alcohol vapour. The room still has some of the 18th-century wine vats and a screw-system oil press.
The Lay Brothers' building [at the left] extending north to the river is only partially restored. The refectory was on the ground floor and the dormitory was upstairs.
The monks' cemetery was outside the eastern end of the church, in the apse. Because of the monks' status of poverty, they were buried in a white shroud, without coffin or headstone.
Chronology of Thoronet Abbey
1098: First Cistercian monastery founded, at Citeaux, near Dijon, in Burgundy, by Robert de Molesme.
1136: A group of Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Mazan, a "granddaughter" of the monastery at Citeaux, found a new monastery called Notre-dame-des-Floriéges, near Tourtour, 40 km north of Thoronet. "Florielle Abbey" is described on the Tourtour page.
1140: Raimond and Etienne des Baux donate land for a new monastery in a remote mountain valley 45 kilometers northwest of Fréjus.
1148: Sénanque Abbey founded.
Pre 1157: The monks move from Floriéges to Le Thoronet
11160-1230: Thoronet Monastery constructed
1176: Alphonse I, the Count of Provence, confirms the Abbey property.
Pre 1205: troubadour Folquet de Marseille becomes the first [known] Abbot of Le Thoronet.
1785: Thoronet Abbey is declared bankrupt and secularized.
1791: A sale of Abbey property is announced -
1840: Thoronet Abbey is one of the first buildings in France to be classified an historical monument.
1841: Restoration of the monastery begins.
1854: the French Government purchases the cloister and monks quarters.
1938: the rest of the monastery is purchased by the French Government.
Every year during July and the first half of August. Information from the Office de Tourisme of Thoronet village.
On an earlier visit, in 1995: "One room of the abbey has a display of 25 to 30 painted statues, with a mixture of authentic ancient ones and replicas inspired by similar 15th-16th century styles, and all are beautiful. One "statue" is a complete creche scene. Another is a very unusual life-sized statue of Christ "Gisant" (lying on His back), made by a monk in the Bethlehem community. This is intended to depict Christ before He was put in the tomb, and symbolizes waiting for the resurrection and the passage to eternal life."
A snackbar with terrace seating in the parking lot offers a fair selection, including Salade Niçoise, Pan Bagnat and sandwiches; open April-September.
• GPS: 43.460250, 6.263740
IGN (1/25,000) #3444 OT "Brignoles Le Luc"
The Abbaye du Thoronet is set in the Forêt de la Darboussière. The woods are pretty, but there are old bauxite mines scattered throughout the region. (Bauxite was first discovered in Les-Baux-de-Provence, about 120 km west of here.)
One hike starts out south of the abbey (on the parking-lot side of the road), loops around southeast through the forest, northeast to the village of Le Thoronet, northwest to Les Févriers and Les Camails, and then back south to the abbey.
If you take the trail north from the abbey, it's about 2 km to Camails and the Argens river. There you could take the opposite direction of the loop (described above), or there are many trails going both directions along the river valley. There are also several different trails going north through the hills and valleys, to Entrecasteaux and Salernes among other places.
Thoronet Abbey Information
Open: Apr - Sept: 10h-18h30 (Sundays 10h-12h, 14h-18h30)
Oct - Mar: 10h-13h, 14h-17h (Sundays 10h12h, 14h-17h)
Closed: Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1, Nov 11, Dec 25.
Entry: 7 € unaccompagnied or guided.
Tel: 0494 604 390; Fax: 04 94 60 43 94
Phone + 33 6 17 48 82 34 (Taxi Franck) for taxi service between the Abbey and the railway station Les Arcs - Draguignan.