North of the city of Lyon, hovering in the centre of the elegant Saône River, is a small island, home to the Abbey of Île Barbe. One of the last places to be conquered (the name Barbe suggests origins in the word ‘barbarians‘), the 5th century saw the construction of a small but powerful abbey on the island. Though little more than a squat and forgotten Romanesque church tower – the Église Romane de Notre Dame – remains today, the Abbey of Île Barbe is one of the oldest in Roman Gaul (the Roman name for what is roughly equivalent to modern-day France) – and the first in greater Lyon. The Abbey once possessed dozens upon dozens of churches, villages and fiefs in the Middle Ages – and even contained a great library thanks to Charlemagne – and it rose to great importance in the region (one such connection was with the church at Montelliemar). With wealth comes danger however, and the abbey was attacked and pillaged on more than one occasion. Though it changed hands and functionalities multiple times, it wasn’t until the French Revolution that the Abbey of Île Barbe was abandoned. Today, the abbey is slowly falling into ruin, giving way to the tangled forests of the small island. Half of the island is actually closed to the public – it contains a private residence for some of Lyon’s wealthiest. The island is connected to both banks by a narrow metal suspension bridge erected in 1827 – which so happens to be the oldest such bridge in Lyon that is still in use today!
Pro tip: The island is also home to a gastronomic Relais & Chateaux eatery, the Auberge de l’Île. For more budget-minded travellers, on the opposite bank (Quai Raoul Carrié), there is a lovely boulangerie – perfect for picking up a picnic to enjoy on the island’s park. Get to the Île Barbe on public transport from Place Bellecour on TCL bus 40, direction Caluire.
Possibly one of the most spectacular and amazing places in all of Italy is the medieval pile of stones that is the Sacra of San Michele monastery. Crowning the Mount Pirchiriano in Northern Italy, the Sacra di San Michele seemingly floats in the clouds, fanned by the incredible landscapes of the Val di Susa. Officially named as the Symbolic monument of the Piedmont region, this jaw-dropping abbey was probably consecrated in 966, but little is known about the early years of this amazing building. Tradition says that the Sacra di San Michele was erected by a pious hermit known as St Giovanni Vincenzo on the orders of archangel Michael – supposedly the angel then miraculously transported all of the stones and other materials to the summit of Mt Pirchiriano (though the miracles stopped there – St Giovanni still had to build the abbey!) Apparently the site was chosen for its isolation and difficulty to reach as this was typical of the Cult of St Michael (think France’s Mont Saint Michel!). The Sacra, part of the Benedictine Order, became part of the famous Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Rome, even extending beyond to Canterbury. In fact, the route is still in use today, and has seen a recent revival and resurgence of pilgrims (though today’s pilgrims are more interested in the history and culture and food found on the trail, and less in the religious aspect of it). The Sacra di San Michele is also famous for inspiring the abbey at the central of Italian novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Pro tip: Instead of driving, start your adventure at the village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, where you can follow an ancient mule track up the mountain. Following the Signs of the Cross, the trail winds around the mountain, in and out of the forest, past tiny hamlets and ancient sites before arriving at the mountain’s summit. The path, about 3.5 km each way, starts behind the old church and continues upwards from there.
Other Beautiful Medieval Religious Sites in Europe
Boyle Abbey in the Irish midlands, was Connacht’s (one of four traditional regions of Ireland) first Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1142 (though not consecrated until 1218), Boyle Abbey was built alongside the skeletal shell of an abandoned Celtic monastery. Cistercians, also called Bernardines or sometimes White Monks (for their garments), are a Catholic order of monks and nuns from Cîteaux, France (near Dijon) that were a highly influential religious sect under the renowned influenced of famed Bernard de Clairvaux. Widespread across Europe, the Cistercians founded hundreds of monasteries, abbeys and daughter houses. Though the Cistercians seemingly found it difficult to settle down in Ireland, they finally found their home in Boyle, growing quite successful at founding many daughter abbeys and monasteries throughout the region. Unfortunately, much of the beautiful cloisters and other fine architectural details are lost today. In 1645, Boyle Abbey was besieged by the evil Oliver Cromwell and his English army of hooligans, who spent the better part of four years (from 1649–53) murdering, destroying and causing terror and mayhem across Ireland for the sole purpose of conquering Ireland in order to steal their land and force them under English and Protestant rule. Of course, Ireland was predominantly Catholic (and thanks to the misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII, the English were very strongly Protestants) – all of which lead to the Penal Laws that effectively outlawed Catholicism in Ireland. Poor Boyle Abbey was once again ravaged in 1592, this time when it was transformed into Elizabethan barracks – soldiers’ quarters and a base for the English army – because what better way to assert dominance over your colony than use a monastery as a war engine (the British don’t fare well in Irish history…). Archeologists, historians and conservationists have attempted to recover and conserve the abbey as much as possible, carrying out both repairs and archeological surveys – leading to both a new wall and some interesting finds – with the abbey presented as it would have been under the Cistercian command.
Tip: Today, Boyle Abbey is under the care of the OPW (Ireland’s public works office) so check opening hours before you go, and be prepared for poor weather conditions as most of the tour is outside. Afterwards, eat at the deliciously organic Drumanilra Farm Kitchen, or head to the Book Lady for a bit of reading material, Ireland’s self-proclaimed smallest bookshop.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland
The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.
Welcome to the ruins of Glastonbury’s abbey, established 712 AD (and disestablished 1539), of Benedictine origin. As a visual monument, not much remains. However, it’s not what’s above-ground so much as what is – or isn’t – buried below its grassy flooring that makes it interesting. To start with, legend has it that Joesph of Arimathea founded it in the 1st century. Secondly – and more fantastically – legend claims that this is the legendary Avalon of your childhood stories, that this is the final resting place of everybody’s favourite storybook hero, King Arthur. Supposedly, Arthur and Guinevere were buried here long ago and later discovered by the abbey’s residents (conveniently, right about the time they were low on funds), attracting visitors from afar to view these famous graves – all the while supplying the monastery a steady income. Then, sometime in the 1500s, a fire ravaged the complex and the graves were lost or destroyed – rather conveniently, I might add. Real or not, the cunning monks had the last laugh – because people still come from afar to see Arthur and Guinevere’s graves – and ironically, even though the coffins are long gone and only a small sign remains, these visits are still providing the monastery with its steady income.