It’s a wet, gloomy day in central Texas, so I’m happy to spend it remembering a much brighter (and hotter) day Karen and I spent in the heart of France in the little village of Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez. It’s a village with an unusual history: from its layout and all the architecture, you would deduce that this is really a monastery. But the French Revolution brought an end to its long vocation as a religious site and turned Sainte-Croix into a secular village.
“The world turns…”
It still seems, though, that the culture of the monks had a lasting influence here. As one of the local tourist sites describes it:
Loners shouldn’t go there. People still live there in community. Every day is “the Festival of Neighbors”. The motto of the monks who lived there before the Revolution was “The world turns but the cross remains”, but that didn’t turn out so well. The cross is still there, but the rest has changed a lot. The silence and austerity are gone, and today we organize impromptu aperitifs between neighbors, the kids play “perched cat “, and curious visitors are welcome. So you know what you have to do.
Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez – A “Most Beautiful Village” of France
The first thing to know about the town is that Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez is on the official list of “plus beaux villages” in France. To get there, a village must comply with a long list of criteria, including the presence of important historical sites among its buildings. In that respect, Sainte-Croix had it easy: just to enter the village you have to pass through a massive, fortified 13th-century “Charterhouse” (“La Chatreuse”). Inside these walls, the village is organized around a large central courtyard, with plenty of other medieval cloisters, an 18th-century chapel, and the old “hermitage” quarters once occupied by the Carthusian fathers and brothers who lived here.
(I had to have the difference explained to me: a “father” was an ordained priest who lived an ascetic life of prayer and contemplation, while the “brothers” were laymen who also followed holy orders but who actually did all the work required to operate a place like this. And yes, there is a loose connection of sorts between the name of the village’s entryway and the green and yellow Chartreuse liqueurs that are still sold around the world. The main chapter of the Carthusian monks was founded near Grenoble – 90 minutes from here by car – and their original Chartreuse, or Charterhouse, developed and produced the liqueurs. There’s still a distillery at Aiguenoire.)
A village born from the Crusades
Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez is, by any description, fairly isolated. It’s an hour southwest of Lyon, two hours southeast of Clermont-Ferrand, the capital city of the Auvergne. The nearest major town is Saint Etienne (which France Today calls “a design lover’s dream” for its buildings architected by Le Corbusier and its contemporary design centers) – but even that is 40 minutes away from here. The good news is that to get here you have to drive through the Parc Natural du Pilat and some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in this part of France.
But how did a “most beautiful village” rise up in this remote corner of the country? A French knight, Guillaume de Roussillon, had gone to Jerusalem as an emissary of King Louis IX (Saint Louis); in 1277, he died near there in the aftermath of a coup d’état that effectively ended the 9th (and last) Crusade.
Guillaume’s wife, Béatrix de la Tour du Pin, had a long list of noble credentials herself, and one of her holdings was a chateau not far from here in southeastern France. To honor her husband with prayers and meditation, this widow asked the Carthusian monks (one of Guillaume’s uncles was a member of the order) to establish a new monastery at Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez. The new outpost was chartered here in 1280 and operated according to the Carthusian rules of prayerful calm and silence for just over 500 years.
The Revolution comes to Sainte-Croix
The calm was broken here, as almost everywhere else in France, when the French Revolution came to Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez. The local revolutionary government declared the monastery to be a “public good” in 1792 and put its buildings up for auction. They were bought by 44 local families who turned the hermitages into private houses and the monastery into a village – the only place in France where this specific evolution happened, as far as I can tell. Even when the revolutionary fever passed and monarchy was restored, the Carthusians did not think it worth the effort to try to negotiate with 44 families to get their property back – and besides, more heavy industry was moving into this part of the country, making it hard to find the peace and quiet the monks desired. The fathers and brothers moved on, secular life took over, and the village adopted its current name in 1888.
Visiting Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez today
Like some of the other “most beautiful villages” I’ve covered here, Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez has very little visible commercial activity inside the town’s walls. There are a couple of local hotels and restaurants and a few B&Bs in the area. If you’re into hiking or cycling, the Parc Naturel de Pilat is full of trails and wild mountain scenery. Visiting the parts of the monastery that remain requires a guided tour (currently unavailable because of pandemic restrictions). You can get more information about places to stay, places to eat, and other places to visit at the village's website.
On the day we visited, there were only a couple of other tourists walking the inner courtyard, so it wasn’t too difficult to imagine the calm and quiet that must have hung over this village 750 years ago. The signs of its evolution are evident – the Charthouse’s entry was long ago modified to allow vehicles to pass, and there are cars parked in front of most of the old “hermitage” residences now. But Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez is a pleasant day trip and a visual lesson in how France itself has evolved over the centuries.
Do you have a favorite among the “most beautiful villages of France”? Or a place you think should be added to the list? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second to share this post with someone else who loves traveling in France. Thanks for reading!
All photos in this post are Copyright © 2020 by Richard L. Alexander