“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” –attributed to many
For our second full day in the Loire we had prioritize our itinerary. Our friends were coming to meet us on this last leg of our trip, so we wanted to save some of the best sights for our time with them. We also thought we should visit the places that we didn’t necessarily think that they would enjoy seeing. So our stops for the day were the Abbaye de Fontevraud and the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau.
After a nice breakfast at our Chateau, we drove out to the Abbaye de Fontevraud, which isn’t far from Chinon (see earlier post about Chinon). The Abbey sits in the tiny little village of Fontevraud, which over time, grew around the Abbey. You literally drive right through the quaint village and you can’t miss the Abbey as the road basically ends at the entry gates. We found a free parking lot within a few yards of the entry.
Before we get on with our visit, you should know some of the history about the Abbey (and forgive me in advance for switching back and forth between Abbey and Abbaye–same thing just English vs French spelling).
The Abbey was founded in 1101 by a preacher by the name of Robert of Abrissel. The first buildings on the site were built between 1110 and 1119. Interestingly, at this Abbey, Robert of Abrissel created an Order that was for both sexes, double monasteries one for monks and another for nuns. They lived in separate quarters, of course, all under the authority of the the Abbess of Fontevraud. In the Abbey’s 700 year history, there were 36 different Abbesses, most of which were from noble and/or royal families. These connections to nobility ($) helped out in the lean times.
However, the residents of the Abbey came from various social backgrounds (which wasn’t necessarily received very well by the Church) but the idea was to live in an “ideal city” where they all worshiped, worked, and prayed while also living lives of abstinence, silence and poverty. The style of this Order became popular and spread far and wide throughout France and England. The Abbey de Fontevraud thrived and at the time of Robert of Abrissel’s death 1117, there were 3,000 nuns at the Abbey.
In the early years, the Abbey was actually located in English territory, with King Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine being benefactors. There’s is a sordid history, and apparently there wasn’t much love between the two. After Henry II died, Eleanor lived as a nun at the Abbey until the end of her life, and Henry II, Eleanor, and their son, King Richard the Lionheart, are all buried at the Abbey.
After the Plantagenet dynasty died out (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, etc), the Abbey began to fall on hard times and by 1247, the nuns were “allowed” to receive inheritances to provide much needed income for the Abbey (despite this being against the norms of monastic living). The Hundred Years war only brought further economic hits to the Abbey and by 1460, much of the Abbey had been abandoned.
With the French Revolution in the 18th century, the Abbey was disestablished–the 200 or so nuns still living there were removed. The Abbey and it’s land was taken from the Catholic Church and considered the property of the French Nation.
Under Napoleon Bonaparte, the Abbey was transformed into a prison in 1804. All of the monasteries were converted to dorms, workshops and common areas. The prison housed about 2,000 prisoners and was considered one of the toughest in France. During World War Two, members of the French Resistance were brought here before being deported. During our tour, there are areas that depict prison life and give you an idea of what it was like to have been imprisoned here. The Abbey served as a prison until 1963.
After closing it’s doors as a prison, the Abbey was declared a historic monument and underwent major restoration and was opened to the public in 1985. Which is where we come in….as tourists.
Upon stepping on the grounds of the Abbey, the first thing you realize is that this place is quite vast…it covers some 32 acres (13 hectares)! In the photo below (which I borrowed from the internet) you will see that as a visitor, you enter into the courtyard at the bottom left of the photo.
After securing tickets in the very sleek visitor center, the self-guided tour places you at the entry to the Abbey Church. Once inside, you notice the austere, cream-colored simplicity of the Romanesque architecture. Very few embellishments, no gilt, no gilded statuary. This church was built between 1105 and 1160, before the more well-known gothic style became popular (seen at Notre Dame and Rouen, etc).
Knowing that the nuns and monks that used this church led such austere lifestyles, the simple architecture made up of unadorned columns and arches seems very conducive to thought and prayer and appropriate for their simplicity.
The starkness of the Church architecture is contrasted by the more dramatic and classical 16th century renaissance architecture as seen in the nearby Grand Moutier Cloistures.
The Chapter House (a place for meetings) is just off the Cloisters. Built by one of the wealthy Abbesses, Louise de Bourbon (who was the king’s cousin), it was she that oversaw the construction of the Chapter House in about 1534.
Interestingly, on our visit, the Abbey was hosting several contemporary art displays throughout the various buildings. One was found in a former Dormitory. The ceiling of the room looked like an upside down boat….similar to the ceiling we saw earlier at Honfleur’s church. Very interesting art in a superb setting. I can’t say much about the details of the artwork as all of the information was in French, but the undulating red lights created a red glow in the room making the ancient space quite fantastical and a bit eerie.
We then wandered into another part of the Abbey which led down into dark tunnels where there was more contemporary art. Historically, I have no idea what these rooms and tunnels were used for in any iteration of the Abbey. I can only say that it was all a bit creepy and dark and damp. Possibly, they were just underground tunnels connecting different parts of the Abbey…maybe they stored wine down here…maybe the prison used the space for solitary confinement?
