We had to go to Lalinde to fetch my new passport and seeing as the mairie only opened at 2, (everything closes for lunch from 12 to 2, in the countryside), we had about an hour to spare and so decided to leave early and make a small detour on the way to visit Cadouin Abbey. We had passed by the turnoff several times and I had done some research which piqued my interest. I am not a religious person at all but I love visiting old churches. There is something so serene about them. Being surrounded by massive walls built centuries ago in a cool dark space just has a certain something about it. When you think of all the tens of thousands of people who walked on those stone floors and rendered them concave in certain places, all the fingers dipped in the holy water fonts, all the knees on the floors bent in prayer, it just amazes me. To be able to walk in those steps is a privilege that we should not take for granted.
The tiny village of Cadoiun is situated in a small valley of the Bessede forest between the river Dordogne and the river Couze, halfway between Sarlat and Bergerac. The Abbey is a masterpiece of flamboyant gothic art listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Founded in 1115 by Geraud de Sales, it became home to Cistercian monks in 1117. That same year it became one of the most important pilgrim centers in Europe due to the Saint-Suaire, a beautifully embroidered shroud that was said to be the shroud that surrounded the head of Jesus Christ. The shroud is still on display today.
Pilgrims flocked to the Abbey which became part of the pilgrim route to Saint Jacques de Compostelle in Spain. As with all important points along the route, you can still see carvings of the shells that are in fact scallop shells that were in evidence at each site. Important pilgrims included Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lion Heart. The shroud was tested in 1934 by scientists and proved to be an ancient piece of Egyptian cloth dating to the 11th century and having belonged to a Muslim man. It is beautifully preserved and on display today. Immediately, the bishop of the area forbade all pilgrimages and the Abbey was removed from the pilgrimage route. Can you imagine how this must have affected the town and surrounding area? 800 years of fame disappeared. Overnight they went from a buzzing hub welcoming thousands of people to a very quiet town, businesses shut down, restaurants and hotels closed. Even if the shroud turns out to not be part of Christ’s shroud, the Abbey remains well worth a visit. The main attraction is the beautiful cloister from the 15-16th century.
There are many beautiful pieces of stone sculpture inside although it is unfortunate that many were destroyed. The Abbey was considerably destroyed during the Religious wars and by the French Revolution, especially the thousands of manuscripts the monks had spent hundreds of years producing. Some were saved and can be seen today in the small museum. The Abbey has been beautifully restored and is one of the best preserved examples in the area if not all of France. As the French say, un vrai chef-d’œuvres. A real masterpiece.