Contemporary hotel in historic abbey precinct
Every so often, a magic moment comes along that you store in the memory bank to relive again and again. And as my husband and I stood after dark in the vast vaulted nave of Fontevraud Abbey, I knew this was one of those moments. We were utterly alone, apart from the painted effigies of the Plantagenets – Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their son Richard the Lionheart, and Isabelle of Angouleme, wife of Richard’s brother John.
Fontevraud nestles in quiet countryside between Saumur and Chinon on the eastern border of Pays de la Loire. Founded in 1101 near the Fontaine d’Evraud spring, it lies at the heart of historic Anjou, homeland of our own Plantagenet dynasty. Ransacked in the Revolution and later converted by Napoleon Bonaparte into a prison, the once Royal abbey has been transformed into the Cultural Centre of Western France, hosting art exhibitions and business conferences, concerts, theatrical performances and hotel guests within its spacious walled grounds.
And one of many benefits of staying at the newly refurbished Fontevraud L’Hotel is the freedom to enjoy those grounds after the day visitors have left. If you have trouble sleeping, you can visit the Plantagenets at dead of night and see Eleanor’s stone book lit by a spotlight, as though the queen is reading a Kindle. You can wander the cloisters and listen to the owls hooting, or rise before first light to catch the dawn chorus from the kitchen garden.
Not that there’s any excuse not to sleep. The hotel is located in the former St Lazare Priory, within the abbey precincts. The 54 rooms are blissfully quiet, simply decorated in keeping with the monastic surroundings, but with every modern comfort including dream-inducing mattresses made especially for the hotel. There’s complimentary bottled water from the abbey’s own spring; natural soap made in the village from vegetable oils; and honey from the Fontevraud hives.
But what really makes this hotel stand out is the blend of old building and new technology. Everything in the bedroom operates from an iPad, from the television channels to the internal phone system. We received two failed calls from Reception before I eventually managed to press the right button to ring back, and I own an iPad, but once you get the hang of things, it’s very simple. Honestly. And as an added bonus, you can apparently call anywhere in the world free of charge, though sadly I had no friends in Australia to help me make use of it. Don’t forget to hand the iPads in on checking out though – guests pledge a deposit on a credit card on arrival.
Technology doesn’t stop in the bedrooms either. One of the highlights of this unique hotel is the iBar, housed beneath the soaring roof of the priory chapel. Sit down at an interactive table and just touch the screen to find out more about the history and architecture, do a jigsaw of a Fontevraud scene, or access ground plans of the abbey across the centuries. There are even games to keep children occupied whilst parents enjoy the atmospheric surroundings over a glass of sparkling Saumur.
Open to abbey visitors as well as hotel residents, the iBar – like the rest of the public rooms – is equipped with sound baffle panels and lampshades that stop your private conversations from heading up into the rafters or reverberating off the white stone walls.
The bar leads into Le Restaurant, imaginatively created around a small cloister planted with a herb garden. Chef Thibaut Ruggeri scooped the prestigious Bocuse d’Or award in 2013 and diners here are in for a treat – seasonal produce transformed into edible masterpieces that perfectly reflect the historic surroundings. To say more would spoil the succession of surprises!
Even the cheapest menu sits you down to starter, fish, meat, cheese, dessert, all perfectly balanced. And in-between come artistic creations to tantalise the tastebuds or cleanse the palate. I don’t much like radishes, but the delicate pink sphere of radish sorbet topped with an exquisite tiny collar of sculpted white vegetable, was a treat to both the eye and the tastebuds.
In fact, there was just one thing that got up my nose – literally – and that was the incense burning in reception. I’ve always hated the smell and whilst it’s clearly meant to evoke monastic life, to me it will always be associated with Kensington Market, Afghan coats and 1960s’ smock tops.
A generational thing maybe, but I’m prepared to overlook it to stay at this glorious hotel a second time. I’ll just hold my breath as I head out to visit the Plantagenets …!
For information on Fontevraud, visit www.fontevraud.fr. Gillian travelled overnight with BrittanyFerries from Portsmouth to Saint Malo, enjoying a gastronomic dinner on board. Fontevraud is around 3 hours from the ferry terminal along quiet roads.