One the most interesting architectural features of the Abbey is the Romanesque Kitchen. It’s a round structure topped by a large conical roof and several smaller capped chimneys. We saw something similar in Sarlat and there are several different theories as to what these structures were used for. In this case, historians believe the space was used as a kitchen based on evidence they have found and its close proximity to the Refectory (Dining Hall), others say it was a smoke house. Regardless of its past use, it is quite unique.
We grabbed a coffee in a cafe that is housed in one of the restored buildings and spent the rest of our time just wandering the grounds of the Abbey finding different views, one of which was a top a small hill that overlooked the property.
After leaving the Abbey, we walked along the quaint little Main Street of the village and stopped by a pâtisserie where we picked up a fresh baguette and found savory cheesy bread snacks that made a great lunch. After a quick bite, we were back in the car and headed about 40 miles northeast to Chateau Azay-le-Rideau.
Chateau Azay-le-Rideau is located in Azay-le-Rideau, a little commune on the Indre River about 22 miles from Chinon. Similar to the Abbaye that we had just visited, the Chateau sits adjacent to the little village….I’m guessing the village grew around the Chateau. I suppose I had always pictured these large French chateaus as being isolated on hilltops or on vast properties, and not necessarily in the center of town. But the Palace of Versailles was also situated adjacent to a small town…and later on in our trip, we will be visiting Chateaus in more park-like settings. In the photo below (taken from Google maps) you can see the Chateau sitting in the river and it’s close proximity to the village.
The original building on the site was a feudal castle constructed in the 12th century. Back in the day, a road from Tours to Chinon passed by the castle, which served to protect the important trade route. The castle stood for several hundred years until about 1418. In a very simplified explanation, during the Hundred Year’s War, the Dauphin, King Charles VII, found himself in Azay-le-Rideau while fleeing Paris. Basically, amidst the Hundred Year’s War, a civil war broke out between the House of Orleans (who were an Armagnac faction) and the House of Burgundy (a Burgundian faction). I guess you can think of it like two Houses from the Game of Thrones at war with each other (The Starks vs the Lannisters). Anyway, Charles VII was very annoyed at the insults and jeers by the Burgundian troops that were occupying the village so he had his troops storm the old castle and execute the 350 soldiers that were inside–and then burned the whole place down to the ground. I’m not sure about the if this tidbit is true, but supposedly, the town was renamed Azay-le-Brûlé (which translates to Azay the Burnt) until the 18th century.
The pile of rubble remained until around the year 1518 when Gilles Berthelot, the Mayor of Tours, came into possession of the land. Berthelot wanted to build a Chateau that represented his wealth and status and he wanted to blend the medieval style of what once stood there with the latest architectural fad…the Renaissance style. Even though this was to be a residence, he wanted it to have symbols of a Castle…so the design included architectural features to make it look like a fortification. Because he was away often, doing his duties, he left the construction to his wife Philippa. Building a Chateau on an island in the middle of a river isn’t easy, and the stone came from a quarry 60 miles away…so transport of materials was slow.
Nearly a decade later, in 1527, there was a bit of a snag in the construction of the Chateau. Gilles Berthelot’s cousin, who was the Chief Minister in charge of the Royal Finances, was executed for some monetary misdeeds–he had sticky fingers. Berthelot was worried he might get taken down as well, so he went into exile (and died 2 years later). His poor wife Philippa begged and pleaded with the King to let her have the Chateau, but ultimately, the King gave it to Antoine Raffin, one of his knights-at-arms. Maybe out of a lack of interest or lack of funds, Raffin essentially left the unfinished Chateau as is. He never completed the original design, thus what we have today is the Chateau’s “L” shape plan.
I will stop there with the story of the Chateau. There were many, many owners and residents of the Chateau that over the years added this, remodeled that, restored this and changed that. But in 1905, the French government purchased the Chateau and made it a National Historic Monument.
Despite all of the richly decorated rooms below, I think the most interesting area of the house was the attic, which was recently restored and tourists can now visit the space and see the wood structure that created the architectural roof line seen from the exterior. The exposed massive wood beams are incredible and it must be kept in mind that these were all cut and sawn by hand.
It is not the only French Chateau that sits in/on a river, we will visit another later in the trip, but the setting of Chateau Azay-le-Rideau is spectacular, and the reflections of the striking facade in the dark water are like looking at impressionist paintings.
We left the Chateau and ventured into the village. With Josette’s mastery of French for this trip, we were able to go into the charcutier (meat store) and purchase a few different kinds of meat by the kilo. We also went into the boulangerie and grabbed a baguette and a few other items….and hit the wine store for a little rosé. It’s all that we would need for a simple picnic dinner at our hotel/ Chateau.
When we got back that evening, we were the only ones enjoying the terrace, so we sipped our wine and watched the horses as the evening grew darker. Tomorrow we pick up our friends in Tours and continue our adventures.