The town I live in, Tarascon,borders the Rhône River and lies between two mountain ranges, Les Alpilles (mini Alps) to the south and Les Montagnettes (little mountains) to the north. Les Alpilles is better known with its medieval village of Les Baux, perched on top of a rocky, Bauxite (named after the village) outcrop. Along with Mont St.Michel in Normandy it is one of the most visited villages in France. Les Alpilles have been peopled for thousands of years, with farmers grazing their livestock on the hills and the Romans quarrying the limestone rock to build their towns and monuments nearby. Today there are many vineyards, olive groves, second homes and exclusive hotels. The five starred Oustau de Baumanière and its sister Le Cabro d’Or and their Michelin starred restaurants (Oustau de Baumanière two stars, Cabro d’Or one) sit nestled under the shadow of Les Baux. In the nearby villages and towns of Saint-Remy, Mausanne, Paradou and Fontvieille there are many more hotels with shops and restaurants where “English is spoken here”.
The Montagnettes, on the other hand, which Stretch 10 kms alongside the Rhône between Tarascon and Avignon, are hardly peopled at all. There are towns and villages huddled around the foothills, Boulbon, Graveson and Barbentane, but they are hardly on the tourist map, and the only people living on the mountain range itself are the brothers, or rather Canons Regular, of Abbaye St.Michel de Frigolet.
You can visit the abbey and it is easily accessible by car, but my favourite way of visiting it is on foot, setting off from the town of Boulbon and passing by its medieval fortified castle along the way. The path takes you up a steep climb through the dry garrigue (scrubland), scented with wild thyme, sage and rosemary. After a few twists and turns, taking you ever further into the hills, you finally reach the plateau where you can see the towers of the abbey emerging ahead of you and at certain times during the day you can hear the bells faintly ringing across the hilltops calling the brothers to prayer.
This is the sight and sound that would have greeted the pilgrims as they came to pray to The Blessed Virgin Mary, Nostra Domina de Ferigoleto, in the Chapel of Our Lady at Frigolet and to St Michael at the Church of St Michel. No doubt the pilgrim would have been offered a night’s bunk and something to eat before heading off to the next place of worship along the way.
The abbey, which is still in use today and home to Canons Regular (as they are called) of the Prémontré Order, dates back to AD 938. Over the centuries buildings were added and enlarged as the importance of the monastery grew. It survived the comings and goings of Kings and Queens and various Religious trends throughout the centuries. However, it was sacked and plundered during the French Revolution, forcing the inhabitants to flee as the buildings were set on fire and only one of the chapels survived.
The Canons Prémontrés, returned to the abbey in 1858 restoring and rebuilding it to what it is now. They still live there today, though there are only 10 of them left. They welcome people from the outside World to join them in their Religious Services, Laudes, Mass, Vespers and Evening Mass, which are conducted in Gregorian chant. They also offer Spiritual retreats for people looking to spend up to 8 days in silence and contemplation, eating and living along-side the brothers and attending one religious service a day. If this is something you might be interested in, you can apply to the Père Hôtelier, Abbaye Saint-Michel de Frigolet, 13150 Tarascon, France. They suggest that you should be able to speak some French and you’ll have to leave your modern life at the door, as there is no mobile signal and no wifi in the buildings and you will literally be living like a monk, rising at 6.30am, eating your meals in silence and going to bed at 9.15.
The abbey used to be self-sufficient and produced its own honey. Sadly the last of the apiarists died some years ago and no one has taken his place. In the 19th century, one of the brothers, an herbalist, came up with a recipe for a liqueur using 30 herbs and plants that grow in the hills. His claim was that it was a tonic and that it “does nothing but good”. Le liqueur de Frigolet is still made today in a distillery in the nearby town of Graveson and its recipe kept a closely guarded secret. If you walk around the grounds, you can see where the vegetable garden and the herb patch were, but sadly only the wooden markers remain.
If you would like to stay at the abbey, but living like a monk is not your thing, there is a touristique hotel within the Abbey’s walls called the Hotellerie de L’Abbaye de St Michel de Frigolet. It is run independently from the abbey, but the rooms are rather Spartan and barely furnished none-the-less. It is utilitarian rather than luxe and befitting to its two star rating. But if you are after a unique location, surrounded by wild and rugged countryside and looking for some peace and quiet, this could be the place for you. There are lots of hikes that lead straight from the hotel door and the hotel will even give you a packed lunch for €9. There are, of course, plenty of towns and villages nearby to explore by bike or car.
Attached to the hotel is a restaurant touristique, called Le fournil de la Montagnette and is housed in the old bakery, sous les micoculiers. You sit on wooden benches along wooden tables under the shade of the big Hackberry tree. The food is locally sourced and mainly organic and the menu is provençal.
The day I ate at the restaurant I had the menu at €18 which started with Carpaccio de tomates biologiques à la gelé de basilique, (organic tomato salad with basil jelly) followed by Boeuf aux Olives, courgettes, pommes de terre sautées (beef cooked with olives, courgettes and sautéed potatoes) and Faiselle de Chevre à la Gelée de Thym (Goats curd with a thyme jelly).
Once a year the restaurant runs foraging classes on how to cook with the wild herbs picked in the surrounding hills.
Who knows what the future of the abbey will hold. How long will the brothers be able to hold out with their dwindling numbers? Will it become part of the modern World with its churches becoming hotels and its pilgrims, wealthy travellers in search of Michelin stars?
At least for now, the only stars you’ll see at Abbaye de St Michel de Frigolet are those in the skies above.
Prices at the hotel start at €60 per person with breakfast and go up to €126 for an apartment for six people. It is closed between the 5th November and 15th March, during which time the restaurant is only open on Sundays.
For more information on the abbey go to http://www.frigolet.com/en/
Address Saint-Michel de Frigolet. 13150 Tarascon, France, Telephone: +33 (0)4 90 95 70 07, Fax: +33 (0)04 90 90 79 23 E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.