Provence’s oldest abbey was founded in the 10th century by Benedictine monks and built on what was then a swampy island in the middle of the River Rhône north-east of the UNESCO-listed city of Arles.
The monks of Montmajour enjoyed several centuries of wealth, with the abbey thriving thanks to pilgrims who visited to see a fragment of the True Cross displayed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross. By the end of the 14th century, plague and the Hundred Years War affected the fortunes of the monastery; a defensive watchtower and fortified walls were added but it fell into disrepute. In 1639 its fortunes were briefly revived by an influx of new monks but the French Revolution in the 1790s saw Montmajour abandoned and derelict.
Today the restored ruins include the medieval monastery and its neo-classical counterpart, built in the 17th century; art exhibitions are occasionally held in the enormous, barn-like church. St Peter’s Chapel is flanked by the monk’s cemetery, where medieval graves were carved directly into the rock. The 12th-century Chapel of the Holy Cross stands in a field just outside the monastery walls and there are panoramic views across the rolling Provençal countryside from the top of the defence tower; at 30 m (98.5 ft) high, it is possible to see the foothills of the Alps – sometime Arles resident Vincent van Gogh visited Montmajour often to enjoy this view.
Route de Fontvieille, Arles. Open Apr–June daily 9.30am–6pm; Jul–Sept daily 10am–6.30pm; Oct–Mar Tue–Sun 10am–5pm. Admission adults €7.50, concessions students €6, free for under 18s and the first Sunday from January to March plus November and December. Montmajour is five km (three miles) north of Arles.