Half hidden amongst pine trees in the hills northeast of Brignoles, in the Var, the Abbaye du Thoronet was founded by Cistercian monks in the latter part of the 12th century, after an earlier attempt to settle close to Tourtour. Said to be one of the finest examples of Cistercian architecture, already in decline by the late 16th century, the austere limestone complex had fallen into disrepair by the 18th century. Its restoration as a major cultural monument was championed by the writer/inspecteur générale des monuments historiques, Prosper Mérimée.
A broad dusty path leads through a pine forest to a bridge, built over the dried river bed that serves as a natural moat before the Abbaye’s gasthouse. Inside the stone edifice, the air is refreshingly cool in midsummer. A garden with a small fountain lies before the church, whose simple façade echoes the clean Romanesque lines of its lofty interior. The fine acoustics of the building lend itself as a venue for concerts of choral and chamber music.
Steps descending from the dormitory adjoining the church lead into an airy cloister. The old chapter house offers a shady sanctuary sitting here and listening to the sounds of footsteps on stone floors, and the wind in the hilltop trees, one has a glimpse into the peace and isolation of the life lead by the founding Cistercian monks.
The Cistercian Order was noted for its strictness, following the original austerity of its founder, Saint Benedict. Decorations are limited to a few wooden images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, whose simple lines and modesty reflect the philosophy of the order. Although the monks were restricted in their social interactions, reserving a smallarea for informal talk and meetings, modern day pilgrims will find a café and simple picnic site located across the road from the abbey.
The Abbaye du Thoronet is easily reachable via the autoroute A8, or else by scenic routes up from the coast. Surrounding valleys are filled with vines of the côtes de provence, all centered around making Brignoles the market town that is capital to Varois wine making, which flourished well after the monks deserted their Abbey after the 16th century.