In the southern most corner of the Haute Marne, about half an hour’s drive from the ancient town of Langres, is an extraordinary abbey. Of course, the very nature of the beast means that most abbeys are extraordinary in one way or another. But this one is special both because of its past and because of its present.
The abbey is tucked away in a particularly pretty corner of the village of Auberive and close to the River Aube. The journey there, through the many twists and turns of the Auberive forest, makes it feel remote and you certainly don’t feel like you’re only a few hours from Paris and even closer to Dijon.
Originally built in the 12th century by Cistercians, in the middle ages the abbey was home to a thriving community. But a victim of politics, religious wars and changing policies, it was looted during the 100-year war, seized from the Pope by the King in the 16th century and sold during the French revolution (having just been rebuilt by Benedictine monks).
Like many such buildings, over the years this abbey has had to evolve to survive. Following the revolution, it flirted with life as a cotton mill, before being used as an extended women’s prison, and then eventually a prison for young boys (in the guise of a teaching establishment). The 20th century wasn’t much kinder, and the abbey was requisitioned during World War II and even had a life as a holiday home for a short time.
A place of conflicting emotion
When you arrive at Auberive now, there’s a sense of serenity, light and tranquillity that’s compelling. And ironic.
In the main square, as you stand next to a statue which represents meditation, the abbey seems to ease any stress quietly away and replace it with an inner calm. But arriving as prisoners little over a century ago, women and children faced a life of near starvation, deprivation and hard labour. So much for the calm and tranquillity.
Outside some of the remaining prison cells hang a handful of photos. Children mainly, as young as 7, being marched back into the premises at the turn of the last century. In the abbey cellars, prostitutes, debtors and pregnant young girls toiled together for long hours in damp, dark, squalid conditions.
An enlightened future
But where once there was dark and pain, discrete renovations mean now there is space, light and tranquillity. In 2004 the abbey was bought and resuscitated by an exceptional French family. They’re industrialists and philanthropists in equal measure, who’ve acquired an impressive collection of Expressionist art and created a contemporary art centre to complement the delicate restorations. Their collection is vast, diverse, challenging and at times, well, just extraordinary.
In the grounds, in amongst the orchards of ancient and rare fruit trees and lavender, you’ll find Mea Culpa. Five characters, their faces alive with angst and distress and a quiet reminder of the former suffering here. And on the other side of the abbey, to the east of the cloisters, three sculptures of female prisoners struggle through the trees, with their ill-fitting boots, their faces of sorrow and their sinewy hands.
Wander through the cool cloisters for a while and you’ll find the quiet sophistication of an umbrella style 18th century ceiling in the former refectory. Then take a turn into the next room and you’ll find the bright colours and bold designs of a room dedicated to a graffiti convention back in 2007. The serenity of stained glass windows designed by Jill Audot in “nature’s colours” in the old church chancel, will prepare you for what’s to come.
Adding another Chapter with extraordinary exhibitions
For four months each summer, the abbey hosts an exhibition of part of the family’s art collection, each year with a different theme. In 2017 it was Opiums, based on the underlying message that “religion is the opium of the people” (Karl Marks) and posing the question, “Why do people have to believe something?” Art and sculptures from around the world and across cultures and time spread over two floors. Each year the theme changes, but the exhibitions are always extraordinary.
It’s not necessarily what you expect to find in a sleepy corner of Champagne but it’s thought provoking and in its own way, strangely soothing for the soul. Taking the abbey back to its roots after all perhaps.
You can travel to Haute Marne by TGV from Paris to nearby Langres or by car from Calais (the A26 and then A5).
Places to stay include the L’Hotel de l’Europe, in Langres (www.relais-sud-champagne.com)
For more information about the region visit www.tourisme-hautemarne.com
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France.