Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is situated in the western Loire Valley, a short drive from Chinon and near Saumur. The name refers not only to Europe’s largest medieval abbey, built in the 12th century, but also to the medieval town that surrounds it. The abbey is the prime focus of this discussion as it has a fascinating rich history that includes monks, nuns, royalty, Napoleon and prisoners.
We visited this abbey because my wife is a student of the Middle Ages and its kings and knights, and was determined to see the region in which the Plantagenets had lived. I’m glad she insisted on coming here because the two days we spent at Abbaye Fountevraud were truly memorable and special.
1) The Abbey (Abbaye de Fontevraud):
The order of Fontevraud (established 1101) was unusual for its time in that it was a double monastery, with both men (monks) and women (nuns) living in one compound, although admittedly in completely separate divisions. Also unusual was that the abbey was only supervised by a women (abbess), often of noble descent, under the rules of St. Benedict and the cult of the Virgin Mary. Given the uncertainty and harshness of life in medieval times, a secure simple life in the compound was appealing to many; a life of meditation, prayer, reading, work and predictable meals seemed preferable to the rough and dangerous world outside these walls. The walled compound covers 34 acres, really a substantial town by itself.
The Abbey’s history overlaps with French and Norman Royalty, specifically the Plantagenets, patrons of the abbey. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine sought refuge here after the death of her son, King Richard the Lion Heart, and became a nun at the abbey. The Plantagenets were generous sponsors and, as such, fifteen of them were buried here, although only four tombs are currently identifiable. These four sarcophagi rest near the altar of the Abbey’s 12th century church, a beautiful Romanesque building newly renovated. The tombs are for Eleanor of Aquitaine and beside her is her second husband, King Henry II (first Plantagenet king). At Henry’s feet lies their son, King Richard the Lion Heart and beside Richard his sister-in-law, Isabella of Angouleme (brother John’s wife). These sarcophagi are empty, the locations of the bodies that once inhabited them unknown — likely they were destroyed in the French Revolution — but it is known with certainty that they were buried within the Fontevraud Abbey.
Religious life at Abbaye Fontevraud ended with the French Revolution in the late 18th century, when all abbeys in France were evacuated by Revolutionary decree and their contents sold. Napoleon converted the complex into a prison, a function it served for 150 years until as recently as 1963, in so doing likely saving it from destruction. The Abbey housed up to 2,000 prisoners, required extensive remodeling to accommodate all these people, and was said to have been a harsh prison.
The prison recently has been converted into a cultural center and tourist attraction, and after much refurbishing opened to the public in 1985 (the abbey church’s was not fully restored until 2006). Today it is well known for its fine summer music programs.
Your visit to the abbey takes about a half a day. I’d highly recommend springing for the audio-guide when you pay your admission as it’s excellent and gives context to what you’re seeing. The tour takes you from the church with the sarcophagi, into a cloister, then to the center of the abbey. You’ll visit the Treasury, and Chapter house wherein the nun’s meetings took place (and where you’ll find 16th century paintings with the Abbesses curiously added to the religious themed Passion of Christ artwork). The tour takes you through the Refectory dining hall and out to a beautiful garden. One of the last stops on the tour is a very interesting 12th century Byzantine style kitchen which has 18 chimneys protruding from a fish scale roof. It’s a fascinating complex and well worth seeing. The accompanying slideshow (at the bottom of this post) has photos of the abbey taken in sequence during our tour if you’re interested in seeing more.
2) The Medieval Town (Fontevraud l’Abbaye):
When you’re done with your visit to the Royal Abbey, take some time to rest and relax. Enjoy a beverage or meal at one of the nice cafes off the central town square, the Place des Plantagenets. Then walk around and explore the charming medieval town that surrounds the abbey. It’s quiet, beautifully historic, and almost lacking in tourists.
Just off the town square you’ll find Eglise Saint-Michel (Church of Saint Michel), built by Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in about 1170 at the request of the abbess of Fontevraud Abbey. Not a massive church, it’s small and charming. Churches of this type would, of course, have been where the local townspeople worshiped, the abbey’s church restricted to monks and nuns. This church houses an good collection of art, including its pure gold altar piece which rests on a carved gilt-wood altar donated by the abbey. The side chapel to the left of the altar has a rare 15th century wooden crucifix and other older art, as well as religious relics.
The Tourist Information office is across the lane from the church so stop by to pick up a walking tour map of the town and continue down the lovely shaded tree-lined St. Catherine’s alley and gradually loop back towards the abbey. Then walk down the road to the right of the abbey’s entrance, along Rue du Logis Bourbon and left at the fork in the road on Rue de L’Hermitage to the charming small chapel, Notre-Dame de Pitie before doubling back. You’ll be passing a number of farmhouses and fields along the way, a nice way to see the Loire.
Another interesting quick stop is the Louvoir des Roches, an area for washing clothes near a stream at the northern outskirts of town. This was restored in 2005 and is worth a quick look.
We stayed at the Hotel la Croix Blanche, right across from the abbey enterance, one of our best accommodations during this vacation. It has an excellent dining room, the Place Pantagentes. Beside the hotel is a small boulangerie which had very inexpensive and wonderfully delicious pastries and sandwiches.
Outside of town are numerous vineyards and caves, including caves growing mushrooms, which you can visit and learn how champignons are cultivated. And further on lie dozens of chateaus that make this valley famous.
So this is a very worthwile destination. I can’t recommend a visit to Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud highly enough!
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)