Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, near the Vienne River in the Loire Valley, is the largest abbey in France. Built in the early 12th century and restored in recent years, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I go to the great abbey, in the village of Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, to pay my respects to one of history’s most impressive women, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was brilliant, beautiful and competent, the wife of two kings (Louis VII of France and Henry II of England) and the mother of ten children. Her life was rocky, full of adventure, music, poetry, travel and politics. She spent her last years at the abbey and died there in 1204, at the age of 82.
Fontevraud Abbey, founded by an itinerant preacher, Robert of Arbrissel, housed both nuns and monks. The leader of the order was always a woman. Abbesses came from rich and noble families, and royal benefactors made the abbey the wealthiest and largest in France. The abbey also housed and cared for lepers, the sick, and repentant prostitutes.
On a sunny day, light streams through the high windows by the church’s vaulted ceiling. The big, echoey nave is empty but for many tall pillars and, at the far end in the Romanesque chapel, four tomb effigies painted in blue and red. Here are Eleanor, a prayer book in her hands; her husband Henry II; her son Richard I; and Isabella, the wife of her son John.
Their bones are long gone, destroyed along with most of the statuary and carvings during the fervor of the Revolution. After the Revolution, in the late 18th century, Fontevraud became a prison. During the Nazi occupation in World War II, many captured Resistance fighters were held here. Some were killed, some sent to concentration camps. A plaque reads, “We will not forget them.”
A geometric green garden is enclosed by the cloisters. There’s a chapter house with portraits of abbesses, a refectory, and a restored Romanesque kitchen lined with ovens. The kitchen is a striking, octagonal building with cone-shaped tile roofs and 21 towered chimneys. Adjacent to the abbey are an orchard and a garden planted with herbs used in medieval times.
You can wander the abbey grounds after closing hours if you stay at the Hostellerie Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, which has 52 rooms overlooking the orchard or abbey. But I prefer the Hostellerie de la Croix Blanche for its charm and hospitality. It’s close to the abbey and has three restaurants, a bar and a pool.
You’ll be welcomed by friendly hosts at Le Domaine de Mestré, a lovely country inn a short distance from the village of Fontevraud-l’Abbaye. Here, roses climb the walls and centuries-old trees shade quiet gardens. There are 9 rooms and 3 suites. Full breakfasts and fine dinners are served..
Le Delice is a good traditional bar and restaurant in the village. My top choice for a meal is La Licorne (The Unicorn), a small, pretty restaurant serving excellent cuisine. Queen Eleanor probably didn’t taste lobster ravioli like this, but she would definitely have eaten another menu item: delicious salmon from the Loire River.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir
Mysteries of the Middle Ages, by Thomas Cahill
A Lion in Winter
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com