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Pirates and Saints on the French Riviera

Updated on July 14, 2012

I am not sure how many times I have made the 20-30 minute trip to Île Saint-Honorat, the Cistercian monastery on an island off the Cote d’Azur. Such is sacrifice.

The first time I visitied the island, with a close friend from Cannes, I was more focused on the flora as we walked about the small island, measuring just under a mile long and about a quarter of a mile wide. Since then, I have made an effort to visit the island every time I stop in Cannes.Two of my favorite aspects of the island are the 11th century tower at the south side of the island with its intricate and graceful stonework and the church inside the monastery walls.

11th century tower and southwest corner of monestary walls
11th century tower and southwest corner of monestary walls | Source
Simple elegance of church sanctuary
Simple elegance of church sanctuary | Source
Church through monastery gate
Church through monastery gate | Source

A fortified monastery

The tower fascinates me. I take pretty much the same pictures every time that I go, hoping that I might get a new shot of the arches and angles or a different interplay of light and shadows. The view of Cannes and the bay from the top of the tower is unlike any other.

Inside the walls I have always found the simple elegance of the church captivating, but the day that I heard the bells ringing for sext, the noon hour of prayer, was transformative.

I entered the church to find chanting monks in two lines, facing each other across the sanctuary. I confess to having a weak spot for monks chanting. In the States, I sometimes go on weekend retreats to a nearby monastery, and I am about the only guest who shows up at all the hours except Vigils (at about 4 in the morning) and sometimes Lauds, at daybreak. I am transported by the haunting beauty of the chants, or maybe I should say “enchanted.”

Cannes from St. Honorat
Cannes from St. Honorat | Source
Wind-bent trees on St. Honorat
Wind-bent trees on St. Honorat | Source
Field of lavender. The gift shop is in the arcade on the exterior wall of the monastery.
Field of lavender. The gift shop is in the arcade on the exterior wall of the monastery. | Source
Vineyard north of monastery
Vineyard north of monastery | Source

An island that nurtures saints

Even at the height of tourist season, it is possible to find solitude in the forests and off the beaten track. The occasional sighting of a monk toiling in the field makes it almost surreal, the Bible come to life, although having one cross your path on a tractor or, as I once heard, cursing loudly at something that happened in a field is more jarring.

I like to go alone. I like to wander through the woods and explore the disused chapels. They are locked, but looking through the windows is like looking into the past.

I have enjoyed eating in the one restaurant on the island, which is not noticeably more expensive than those in Cannes (not that that means that it is inexpensive). It has the added advantage of being positioned where diners can see the ferry coming in to the dock.

In the sixth century, Ennodus of Pavia called St. Honorat, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in Europe, “an island that nurtures saints.” In addition to St. Honorat himself, the monastery produced two other archbishops of Arles, Hilarius in the fifth century and Cesarius in the sixth.

Les Lerins from Haute Cannes. St. Honorat is the farther, smaller island. The Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in the fort at front and center of Ile Ste. Marguerite in foreground.
Les Lerins from Haute Cannes. St. Honorat is the farther, smaller island. The Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in the fort at front and center of Ile Ste. Marguerite in foreground. | Source
Monastery through trees
Monastery through trees | Source
East from the tower
East from the tower | Source
Monastery church from tower
Monastery church from tower | Source
Monastery from tower
Monastery from tower | Source

Pious and scholarly monks

Île Saint-Honorat, (Saint Honoratus Island) has been home to a community of monks, since St. Honorat and Saint Caprasius took up residence on the island, about a mile off the coast of Cannes, in 410. They had moved to the smaller of the two inhabited islands, which the Romans called Lerina , at the urging of Leontius, Bishop of nearby Frejus, where the two had been living as hermits. They and Honorat’s brother, who died while the three were on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, had planned to live as hermits, but Honorat’s reputation for sanctity soon drew other religious to the island, and the Monastery of Lerins was established.

When the Archbishop of Arles was murdered amid religious upheaval in 426, St. Honorat, who lived from about 350 until January 6, 429, was chosen to succeed him. A contemporary record said that the monastery had become “immense” by that time.

The monastery, noted for its pious and scholarly monks, produced many of the celebrated bishops and ecclesiastical writers of the 5th and 6th centuries, Ireland’s Saint Patrick is believed to have been among them.

Interior of St. Sauvier
Interior of St. Sauvier | Source
Tower detail
Tower detail | Source
Tower detail
Tower detail | Source

Other than those times that they were forced to evacuate, such as when Saracens massacred many of them toward the middle of the 8th century, the island has remained occupied by monks. Around 732, the island’s abbot, Saint Porcarius, and many of his followers were killed in one such raid. Those monks who escaped said that they were able to do so because an angel had warned the abbot prior to the attack.

The current buildings in the island’s fortified monastery date from very end of the 11th century.

After Raimon Féraud wrote a romanticized version of St. Honorat’s life in Provencal verse, at the turn of the 14th century, the Arles region, and the Abbey of Lerins, in particular, became popular pilgrimage sites.

In 1635, the Spanish captured the island, expelled the monks and enhanced the fortifications that they had begun. The monks retreated to Vallauris, near Antibes, until the French retook the island in 1637. The Spanish and Genoese pirates continued to attack the island. At one time, the monks owned not only Vallauris, but also nearby towns of Cannes and Mougins.

One of the islands two fours a boulets
One of the islands two fours a boulets | Source
Troughs inside one of the cannonball ovens
Troughs inside one of the cannonball ovens | Source

What a revolting development this is

During the French Revolution, the state took control of the island and disbanded the monastery. Actress Marie Blanche Alziary de Roquefort, known as Mademoiselle de Sainval, of the Comedie Francaise, later bought the island from the Republic and made it her home for about 20 years.

In 1793 cannon batteries were established at each end of the island, the Batterie des Républicains (Battery of the citizens of the Republic) at the west, and the (Batterie des Brave Gens) Battery of Brave People) to the east.

The abandoned (and extant) Trinity Chapel was commandeered as a guard house for the Battery of the Republicans and the (extant) Chapel of St. Savior was used as a powder magazine.

Near each of the battery positions, a fours à boulets, furnace for heating cannonballs, dating from 1794 remains in nearly pristine condition. The furnaces heated the balls until they glowed red to set wooden ships and their sails on fire. The balls were inserted at the top of a long inclined chute so that the fire in the bottom of the furnace could heat then as they slowly descended or rested over the fire until they were withdrawn from the bottom for use.

Signs near the ovens demonstrate the process.

Passengers head for St. Honorat on one of the ferries that travels to and from the islands throughout the day.
Passengers head for St. Honorat on one of the ferries that travels to and from the islands throughout the day. | Source

A working monastery

The monks host retreats and cultivate fields of lavender and grapes. The gift shop adjoining the monastery sells the usual religious items and wine, liqueur, and various other products of their labor.

Ferry service operates between the west end of the Port of Cannes and the island throughout the day, except of course during the two-hour lunch time. The short boat ride provides a panoramic view of the Esterel Massif, Cannes and Antibes, and a glimpse of the larger Ile Ste. Marguerite, as it passes the west end of the island.

There is no dearth of exciting things to do on the Cote d’Azur, but few of them offer the serenity, history and beauty of Île Saint-Honorat.

Approaching lavender on St. Honorat
Approaching lavender on St. Honorat | Source

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