Monastery of Saorge – A Spiritual Refuge for Writers

November 18, 2021

In April of 1794, in the midst of the French Revolution, French soldiers swarmed the small Catholic monastery at the modest medieval perched village of Saorge and drove the monks from their home and place of worship. It was not an uncommon event during those years, a period that came to be called “The Reign of Terror.” Between 1790 and 1794 the Catholic monarchy in France was abolished, church property was nationalized and well over 30,000 priests, monks and nuns were exiled and hundreds more were executed. It was, however, just one small moment in the life of the monastery that was established in the early 17th century and still remains standing intact today. The monastery, its church and wonderful terraced gardens make for a magnificent day trip from anywhere along the Côte d’Azur. Throw in a walk through the steep, narrow, winding streets of Saorge and you’ve got a memorable trip into the hinterlands behind the coast.

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A Little History

In 1633 a small French branch of the Franciscans known as Récollects, sometimes known as the “Reformed Observant Franciscans,” founded a small convent on the edge of Saorge. It should be noted that this type of “convent” was much different than what we today refer to as a “monastery.” The Franciscans were a community of people who belonged to a particular religious order, but they lived alongside the general population. They did not isolate and segregate themselves from society as the monks in a monastery did. Less than 50 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea and a mere 10 kilometers from the Italian border, Saorge sits high on the steep slopes that dominate the gorges of the Roya River. The village dates back to at least the 10th century when it is mentioned by the name of “Saurcio” in an old document.

Starting in 1639 the inhabitants of Saorge allowed the the brotherhood to use Saint Bernard’s chapel (which lay just outside the village) to worship in and hold services. A few years later, in 1648, the brotherhood was granted land on which to build their convent. In 1661 the village again came to the aid of the Récollects giving them financial assistance to complete the construction of their church which was dedicated to Notre-Dame-des-Miracles. The convent buildings and the accompanying church were finished sometime around 1662.

A hundred years later, between 1760 and 1762, the master mason Calderari de Lugano restored the buildings and added some decorations to the church and the cloister. After the Franciscans were chased out of the property in 1794 the buildings were used as a communal hospice for thirty years. Finally, in 1824 the grounds and buildings were returned to the Franciscans.

The Law of Associations was passed in 1901 in France. It successfully suppressed nearly all the religious orders in France and confiscated their property. Due to this law the Franciscans again abandoned the property, and it was used for a variety of varied purposes, including youth summer camps. In 1917 it was classified as a historic monument. Italian and German soldiers occupied the monastery during the Second World War.

The state purchased the land and buildings in 1967 and it underwent an extensive renovation. The Franciscan friars once again occupied it from 1969 until 1988. After their final departure it was decided to convert the property into a retreat for writers that is overseen by the Historic Monuments Center. Now, almost 400 years from when it was originally built, the monastery serves a somewhat similar purpose as it did at its inception: a quiet, isolated, peaceful place where men and women can retreat to connect with their inner divinity.

Today the lower level of the monastery is open to the public. The upper level serves as a shelter for writers, music composers, screen writers and more. Seminars, symposiums, workshops and retreats are offered on a regular basis.

About the Buildings

The convent of Saorge follows the same plan as the Monastery of Cimiez, near Nice. This Baroque style of architecture was used throughout the 17th century for Franciscan buildings in Liguria and southern Piedmont. The buildings are arranged around a rectangular cloister and the church is located on the north side. Other two story buildings are arranged on the other three sides of the cloister.

The refectory, where the monks used to eat at long walnut tables, is decorated with five exceptional 17th century frescoes and allegories representing the three Franciscan virtues: poverty, chastity, obedience as well as charity and humility. Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Francis and the Woman of the Apocalypse appear in three frescoes on the south wall above which a variety of birds represent the close connection Franciscan friars felt with nature. Along with the walnut tables and wood panelling these paintings are completely original and amazingly have not had any restoration work done on them for hundreds of years.

Structurally, the cloister, the large open courtyard in the middle of the structures, is one of the most important parts of the monastery as it connects all the other buildings together. A communal part of the convent (along with the refectory, the corridors, the garden, the church and the library) it was a place of prayer and meditation. Four vaulted galleries are decorated with frescoes which date from 1760, depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Thick rectangular pillars support the arcades of the second floor gallery. Seven sundials, painted between 1668 and 1880, are decorated with signs of the zodiac corresponding to the months of the year. Monks’ rooms can be found along the ground floor of the southern wall.

The most important frescoes in the cloister are located along the galleries on the half-moon shaped spaces underneath the arches, known as “lunettes.” The name of the artist who created these wonderful paintings around 1730 is now lost to the ages. They are based on Saint Bonaventure’s Legenda Major, an account of the life of Saint Francis written in 1263. Each fresco illustrates a main episode from his life and is accompanied by a commentary in Italian. More frescoes, painted on the external walls of the cloister, were painted by Master Calderari de Lugano. One represents the Franciscan Coat of Arms depicting five images: the arms of Jesus and Saint Francis, the five bleeding stigmata, the Sacred Heart of Christ, the Seraph from whom Francis received his stigmata and the square cross of Jerusalem.

