How did a 900-year-old abbey deep in the heart of France become associated with Coco Chanel, one of the most iconic names in 20th-century fashion? Today, we’re visitng the great abbey at Aubazine in the Corrèze, that département that lies wedged between the very popular tourist destinations of the Dordogne and the rugged peaks and valleys of the Cantal. Like the Cantal, the region of Corrèze is not one of the most common destinations for American and British tourists – but it has its own history and a gorgeous, wild landscape that merit closer attention.
Aubazine – a medieval outpost in the deep heart of France
In that sense, Aubazine is a typical example of the region. This video will give you the sense of how isolated the little village and the abbey are, surrounded by dense forests and rocky outcroppings. (Check the sequence beginning at 0:52 to get a good idea of what a wilderness this is!)
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that the site was chosen by a genuine hermit – Saint Etienne – when he decided he needed the quietest, most isolated place he could find for his intensive program of meditation and his almost obsessive recitations of the Catholic mass.
Although his little group was formally recognized as an abbey in 1134 C.E., Etienne started with a few monks in a little cluster of huts in this forest. Foundations were laid in the 12th century for the great complex of church buildings and dormitories you can see in Aubazine today. The church itself is still a gathering place for the parish, having been interrupted only when the partisans of the French Revolution confiscated all its properties in 1791 and turned the building into a bordello for 10 years.
It’s a fairly ordinary Romanesque building in comparison with other great churches in France’s Massif Central – but I found several of the details to be interesting, especially the carved heads under the choir seats, the stairsteps worn down by centuries of use, and a fine 12th-century oak armoire. Saint Etienne’s tomb is here, too, a remarkable limestone piece from the 13th century with carvings of church people and peasants standing in adoration of a Madonna and Child.
The Chanel Connection to Aubazine
So how did this outpost for hermits, so far removed from Paris, become connected with one of the most iconic names in the international business of high fashion? There were always women associated with the Abbey at Aubzaine – you can see the remains of an early convent down the road at Coyroux. But since the church was restored after the French Revolution, it has had the most unusual distinction of being under the management of two different groups of women.
From the 1800s until 1962, a group of nuns operated a school for girls and an orphanage here…and in 1894 the young Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel and her two sisters needed a home. (That middle name – Bonheur – means “happiness” in French, but it’s hard to imagine that it fit her very well in this case.) After she was born in 1883, Gabrielle’s family bounced from town to town in central France as her father tried to make a living as a traveling salesman. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was only 11, and it appears that her father was too overwhelmed to deal with a family on his own: her two brothers were sent off to work on a farm, and Gabrielle and her two sisters were sent to the orphanage at Aubazine.
Life was not easier there. Gabrielle reportedly hated the rigors of her classwork and the required religious rituals, but she did learn an important skill for her later life in the seven years she spent here: she learned how to sew. She also nurtured the ambition and vision for a better life that drove her as an adult. When she turned 18, she was required to leave the orphanage and transferred to a Catholic boarding house in the old Bourbon capital at Moulins. (It was there where she started using the nickname – “Coco” – that everyone in the world knows now.)
Chanel never liked to speak about her difficult childhood and in fact she often invented stories about a much more glamorous past. But in addition to the sewing skills that secured her entry into the fashion industry, it’s said that Coco took other inspirations from her life in Aubazine. According to local legend, she adopted the number “5” as her lucky number, inspired by the 5-pointed stars embedded in a walkway; it’s the number she later attached to Chanel No. 5, her signature fragrance. Her color palette often seemed heavily influenced by the black and white habits of the nuns.
And most notably, when you visit the abbey at Aubazine today you can see a familiar design in the windows that young Gabrielle would have seen every day for seven years: a series of interlocking circles that clearly show up in Coco Chanel’s famous logo, the linked “Cs” of her name.
Later in life Coco never used the word “orphanage.” Instead, she said her father took her to stay with unmarried “aunts” who always dressed in gray and black. “My aunts were good people, but absolutely without tenderness,” she would say. “I was not loved in their house.” She told the girls at the orphanage that her father had gone to America to seek his fortune and would come to get her as soon as he was rich. But in reality, after he dropped her off, Coco never saw him again.
Susan Goldman Rubin, Time Magazine, March 13, 2018
Visiting Aubazine today
No one actually lives in the abbey’s dormitories now. A single nun remains to give guided tours and oversee the administration of the site. But the little village surrounding the abbey complex is a pleasant walk in itself. You can make your base in Brive-la-Gaillarde, the most prominent town in the Corrèze, only 20 minutes away. There are plenty of other sites nearby, all rich in history and the kind of wild beauty that characterizes this whole region; I especially recommend the “gated community for aristocrats” in the castles at Les-Tours-de-Merle. If you like horses and racing, check out the “national stud farm” at Arnac-Pompadour; if you want something really rural and authentically historic, see the way medieval farmers lived and worked at Saint-Julien-aux-Bois.
But if you’re walking the Rue Royale in Paris and you come to the glittery Coco Chanel boutique there, cast a thought in the direction of Aubazine, 5 hours to the south in one of the least-visited regions of France. Imagine a young girl, abandoned by her father and chafing under a regime she never liked. And try for a moment to understand the ambition and determination that must have followed Chanel’s every step along the road between these two places.
Do you have a favorite “origin story” in France – someone who started from modest beginnings and rose to the heights of their profession? Have you visited other places with similar links to people who went on to wealth and fame? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and while you’re here, I’d be grateful if you would take a second to share this post with someone else who is interested in the culture, history, people, and places of the deep heart of France!