Saturday, 25 July 2015

Citeaux – The Mother Church of the Cistercians

Senanque - a Cistercian monastery in Provence
We are very keen on church architecture, particularly Romanesque (Norman) churches and our first love has always been the Cistercian monasteries. Last year we yet again visited the beautiful trio in Provence and yet again vowed to visit the mother church, Citeaux, which is almost on our doorstep.

We have been to Citeaux more than once, the first time we failed to find anything except the shop selling the monks produce – honey, cheese etc. The second time we found the new church, which is worth a look, but not exactly old (built in 1998) and finally we discovered that you could visit some of the old buildings, but of course the day we went for a visit (last November) everything was shut and wouldn’t open for tours again until this summer.

Quote from the Abbot of Citeaux
Even when the monastery is open, organising a visit is not as simple as it may seem. You have to book in advance as numbers are restricted, so on to their website and try to make a reservation in French - it kept crashing out. Eventually I managed to make a reservation on the English website but that involved having a number of pages open at one time. For instance you have to say what time you would like to visit, but on the order form page, the times are not listed and you can’t just guess, as times are restricted as well. I won’t go on, it took me ages – enough said. I finally managed to complete the form for a guided tour and to see a film about the abbey. But nothing in the reservation system is automated, so you have to wait for an email from the abbey, to confirm that you have been added to the list for the required visit time. That confirmation arrived relatively promptly, within a day.

No good me being a monk, I'm not getting up that early
All that hassle forgotten, we went off to Citeaux, on the allotted day and at the allotted time, excited at last to be seeing the mother church. We knew there was nothing remaining of the original buildings, but we were hoping to understand a bit more about the Cistercian movement and its unique architecture. Our names were on the list, but only for the guided visit not for the film as well, which I only noticed after I had paid. After I queried this error, the nice lady on the till gave us different types of tickets, but didn’t charge us any more money, so I assume we got a bargain. At that stage I didn’t care enough to say anything.

The young girl doing the tour was incredibly nervous, but became more confident as we moved from one area to another. I noticed her eyes kept flicking towards one of the men in the tour and I suspected that she was actually being graded on her performance, hence the nervousness. I kept my eyes fixed on him and I notice the tell-tale sandals. At that point I was sure that this man was one of the brothers incognito. The fact that he kept shutting doors after us everywhere and kept an eye on the movements of all in our group made me more and more convinced that he was not a genuine tourist. So here is our mock tourist “casually” looking at the copies of illuminations displayed in the library.

Mystery tourist
So after all this wait and trouble was the visit worth it? Well yes and no. I am glad to say we have finally visited the mother church, but there wasn’t anything really to see and the tour itself was not at all scintillating, the photo exhibition in the waiting room, the “carvings” on slabs along the path leading to the start of the tour and the posters near the parking area were the best bit of the day. It was a missed opportunity in my opinion, no mention of the simpleness of the architectural style, no mention of the fact that the daughter churches were almost identical to each other, following strict rules of sobriety and layout. No real information of why the movement spread so far and wide and only a cursory mention of how they were actually a Benedictine breakaway movement.

Timetable of a monk's day
There is so much that could have been said that wasn’t and that has nothing to do with our young guide, she was genuinely following the set plan and she did a good job at that. I personally think that they should change the script to give a bit more of a background and history to the Cistercian movement, but maybe they thought that everyone who had come to visit actually knew what they were visiting and so they concentrated on descriptions of what the standing buildings are/were. In any case, I am sad to say that the tour itself was boring.

At the end of our tour, the mystery tourist admitted who he was and that this was the girl’s very first time doing a tour for real tourists, which despite the palpable nervousness at the beginning, she had completed very well indeed. Unfortunately, I won’t be recommending this visit to people who stay here.

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