hidden europe 16

Never less alone than when alone: Le Grande Chartreuse

by Nicky Gardner


'We do not come here to look at the mountains', said the Carthusian monk with a curl of his lip. Yet still the monks of La Grande Chartreuse listen for the cry of the eagle as it soars over Europe's most extraordinary monastic outpost.

If you climb up past the white cliffs, beyond the spot where the chamois dart behind the crags, along the high valley where the martagon lilies grow, then you might get to see La Grande Chartreuse. Its austere walled precincts are set high in the French Alps. In truth, the monastery is only two dozen kilometres from Grenoble, but the road that runs up into the hills north of the city cuts and turns around great ridges of limestone, squeezes through impossibly narrow defiles, and tests the patience of the traveller.

For many writers, La Grande Chartreuse was an invitation to the aesthetics of terror. Wordsworth wrote of spires and rocks full of demons. The perils of the journey made the arrival all the more remarkable. But some travellers were less than positive about the daily regime of the monks who spend their lives in prayer in their mountain fastness. George Bradshaw, the famous compiler of railway timetables, described the monastery in his Illustrated Travellers' hand-book to France (1857), noting that it made a good place for an overnight stay. "Strangers are treated kindly," he remarked, going on to comment positively on the good beds, sweetmeats and the excellent herb elixir distilled at Chartreuse. But Bradshaw's Quaker piety and commitment to social activism were a world removed from Carthusian contemplation.

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