St Honorat, Cistercian Monks, and Cannes

On the ferry.

On Tuesday, we took a ferry to St Honorat, the smaller of the two îles de Lérins only fifteen minutes across the sea from Cannes. ‘The two islands, separated only by a narrow strait, were once the most powerful religious centres in the south of France,’ according to my DK Eyewitness Guide.

The fort on the larger island, Ile St Marguerite, is famous for imprisoning the 17th century Man in the Iron Mask, who spent 11 years there before being transferred to the Bastille, where he died in 1703. It is unbearably sad to think of this anonymous man being chained in the dark, only metres from the joy of such a stunning, sunny, lively paradise.

St Honorat is the home of a working monastery, where 25 Cistercian monks spend their time praying – we read a description of their day, and it’s mostly praying, and precious little eating – and making products including wine, lotions, and honey & beeswax products from their apiaries.

The wine was ridiculously expensive (and I later heard from Raymond that it’s not that great,) but I did buy some rose lotion.

Atop a ruined chapel.

St Honorat holds the remains or reconstructions of various chapels, including St Cyprien, Trinity, and St Sauveur, but the crowning piece is the Fortified Monastery, a substantial ruin ‘built in 1073 by Abbot Aldebert, to protect the monks from Saracen pirates’ (DK guide). My Rough Guide to Provence states that St Honorat has belonged to monks ‘almost continually since Honoratus, a former Roman noble seeking peace and isolation, founded a monastery here in 410 AD,’ but other sources explain that it did pass through a number of secular hands for awhile before returning to its monastic ways.

Though it must be fairly obnoxious to have the island full of visitors at all times of year (it’s the off season and our ferry was still full,) the monastery must also make a useful income from selling their products, an income they otherwise might not earn.

One clever catch for tourists is that though there are ferries to and from both islands, for a rather steep fee of €13 return, there is no boat connecting the two across their very narrow channel. We only planned to go to St Honorat, so it didn’t bother us.

I would recommend spending a whole day on one or the other; we packed a lunch of pizzas from Isabel. There is one restaurant on the island, open all year. I didn’t look at the prices, but talk about a captive audience!

Within the remains of the fortified monastery.

The ferry doesn’t even tie up, but a salty, seaworthy-looking man grabs you by the arm and helps you on and off; for children, he bodily lifted them up and onto the dock. The captain was outrageously attractive and Italian-looking, with a long black ponytail, sunglasses, and well-fitting jeans. We saw both men sipping espresso from little china cups on the ride back. C’est la vie!

We walked east or clockwise around the island upon debarking at the tiny dock. We took photos of the sea and the chapels, the ruins and the rocks. The sun bore down on the south side of the island, and Dani and I became inexplicably separated from mom & Robin.

A monk in a robe and sandals with thick socks walked past. I saw a sign asking visitors to please respect the silence of the monastery. I wasn’t sure if there was something about monks taking vows of silence, and we wondered if that was part of the monk’s conventions.

We found mom & Robin clambering around the Fortified Monastery, a gorgeous tower with white stones soaking up the warmth of the afternoon sun. We lounged in the sun, eating our pizzas and reading from the guidebook.

After lunch, we saw a fashion shoot taking place outside of the  monastery gates, and debated the height of the model based on her precarious wedge heels.

Views from the fortifications.

Entrance to the church, where one should respect the silence.

A couple of tourists walked through the monastery compound laughing and shouting, and we all cringed, thinking of the extremely obvious signs asking for silence – particularly right where we were, looking at the church, near the cloisters. It was embarrassing and rude: I can understand why tourists get a bad reputation. I’m not sure whether the two girls were speaking Italian or French, but we all shied away from them.

The shop opened after lunch, and our curiosity about whether it would be staffed by a silent monk was immediately answered when we entered to a loud, chatty woman on the phone. She was very nice, helpful, and definitely not a monk with a vow of silence. We looked at the wine, most of which cost over €100 a bottle, and bought a few postcards and the lotion. Then we continued our leisurely circumnavigation of the island.

We stopped at a picnic table in the sun, and I read a little history of the island that my mom had bought in the shop. Dani fell asleep as I read about the monks rising at 4am for hours and hours of prayer, both individual and collective.

The functioning Abbey.

There were photos of monks at wood-cutting machines, picking lavender, and holding a meeting in a circle on the rocky seashore. We wondered how many there were, and when I got home I found in my other guidebook the mention that 25 monks live there, which strikes me as quite small indeed. I suppose, tourists aside, this is a paradisiacal place to live. I wonder if the ‘challenge’ of the tourists provides an extra spiritual dimension – thou shalt not loathe the plebs. Something like that.

We finished our circumnavigation of the island in more than enough time to take the second-to-last ferry back to Cannes, where we walked around the old town. The small, pedestrian streets are full of restaurants, though at five o’clock, it was still too early for dinner.

We walked up the steps to the old Cannes castle, which was built by the Lérins monks in the 11th and 12th centuries (DK guide), and enjoyed views across Cannes as it lit up for the night.

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