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The Church of Notre-Dame des Miracles

The Church of Notre-Dame des Miracles has a single nave decorated with faux marble paintings and gypsum. Groined vaults reach high above the interior of the church. Painted medallions which are framed by stucco mouldings were added by Calderari between 1760 and 1762. The two chapels on the north end of the church have ornamental screens covering the wall behind the altars (known as “reredoses“) and are dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Joseph. The two chapels on the south end feature canvas paintings from the late 17th century of Saint Peter of Alcantara, Saint Francis and Saint Claire of Assisi. Saint Francis, of course, was the founder of the Franciscans and Saint Claire was one of his earliest and most devout followers. Another painting depicts the Ways of the Cross with its 14 stations. It is considered to be one of the oldest Ways of the Cross canvas painting in the greater Nice area.

The high altar also features a reredos, these being made out of unadorned polished walnut wood. Gilt is used for the various statues and polychromy is used in the niches. Our Lady of Miracles, to whom the church is dedicated, is featured in the center of the reredos. Arranged around her are Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Paschal Baylon. The Archangel Gabriel, a Virgin Annunciate and God the Father are represented in the upper portion. A blazon at the top shows the arms of the Franciscan order.

The choir of the church is slightly narrower than the nave and features simple stalls of polished walnut. It is separated from the nave by another reredos which allowed the monks to be screened from the public during services. The monks used a small penance room for confession that is highlighted by wood panelling and a 17th century washstand. The sacristy features a white patina finish that dates from 1772 which serves to bring out the grain of the walnut wood on three walls. Two 17th century reliquary busts can also be found here in the sacristy.

The facade of the church is done in the Baroque style with two separate registers, one above the other. The upper level has a large, lyre-shaped window and is decorated with stucco mouldings which were added during the renovation work undergone in 1760. A large, open, grassy square in front of the monastery provides a wonderful place to sit and relax while soaking in the atmosphere around you. From the western edge there are spectacular views of the Roya Valley and Saorge splashed across the steep slope of the mountainside.

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The Covent Garden

One of the most interesting aspects of this monastery is the large convent garden on the east side of the building. During my visit I was able to wander through the various paths and rows of plants. There are landscaped terraces, ponds, wash houses, small orchards and a pergolas covered in vines which provide a delightful complement to the stone structures of the monastery. Various vegetables, fruits and flowers are still grown today, harkening back to the time when the brothers grew their food here in the garden as they strove for full self-sufficiency.

The Monastery of Saorge Today – A Writers’ Residence

The second floor of the monastery, once home to the monks, has now been transformed into a special residence for authors, translators, screenwriters, composers and other writers. To perpetuate the original spirt of the monastery, this area is not open to visitors. Writers can apply for residence here and if accepted they live a life very similar to that of the monks so many years ago. Residents share a communal kitchen, lounge, library and bathrooms while occupying one of the small, simple rooms where the monks once lived. The Centre des Monuments Nationaux, a large organization overseeing and care for many national monuments throughout France, felt that opening the monastery up to this kind of writers retreat allowed for the building to retain its original purpose of seclusion and contemplation and at the same time breath new life into this national monument.

The monastery regularly organizes a variety of cultural events including exhibitions, concerts, public debates and workshops.


Visitors are free to wander the lower grounds of the monastery on their own. Guided tours are available via reservation. A small gift and book shop can be found at the entrance. The monastery is normally open from 10h00 to 12h30 and 14h30 to 17h30 from May to October. From June to September it is open an hour later until 18h30. You can plan a visit any day of the week, though it is closed on Tuesdays except during the months of May, June, July, August and September. However, in these times of COVID you should definitely check ahead of time if you are planning a visit.

Adult tickets are 5€ with a reduced rate of 4€ for groups over 20. Anyone under the age of 18 is admitted free, as are nationals of European Union countries and non-European regular residents on French territory between the ages of 18 and 25. I have a yearly pass known as “Passion Monuments” which can be purchased for 45€. It allows free access to almost 100 monuments in France, including the Monastery of Saorge. If you like to visit and explore France this pass is well worth the money.

There’s only one way to reach Saorge and the monastery via car and that is by the D6204. Coming from the south you can take exit 59 from the A8 and head north on the D2566 until you reach Sospel. In Sospel pick up the D22204 which will take you over the Col de Bruis and down into the Roya Valley. Turn left on the D6204 and you’ll shortly see two exits for Saorge. I recommend the second exit as it takes you closer to the village. There’s plenty of parking available and its a short 10 minute walk from the village to the monastery.

Juste les Faits:
What: The Monastery of Saorge
Where: Saorge (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: All year round
Phone: 04 93 04 55 55
Facebook: MonastèredeSaorge
Passion Monuments:

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