Late spring in Burgundy. The banks of the canal were festooned with the colours of wild flowers: the blue of cornflowers, the blood red of poppies and the yellow of other blooms which were unknown to this horticulturally-challenged city girl.
That’s the beauty of barge travel – it relaxes the mind and makes space for civilized exercises such as the pursuit of good food and wine and culture. The Abbey at Fontenay was just a little way away from the canal run and the excursion was well worth the effort of dislodging myself from floating luxury.
Bernard of Clairvaux, an abbot and the primary instigator of the reformed Cistercian order, founded the Abbey of Fontenay in a Burgundy valley in 1118 with strictly implemented austerity, which he felt had become so lax in other monasteries. The monks moved to Fontenay Abbey in 1130. Nine years later the Bishop of Norwich fled to Fontenay to escape persecution, and he helped finance the construction of the church which was consecrated in 1147 by Pope Eugene III.
By 1200 the monastic site was finished and housed as many as 300 monks, and in 1259 the pious King Louis exempted the Abbey of Fontenay from all taxes. In 1359 the Abbey was sacked by the armies of King Edward III of England, and was damaged anew in the late 1500s. In 1745 the refectory was destroyed, and by 1789 all of the monks had left the abbey due to the terrors of the French Revolution.
Fontenay Abbey was sold by the revolutionary government in 1820 as a national asset, and turned into a paper mill by the paper maker Elie de Montgolfier, nephew of the balloon inventors. I dare say that he took advantage of the abundant running water on the site for his paper-making process. (Paper was one of the key components in those celebrated balloons.) Marc Seguin, the inventor of suspension bridges and French railways, was the owner of Fontenay from 1838. The paper factory closed in 1905.
Edouard Aynard, a patron of the arts, married a Montgolfier and he started the restoration. His descendants still live in part of the abbey and work on the buildings continues. In 1981 the abbey became a UNESCO World Heritage Site: it is the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world. The grounds have a classic and manicured garden which was listed in 2004 as a “Remarkable Garden” by the National Council of Parks and Gardens. The grounds cover over 1,200 hectares.
The Abbey welcomes 100,000 visitors each year so one needs to pick one’s day and time to avoid following a bus-load of tourists. It’s enjoyed at its best when the buses leave and tranquillity reigns. One gets a sense of the spirituality of this spot that was used for worship for so long.
The Entrance Lodge is the first building that you will visit. It once marked the limits of the Abbey complex. There was a porter who greeted visitors to the monastery – pilgrims and the poor for the most part, one imagines. Notice the round hole in the wall? That’s where you would get a less-than-warm welcome from a guard dog: his accommodations were on the other side of the wall.
Pass through that lodge and you will see a huge tree. It’s several hundreds of years old and dominates the garden. It’s likely that these lawns were vegetable plots when the monks were in residence. There is a corner that once housed hunting dogs, too.
The cloister here is magnificent and has remained intact since the 12th century. This must have once been a promenade of contemplation. One can almost imagine one hears the soft padding of white-clad monks walking in silence. Simple yet impressive architecture offers sheltered passage to all the main monastery rooms.
Younger members of your party might not be interested in the finer points of Romanesque architecture but they will be interested in the hydraulic hammer which was reconstituted in 2008 as part of a European project involving 7 technical schools. This hammer is a working replica of hammers that would have actually been used by the monks in their forge. There is a turning water-wheel which powers the hydraulic hammer, causing it to be raised and then to fall under its own considerable weight. This was used for refining metal coming from the furnace.
The monk’s dormitory is stunning. Raise your eyes and find what looks like the skeleton of an upturned wooden boat with its ribs as joists. The room is bare now, just as it would have been when the dormitory was first built. After some time the monks were given small partitions to afford at least some privacy. They slept on straw mattresses and in the cold. There were prayers in the adjoining church every few hours, and sanitation was primitive. Those must have been exhausting and unhealthy days, but probably no worse here than out in the broader world at that time.
Fontenay Abbey is one of the most impressive and most sympathetically restored building complexes I have seen anywhere. It’s well worth a visit. Walk the cloisters, admire the stonework but take time to sit and enjoy the quiet.
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Visit the Abbey here
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018