From time to time, we all need a friend to point out what is hidden in plain sight. And so we were herded into the Range Rover and conducted into the heart of the Alpilles. Turning off of one of our favorite roads, one that we had taken many times, we bumped along in unison, down a 4 kilometer drive over shaggy garrigue covered hills, twisted dry creeks, slowing only to roll carefully over the lowered electric fence that hopes to keep wild boar at bay.
The steeple of Notre-Dame de Pierredon rises so unexpectedly out of such a rough terrain that it could be mistaken for a mirage. And yet this church is an unmistakably solid stone, garnered from the surrounding cliffs. It is believed to have been built in the 11th and 12th centuries, replacing a Roman temple and--undoubtedly helped by its isolation--has remained intact ever since. Another Romanesque treasure, one that Remi had heard of but as it is located on a private property, it is one that we had given up hope of seeing.
Luckily for us, the property on which the church is located has been bought by an Italian businessman who has cultivated 10 acres each of wine and olive oil, which is now sold to the public.
The church is used as an exhibition and tasting space and was surprisingly packed with visitors when we arrived under the glare of the noonday sun. Better to take refuge in the sacristy with it rolled iron sconces and piles of freshly cut lavender.
The church was given to the Chalasien Order in 1205 and the monks built a large adjoining abbey. Their faith, similar to that of the Cistercians, called for a deep respect of the land. It was tended to with great care. It is a tradition that has lasted through the centuries and today, as evidenced in the magnificent grounds at Pierredon. Color, contrast, shape and form delight at every turn.
Contemporary art dots the property, pulling the eye down a shady allée and through curly-topped orchards. I love that the current owners seem to have a greater sense of humor, or at least of joy, than their ancient predecessors!
Speaking of former owners, our friend told us of his experience the first time that he came to Pierredon. After World War II, the estate was bought by the painter Jean Martin-Roch, who became something of a recluse--but of a rather different sort than the hermit monks. One day when our friend was out hiking, he came a little too close to the property and was greeted by the sight of a rangy Mr. Roch emerging with a shotgun in hand! Needless to say, apologies were sputtered out and a hasty retreat followed.
The remains of the abbey have been incorporated into a lovely residence that extends behind the chapel. The care that has gone into the property's renovation is evident throughout. For more information and additional photography, here is the link to their website: Abbaye de Pierredon.
I have rarely seen an estate that wears its elegance so lightly. Even the roses at the top of each row of vines spark the eye, as does the gorgeous sculpture in the midst of the lavender field. The Abbey de Pierredon may well be one of the best-kept secrets in the Alpilles, but I have a feeling that it won't be for long...