Near the entrance to Fort Saint-André I saw a sign for pedestrians pointing to “Chartreuse 15 min.” — which surprised me because the Chartreuse I knew was a mountainous region near Grenoble, over two hundred kilometers north of Villeneuve lez Avignon. I also knew ‘Chartreuse’ as a sticky-sweet liqueur that I used to drink sometimes out of politeness when I was in that part of France. The color of that liqueur is also known as Chartreuse — a nauseous yellowish green or greenish yellow color. Whether the nausea came from the color or the liqueur I can’t decide. Probably both.
But what I did not know was that Chartreuse was also the name of an old monastery in Villeneuve lez Avignon — best known today for the fact that an entire wall is missing from the chapel, which gives it a quaintly ruinous appearance, though the rest of the building is in fact not in ruins at all but has been restored and is now kept in good repair.
Anyway, when I had finished touring the fort and the abbey, I got on my bike and coasted down the hill to the Chartreuse. I had to circle the entire complex before finding the entrance, but I finally found it.
It turns out that in the Middle Ages this Chartreuse was the center of the Order of the Chartreux, a huge business and religious operation that was founded in the 14th century by Pope Innocent VI. During my visit I learned that there were two kinds of monks in the Chartreuse: the ‘fathers’, who spent their days praying, reading, writing, preaching and generally giving the operation its religious veneer, and the ‘brothers’, who took care of the business side, for instance by collecting rents from the downtrodden peasants who lived and worked on the order’s extensive land holdings.
This was a successful business model for several centuries, but by the 18th century the order had gone into a decline. It was finally abolished during the French Revolution, but the building was preserved.
Now the Chartreuse building is the home of the Centre National des Écritures du Spectacle, whose mission is “to host playwrights and drama groups in order to allow them to pursue their creative work and research.”
About one third of the Chartreuse building is open to visitors, including the Chapel of the Frescos with the remains of authentic wall paintings by Matteo Giovannetti (1322-1368), a painter who also created frescos in the Palace of the Popes in Avignon. (Giovannetti was a friend of the poet Petrarch, who lived in Avignon at the same time.)
In this “Cell of the Sacristan” there is a wall plaque with the story of an American pilot who bailed out of his plane and landed here during the Second World War. The plague reads:
On August 8, 1944, at 9 o’clock in the morning, the American aviator Louis CAPAWANA, whose aircraft had just been shot down, fell into this courtyard. But his parachute got snagged on the chimney and he was not able to disentangle himself.
Despite a considerable German presence, VILLENEUVE being the headquarters of their 19th Army, the caretaker of the CHARTREUSE, Georges PUEL, assisted by several young people, managed to disentangle him and hide him in the home of Madame VASSE in one of the houses of the cloister of the cemetery.
The Organization of Resistance of the Army, which had a guerrilla band in the region, managed to smuggle him out of the CHARTREUSE and, eight days later, enabled him to return to CORSICA, where his unit was located.
According to a French website called aerosteles.net, the plane was on a mission to bombard railway and highway bridges near Avignon when it was shot down. Three of the six crew members were killed. The other three managed to parachute to the ground, where one was immediately taken prisoner by the Germans. The other two were aided by the local population and the “Vigan-Braquet” guerrilla band.
Another website, the blog of Dick Keis, adds that Louis Capawana’s rescuers took him to the home of a family with a young daughter. “They changed his American uniform for a pair of French blue work overalls. To cover his true identity, they then put their daughter in his arms to make him look like her father” so he would not be recognized by the Germans who were searching for him.
Location and aerial view of La Chartreuse on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.