Fontevraud Abbey

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Fontevraud Abbey

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We wanted to visit here for the Plantagenet tombs – somewhere I have been wanting to see for years, so I was looking forward to the visit. Knowing it is a World Heritage Site, I was expecting somewhere rather special. It was a major disappointment.

We didn’t get off to a good start. Fontevraud is a busy tourist centre and was very busy. We could see the Abbey as we drove into the town surrounded by a large wall. Signing is poor and we missed the gateway and entrance when we drove through the town and had decided reluctantly to give it a miss when we spotted the small and poorly signed entrance off the square. We managed to find somewhere to park.

This had been one of the largest monastic complexes in Europe and was very prosperous as many female members of the aristocracy ‘retired’ here. Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last years here. It originally had five separate priories each with it’s own church, cloister, chapter house, refectory, kitchen and dormitory. Until the Revolution, it was ruled over by an Abbess chosen from the nobility who was in charge of the whole community.

After the Revolution, the monastic buildings were turned into a prison, holding more than 2000 prisoners. Buildings were substantially modified with new walls and partitions to accommodate workshops (making buttons from the pearl shells, gloves, nets, blankets for the army) as well as dormitories for the prisoners. New buildings were erected and many survive. The prison was closed in 1963 when restoration work began using some prison labour. The last prisoners left in 1985.

It is no longer used as a religious building. It is now a cultural centre and the Abbey is used for concerts. There is a museum about prison life.

Through the gateway, the room to the left seems to be an exhibition space. It leads into a big courtyard surrounded by white tufa buildings. At the opposite side is the ticket office with a large shop off. Entry is €9 and no reduction for OAPs. Guided tours are extra as is entry to the prison exhibition. They know how to charge here. . . We were given a booklet in English which had some nice pictures but very little information. In retrospect this sums up the Abbey – it’s all about presentation with little content.

The ticket office leads out onto the terrace where there is a nice view down to the church with the medieval kitchen off the cloisters. This is the only part of the complex open to the public. It is surrounded by other buildings which are not open or identified.

The original Abbey church building was 12thC but has been heavily restored after being used as a prison. This is another building which is more impressive from the outside with its buttresses west front with tall pointed towers above. There is a short square tower above the transept with a fancy tiled roof with an open gallery with pillars supporting the top.

The church is very simple and plain inside, with wall pillars with carved capitols, round arches and a series of small domes along the nave ceiling. Inspite of all the visitors it felt a dead and sterile place with little atmosphere, as is a large open space inside with no seats or pews. .

The Abbey had close links with the Plantagenet kings and many of the family were buried here. At the end of the nave before the transept crossing are the four Plantagenet tombs surrounded by a low wall. Henry II and Eleanor are side by side with Richard and Isabella of Angouême ( second wife of John). The hearts of John and Henry III were buried somewhere in the Abbey but the location is no longer known.

The figures lie on beds and have retained their paint. The stained glass windows were casting colour across the faces of Eleanor and Henry when we arrived bringing the figures to life. When we left the light had moved round and the tombs felt lifeless and rather forlorn.

There are the remains of a fresco on the transept wall. There is a modern stone altar in the chancel which has plain glass windows framed with pillars. Tall round pillars separate the ambulatory which has three apses off it. Above the pillars is a row of small blind round arches and then windows and blind arches. There are rather nice decorative carved stone screens separating the ambulatory from the transept.

The cloisters have nice vaulted roofs with carved bosses and very decorative carved archways on the walls. The central area however was occupied by a large wooden belvedere with steps and slopes which completely hid the architecture and we felt to be an unnecessary intrusion. Views from the top weren’t up to much either.

The chapter house doorway is elaborately carved with pillars, foliage and small figures. Inside the walls are covered with 16thC pictures of the life of Christ. Above is the dormitory reached by a staircase. This is now an exhibition area. It was in darkness apart from long hanging tubes of red light arranged in a swirling pattern. There were traditional boats on the floor and music playing. From what we could see in the darkness it did seem an interesting wooden structure. By now we were feeling completely disillusioned by the place.

Below are the cellars and the refectory is along another side wall. This is a long stone building with an arched ceiling which leads into the medieval kitchens which have a splendid pointed tiled roof with tall, slender chimneys. They are built of Charente stone which is harder than tufa and more resistant to heat. The outside walls are carved with pointed pyramids. 

Inside there are eight small apses off the large empty space in the centre. One apse was used to provide hot embers to keep food warm. Meals were prepared in the apses on the opposite side to the prevailing wind to avoid back flows of smoke. There were a complicated system of chimneys to get rid of smells and smoke.

There was a small and expensive cafe attached to the refectory (a small bottle of mineral water €3) and the gardens were disappointing.

And of course you have to go out through the shop.

Overall we were very disappointed and felt it was very expensive for what there was. If you want to see the Plantagenet tombs have a look at the pictures on the internet.

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