I took a break from usual tourist activities, hotels and restaurants, to stay for five nights in a convent of the order of Dominican nuns. I am not sure “convent” is the appropriate term, but it is convenient, so I will use it.
There are fewer and fewer such places to stay. The dearth of young people taking orders means that the Church is closing them – as I described in my recent post about the abbey in Bassac.
This place, in a hamlet called Corme-Écluse in the Charente-Maritime département, not far from the Atlantic coast, is a modest complex of mid-19th century buildings and gardens. The main building, where the 9 sisters live and their guests stay, is comfortable but of course not fancy. It was fully renovated in 2000, but budgetary restrictions prevented renovation of the other buildings – a dormitory for school groups, for example. One of the other buildings now serves as a large but antiquated laundry room. The former chicken coop is now a shed for gardening equipment, and one of the homes of the black Lab.
Below, pictures of the front of the main house, the field across the little road, and a corner of the building now used for laundry; and one of the Lab:
I had my own small room on the top (third) floor, with a private bath, and a view from my two windows westward and into the gardens below.
The sisters are elderly, but spry – they take the stairs instead of the elevator, even going to the third floor. This is another order on the verge of being shut down. The property is for sale, and when it is sold, the sisters will move to a retirement home. They are almost all of them from the southern part of France, and so they have the sing-song southern accent, which I enjoy. They laugh a lot, and they even giggle. Their names are old-fashioned names: Ephrem (not normally a woman’s name), Irénée, Maÿlis, Jeanine, Maria (there are two Maria’s), Gilbert (also not usually a woman’s name), Simone, Germaine.
The black Lab is Tina. She is affectionate and well-behaved. She is never allowed inside, but has three different “nests” on the property and patiently waits just outside various doors for her pettings. Here, she is enjoying a good scratch:
The gardens, and the main house, are full of well-tended plants, all looking very mature. The gardens have that rumpled, well-loved, well-tended air that I love in French country gardens. Empty pots and pot saucers, some broken; watering cans; buckets, dishes, and other containers of gravel or water; hoses – all lie about where the gardener last set them down and where she will soon, or eventually, retrieve them to put them again to good use.
There is also an enviable abundance of old stone benches, urns, troughs, and other objects capable of containing and displaying growing things. You frequently see them in French gardens, and they are here, too. But also here are wonderful fossils and pieces of flint, all shapes and sizes, which have been gathered for years by Sister Germaine. She puts them near the plants, creating pleasing still-lifes.
When I asked her about her collection, she was so pleased. After lunch one day she went to her room and came back with several specimens – quartz, flint, fossils – all gathered either on the grounds of the convent or in the nearby area. She gave me one piece of flint and one small fossil to take home.
There is a free-standing stone chapel at one end of one of the gardens –
And another smaller chapel in the main house. The sisters use the chapels daily, and so may the guests, but we are not required to join in any of the services. (I was almost the only guest during my five-day stay.) The only requirement is to show up for three meals a day on time.
I stayed in a convent in Corsica a few years ago which was very nice…but the food was mediocre. So I wasn’t expecting much. I was happily surprised, however, by the quality of the cuisine in Corme-Écluse. Two young local women come in to prepare all the meals, and they are very good cooks, of the traditional cuisine familiale, cuisine bourgeoise type. The main meal is always at noon, and always includes four courses: entreé, main course, salad, cheese, dessert. I suppose, technically, that’s five, but who is counting? I know I daren’t count the calories.
For each meal, we assembled in the salon outside the dining room, then were invited to enter the dining room. I was put at a table by myself, which is fine as the sisters always passed by me saying , “Bon appétit, Madame,” and a couple of times during the meals, the head sister would come over to chat briefly.
My first lunch was an entrée of a small slice of pâté with radishes and cornichons; main course, a great rabbit stew; salad; cheeses (several); ice-cream; café. The second day’s lunch (a Sunday, so it was special), just the highlights: steamed shrimp – the best I’ve had anywhere for ages, fairly large and tasting of the sea, i.e., very fresh; steak with frites cooked just right; dessert – a small flourless moist chocolate cake served with a bit of créme anglaise on the side and just a few sliced fruits – orange, kiwi, strawberry.
Wine (always red) was served at lunch and dinner.
I don’t think many French eat this well any more; women work outside the home, everyone is in a hurry and few families come home for the noon meal the way they used to when I first lived here in the 1960s.
There were two good big rooms where I could sit and read: a long sun-room or gallery with comfortable chairs and floor-to-ceiling glass walls facing the garden. This was quiet and filled with light at all times of day, even though it was usually either cloudy or raining. The other was the large salon, or living room next to the dining room. There were comfortable chairs in a semi-circle in front of a TV (turned on usually only after dinner, for the news, which I watched with them); and other good chairs by windows for reading, knitting, and playing scrabble (a French version) or Chinese checkers. A local daily newspaper and several Church periodicals were available.
And I played French scrabble (with lots of help) – ça alors!
For all this, and the peace and quiet, I paid only 45 €/ day, i.e., including all the meals, taxes, etc. As do most lay people who stay at convents or monasteries, I added a donation to my total.