Exploring Templar Sites in France

March 4, 2023

Abbey of Citeaux

My dear friends Paula Sullivan, Ann Matthews, and I have taken several trips tracking the Templars and the Grail in Europe. During the fall of 2022, we spent a month driving to cathedrals, abbeys, castles, and villages imbibing the aura of medieval France. We enjoyed meeting interesting people along the way, savoring French cuisine, and dealing with all the usual challenges of travel — being locked out of our B&B, restrictive times for dinner, confusing parking meters, and driving through a storm. The trip was rich in imagery, learning, and fun. 

In college history courses, the Middle Ages were unfamiliar to me. Not having grown up in a Christian family, aware of churches, saints, battles between popes and kings, etc., I had difficulty finding my way. Later, as a high school history teacher, I was more comfortable teaching Ancient Greece, the European Renaissance and Reformation, and twentieth-century Europe. As my interest in the Templars, Parsifal, and the Grail intensified, I enjoyed digging into the history, and this trip was an opportunity to immerse myself in the sites and events of the Middle Ages. Here are some highlights. 

Visiting the Abbey of Citeaux illuminated the life of Bernard of Clairvaux, a Burgundian, a founder of sixty Cistercian monasteries, a leader in church reform, and a supporter of the Templar Order. I appreciated the simplicity of the Abbey where the monks cleared hostile land and created tasks to support themselves, as well as the quietness of the Cistercian Abbey compared to the ornateness of many other religious orders. Since I love books, I was at home in their bookbindery, library, and quiet reading rooms.

I had heard of Chinon because of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s imprisonment there, but we came here because Templar leaders were imprisoned in the dungeon, awaiting execution in Paris. Most surprising to me was the Chinon Charter in which Pope Clement absolved the Templars of guilt. Unfortunately, the Charter was only discovered in 2007 when it was found in the Vatican Archives, apparently misfiled. Instead, many Templars met their death accused of apostasy. A similar surprise occurred in Domme where we observed Templar graffiti or carvings on the stone walls where seventy Templars had been imprisoned by King Philip the Fair for over ten years in grim conditions. The images demonstrated their faith in Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Eucharist, and Micha-el, as well as representations having to do with the Grail.

Templar Graffiti

We spent a full day in Rocamadour, a pilgrimage destination clinging precariously to a rocky cliffside. Because the sanctuary houses a Black Madonna, pilgrims climbed the stone staircase leading up many switchbacks on their knees. However, we took the elevator up, enjoyed the view of the 14th-century chateau at the top, and walked down. 

Visiting Troyes was interesting for several reasons. Bernard of Clairvaux’s name kept coming up in our study of the Templars. It was here, in 1128, that he established the rule of the Knights Templar which became an ideal of Christian nobility. Also, his remains are here in a chapel. I’ve taught the legend of Parsifal many times so I was excited to be in the birthplace of Christien de Troyes who wrote the first narration of Parsifal in the 1180s in this city. In his time, Troyes was also the most important center of Jewish learning north of the Pyrenees. We walked past the half-timbered houses where the Rashi Institute of Jewish heritage was located, but unfortunately, we were not able to visit as all appointment slots were filled.

Spending some days in the Dordogne region with their stone houses and farms was beautiful. We stayed in an old home that was filled with books and artifacts, like a museum. Close by, we visited Montpazier, my favorite village, where we made several visits to a jewelry artist, befriended a fruit seller, and had one of our best meals. This area, peaceful now, was a battleground between French and English forces during the Middle Ages.


Tanlay was another great place to visit a number of places such as Fontenay Abbey and Vezelay. The hostess, Marie, runs a wonderful B&B, shared her love of French cheeses along with other goodies for breakfast, and enjoyed our three mornings meeting with Sonya and Freddie, a couple from Antwerp who were very up-to-date with American culture and politics.

We planned to take a break from medieval France and head over to Ile de Rey on the Atlantic coast. It was a good idea, but we didn’t have much of a break since it took longer than we expected because of a big storm. Ann managed the driving very well, but it wasn’t restful. We promised to give her two days without driving. Ile de Rey is a lovely coastal vacation spot, so we walked to the beach and enjoyed the views. As we were driving away, to our surprise there was a beautiful ruin of a Cistercian church. So, it actually fit into our plan of exploring medieval French history.

It is hard to choose the most beautiful place because so much of France is gorgeous. However, we spent three days in St. Girons in the Pyrenees. We were pretty tired by then and just relaxed on lawn chairs enjoying the view of the mountains and having quiet time for reading. I had heard about safe houses in this area where Basque people hid American pilots who had been shot down in Normandy and were trying to escape to America through Spain and Portugal. Our hostess told us that there were many of those houses in isolated places in the surrounding area. 

As we came to Carcassonne, our last significant stop in France, we became familiar with the Cathars, their beliefs, and the attacks against them (the Albigensian Crusades) by the Catholic Church. From the window of our apartment, we had an extraordinary view of the citadel which had been a Cathar center. We walked up to the castle and into the city. When I learned it had been the Nazi headquarters during the Second World War, it lost its allure for me. There is also an organized walk tracing WWII Resistance in Carcassonne, but we didn’t have time, and it wasn’t the focus of this journey.

We ended our trip by driving into Barcelona, Spain, and handing in our car. There is much to say about that, and I look forward to sharing that story sometime soon!