Visit Noirlac Abbey in central France

Article published on July 3, 2009
Article published on July 3, 2009
This Cistercian abbey, nestled in the centre of France surrounded by trees and farmland, welcomes caravans and European tourists interested in art, architecture and music

Sitting under a tree in the terrace of the small and welcoming hostel in front of the Abbey, it doesn’t take long to get to know the place. Here, everything is all set for exchange, conviviality or even solitude if you desire. Nothing will come to disturb your tranquility. The location encourages you to be at peace. There is nothing to distract you like stress, arguments, hectic traffic or those salespeople selling cheap rubbish that appear ‘as soon as there are three stones to visit’. Nor are there garish banners under which hordes of tired tourists crowd together yelling whilst shuffling about. The Abbey is in the village of Bruère-Allichamps. There is a Roman mile marker a little further away to the north indicating that we find ourselves in the historic centre of France, and indeed Europe.

(Photo: Excentrique, festival en région Centre)Laura is a 20-year-old Italian who will start her second year studying history of art in Paris next autumn. She is making the most of the summer break in order to improve her French, the language that she ‘loves’. ‘Do you come here often?’ she asks me. I respond, ‘Several times a week’. She seems surprised so I hasten to add that I live nearby. 'What luck,' exclaims Irene, a French Norwegian who shares an apartment with her Italian friend. She sighs as she says she likes Paris, 'but big cities are tiring!' Laura, next to her, looks at the pastoral scene in the coolness surrounding us. We descend gently down some hills which once upon a time were overrun with wolves and bandits before the monks cleared around the sandy banks of the Cher. On the property, the trees are almost spectacularly baroque in their lopsidedness, punctuating like a counterpoint the stately harshness of the medieval buildings dating back to as early as 1150.

Musical encounters

Whether you be a walker, tourist or a new type of pilgrim, Noirlac Abbey has all the qualities needed for it to be a haven of peace and focus. It is ideal for those wishing to recharge a little before carrying on their journey. If that is not enough the musical encounters that the Abbey has been running for a quarter of a century, this year premieres a new format of two long weekends between 10 and 20 July.

(Photo: ©Markus Wessollet)

Paul Fournier, the Abbey’s director and musicologist, has given responsibility of the programme and musical organisation of the season to Philippe Nahon (creator of the group Ars Nova). Sacred and secular music is being mixed with contemporary works such as those of the Lebanese composer Zad Moultaka. For the director of the festival, the aim is to create links between musical styles that appear unrelated. ‘Crossings’ aims to create this both original and mixed meeting of scholarly music.

Under the arches

Laura from Vincenza says it's the architecture that speaks to her. I can no longer stop myself from exclaiming ‘Palladio’. This is why she seemed so vexed earlier when we spoke about the gothic period. She seems confused and very surprised that historically this style appears so early. I remark to her that the Cistercians were part of the birth of the primitive gothic era with their desire to honour God with zeal entailing the rib vault. This architecture also had economic logic as the complex romanesque vaults required a lot of money to construct and complicated masonry. We conclude that the two styles travel along the same lines, and there is not such a strict separation. One must learn how to create links in architecture as in music.

These two great enthusiasts of ‘baroque’ music are drawn by the variety of the programme and affordable prices. They may even return within a week or two. ‘We’ve seen a number of small rural gites and guest rooms in the area on the waterfront... that won't break the bank,’ concludes Irene.