We sail the seven C's

Trip Start Sep 25, 2012
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Trip End Oct 16, 2012


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Flag of France  , Provence,
Friday, October 5, 2012

This was a day of C's: Cork, Chestnuts, Chartreuse, Carthusian, Contemplative Cell, Cloister,  Collobrières, Cèpes.  And, of course, Cousin Carole.  Well, maybe even more than seven!

Other than an initial bout of cousinly nausea (maybe we got a little C-sick), from start to finish this was a sublime Provençal day. We left the house at the yawn-inducing (well, for us) hour of 9:15, headed for Monastère de la Verne, aka La Chartreuse de la Verne, aka the-really-old monastery-way-up-in-the-mountains-near-Collobrières-that-you-can-only-get-to-by-means-of-incredibly-twisty-roads. 

We wound around and around those incredibly twisty roads, expertly negotiated by Manfred.  Even though he mercifully drove much slower than was his wont, the two occupants in the car with the Klein-carsick genes became increasingly aware of their common heritage.  While Manfred, Annie, and even little Tuffet enjoyed the vertiginous views, Carole and I simply strove to avoid sudden fluid shifts in any internal compartments.  Manfred pulled over for a most welcome stop in the midst of a dense cork forest.  We breathed the healing air, and inevitably stuck our thumbnails into the astoundingly thick, spongy bark.  Many of the trees had been "harvested" by the stripping of a round of cork up to a height of about ten feet; we were assured that the trees were unperturbed at this mild assault and cheerfully regrew their shorn bark, much as Tuffet regrows her fur after a summer clipping.

Carole most graciously relinquished her coveted front seat to me—apparently my skin had turned an even deeper shade of green than had hers—and we continued on to La Chartreuse.  The road grew yet skinner and twistier, which was quite challenging for some of us, but had the positive effect of requiring slower passage.  Though the sun was brilliantly shining, the light grew dimmer as the forest thickened.  Huge chestnut trees joined the cork oaks in a great mass overhead.  We began to see old Deux Chevauxs pulled over to the side, their presumed owners gathering chestnuts on the road. 

Signs ordered us to stop at a little car park.  We walked the last ½ kilometer to the monastery under the emerald canopy.  Scattered over the road were burst chestnut casings, reminiscent of lime-green sea urchins.  The chestnuts themselves were the color of polished mahogany, which brought to mind the face of Sainte Rosaline. 

Soon the forest opened up to the grounds of the magnificent monastery of La Chartreuse de la Verne. But before we enter the building, let's get the name straight.  The “de la Verne” was easy—at the base of the mountain on which the buildings sit there's a river called la Verne.  But Chartreuse?  Why name a monastery after a liqueur?  Or maybe it was that the nuns wore bright yellow-green habits, a psychedelic version of the chestnut casings?  But no, nothing like that.  Chartreuse actually refers to the Carthusians, also called the Order of Saint Bruno, which is an order of “enclosed monastics”.  Interestingly, the Carthusians include both monks and nuns, which must make for some interesting enclosures.  They are called Carthusian because St Bruno built his first hermitage in a valley of the Chartreuse Mountains, which are located in the French Alps.  OK, so what about the drink, and the color, you ask?  Patience, please.  Well it turns out that the good monks of Saint Bruno have been making the alcoholic cordial Chartreuse, named after their mountains, since 1740. (The recipe for Chartreuse, by the way, includes orange peel, hyssop, and peppermint oil—now I know why I don’t like it!)  And the color of Chartreuse, of course, is chartreuse.  So there you have it.  Now just before we enter the monastery, you might like to know the motto of the Carthusians: "Stat crux dum volvitur orbis."  In case your Latin is a little rusty, this means, “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.”  Oh, one more thing—if you’ve spent any time in London or knocking around British churches you’ve probably heard the term “charterhouse,” as in Charterhouse Square.  This is the English name for a Carthusian monastery. 

OK, it’s finally time to enter the building.  Through the gift shop, if you please.  (Cleverly, one must exit through the gift shop as well, providing two opportunities for buying the nuns’ wares.)  The monastery is a huge complex of stone buildings.  The very first version, as is usually the case, was built on the ruins of a pagan temple.  It was completed in 1174 by Carthusian monks.  "The Chartreuse," as a Carthusian monastery is often called, was destroyed by fire at least four times between then and now, but phoenix-like, it was regularly rebuilt from the ashes.  After the last rebuilding all went well until the French Revolution.  Then, in 1790, the buildings were impounded and the monks were given notice.  The Abbot fled all the way to Bologna.  Now that the monks had been cleared out, in 1792 the complex “was sold as national property,” which I take to be a diplomatic way of saying it was seized by the state and auctioned off.

Between the Revolution and 1968 the buildings were left vacant, and began to seriously decay into the surrounding forest.  Finally, in 1968 painstaking renovations began, which lasted for over 20 years.  The renovators used materials and building techniques similar to those when the monastery was originally built. Then in 1986 an order of contemplative nuns founded in 1950 took residence.  The name of their order is a real mouthful: “Communauté Monastique Bethléem, de l’Assomption de la Vierge et de Saint Bruno,” that is, The Monastic Family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno.  One wonders if this is the world’s longest name of a monastic order.  In any case, they use the same style habits of the Carthusian order (note that the two orders have St Bruno in common), thus maintaining continuity over the centuries.

We spent several hours exploring the buildings and grounds.  We weren’t allowed to visit any of the cloistered contemplating nuns, of course, but see the photo of the elegant empty cell.  And please also see the photo of the Christ at the top of the stairs in the chapel.  It's a Spanish statue made of wood.  It was stunning.  I’d never seen an image of the crucifixion at the top of a staircase; it invited us up to join it in a very moving way.

Well the fresh air and the beauty and the spirituality of The Chartreuse did the trick--Carole's and my afflictions were cured.  We drove a happy 13 kilometers to the village of Collobrières, where Manfred and Carole had just the restaurant for us!  The Restaurant des Maures was a simple, for-the-locals restaurant with quintessentially Provençal food.  It has been run by the Borello family for five generations! 

We parked by the tiny river, Réal Collobrier, and walked across a wide platform above the river to the restaurant.  The platform had about ten tables; this was where, under an umbrella, we ate our feast.  All of us ordered “l’omelette aux cèpes et safranés”—a porcini mushroom omelet with saffron, which was simply astounding.  Accompanying the omelets were a huge plate of real fries and a simple but fabulous salad.  Manfred also ordered Daube de sanglier à la Provençal which, to protect the sensibilities of vegetarians like us, will remain untranslated.  It being the height of chestnut season, desert was “mousse de fromage blanc à la crème de marron,” creamed chestnuts with a fresh white cheese that’s sort of a cross between yogurt and quark.  And of course there was wine and espresso.  Culinary heaven over the Réal Collobrier! After this Provençal feast we drove back to Taradeau, where we were invited for drinks on the terrasse with Felix, Ina, and Lisa.  The company, and the view over the valley as the sun set, were the perfect ending to a perfect day.
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