To discover Saorge Monastery, you have to go on foot from the perched village and go up to 800 meters. If you leave early in the morning, you will enjoy an incredible sunrise, bathing the Roya Valley and the ochre facade of the building. This historic and exceptional building, built by reformed Franciscan monks in the 17th century, has incredible mural frescoes. Saorge Monastery now houses a writing residency.
The foundation of Saorge Monastery
Located between Piedmont and Liguria, in the Alpes-Maritimes department, Saorge was once an important stronghold. It controlled the road from Nice to Turin which passed through the Col de Tende.
In 1633, Recollects established a community there following the Catholic Reformation. For lack of records, we do not know how many there were, but it is estimated that there were about a dozen of them. In 1639, the commune of Saorge placed the Chapel of St. Bernard, located not far from the center of the village, at the disposal of the friars for the celebration of services. Thirteen years later, the land adjacent to the chapel was graciously ceded to them so that they could build a convent. The monastery was built in a rather sober baroque style. It is rare to admire a simple and pure baroque architecture, yet this is what the monks of Saorge managed to do. The requirements of St. Francis of Assisi were that the brothers should live the spirit of evangelical poverty and that monastic life should be humble.
In 1661, the commune of Saorge also participated financially in the building of the church, dedicated to Our Lady of Miracles.
Located a stone’s throw from the Mercantour, Saorge Monastery dominates the village as well as the Gorges de la Roya. It is now managed by the Centre des monuments nationaux (National monuments center).
The walls of the refectory of the monastery are partly decorated with frescoes that were painted at the end of the 17th century. They have not been restored and are still in their original state. Three of them evoke the vows: the sieve separating the wheat from the chaff represents chastity, the tools symbolizing work indicate poverty and the dog reflects obedience. The sentence “Surgo ni, non cadam”, meaning “I will not rise so as not to fall”, illustrates a fourth virtue, that of humility. There is also a large fresco celebrating the unity of man and creation, in the Franciscan spirit.
In the cloister of Saorge Monastery, you can observe about twenty of the exceptional painted decorations, dating from the 18th century. These frescoes illustrate the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. They tell the most famous episodes of his life, such as his meeting with the leper or the Wolf of Gubbio, the welcome of St. Clare or his birth in the straw. These paintings also depict sundials and trompe l’oeil.
In the church, the furniture and splendid carved woodwork have been preserved. The interior is devoid of marble, gilding or volutes typical of Baroque architecture. However, the Recollects painted trompe l’oeil representing windows and some fake marble to create a Baroque theatricality. The mixture between baroque and sobriety, typical of the Franciscan order, reigns in harmony in this building.
The monument is housed in a green setting. In the terrace gardens overlooking the mountains, there are ponds, wash houses, the orchard and vegetable garden as well as a pergola covered with vines. This layout bears witness to the self-sufficient life that the Recollects tried to lead.
The Writing Residency
The Franciscans occupied Saorge Monastery until 1988. After their departure, the State wished to give the building a new lease of life, while keeping the activity close to its original destination. The building was then transformed into a residence for writing retreats.
Artists come here to seek solitude, concentration, and calm, but also sharing, when they are creating. From March to October, writers, translators, scriptwriters, and music composers from all over the world come to this unique place. The Franciscans’ cells have been refurbished as individual rooms and the residents also have access to collective spaces: kitchen, bathrooms, library, etc. Writing workshops and seminars are regularly organized in the monastery.
Prepare your visit
Saorge Monastery is closed from November 1 to January 31. From February 1 to May 31 and from October 1 to October 31, it is open every day except Tuesday. During the summer period, from June 1 to September 30, it can be visited every day. Please note that the opening schedule varies according to the season:
- From June to September: from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
- From February to May, and in October: from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
- From November to January: the monument is closed
Visitors will be able to discover the church, the cloister, the refectory, and the garden. The second floor, which now houses the writing residency, is not open to the public.
Selection of monuments in Alpes-Maritimes :