We find ourselves at the top of the Croisette, the chic promenade in Cannes. There was no film festival this year [in 2020], and yet the yachts are still here, scattered across the bay. The boat taking us to Saint-Honorat Island, however, is hardly luxurious. The captain cries out: “Let’s leave the glitz of Cannes behind and enjoy a more refreshing, green, relaxed setting!” Twenty minutes later, surrounded by turquoise water, we step onto the orange soil of Saint-Honorat, part of the superb Lérins islands.
The island is a mile long, 1,300 feet wide, and can be visited in less than an hour. While on this gentle stroll, listening to the constant chirping of cicadas and smelling the delicious fragrance of pine needles, new arrivals will spot a vineyard and the roof of a religious edifice in the distance.
Believe it or not, the island has been inhabited by a community of monks for the last 16 centuries! Honorat d’Arles founded a monastery here in 405 A.D., making the island one of the oldest monastic sites in Europe. Today, twenty monks live together according to the rules of Saint Benedict. They rise at 4:30 a.m., retire at 8:30 p.m., pray seven times a day, and spend the rest of their time studying, meditating, and working on the vineyard.
Thy Wine Be Done
The twenty acres of vines are tended by the monks themselves, who take care of everything from disbudding and harvesting to bottling. According to Brother Marie, who has directed the site for thirty years, the island is ideal for making fine wine. “There is no winter here,” he says. “The sea breeze regulates the high temperatures in the summer, the clay and limestone soil retains water, and the general humidity keeps the vines cool. And, of course, there is so much sun!”
The monastery has built quite the reputation. The wine is exported as far as Japan, regularly served to the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, and was even offered to heads of state at the G20 Summit in 2011! Aside from wine, the monks also produce olive oil and Lérina Verte, a famous liqueur made with 44 different plants.
All these products are organic and the monks have a total respect for nature. Alongside the permaculture vegetable garden, the monastery decided to remove all trash cans from the island a year ago. The 90,000 annual visitors are now asked to keep their litter to prevent the spread of rats, who have no natural predators on the island, and of seagulls, whose droppings damage the ancient buildings. The operation has been a success; visitors are following the rules and the island is more tranquil than ever, as if designed for meditation. French writer Paul Claudel fully understood this minuscule archipelago when he wrote in 1936, “Lérins is a prayer bead in the midst of eternity stretching as far as the eye can see.”
Article published in the October 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.