Tuesday 10 June 2008

Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, Valle de la Loire

Made out of the sumptuous creamy stone typical of the Loire valley, the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is an extensive, pristine and well-preserved monastery founded in 1101 and the resting place of Richard the Lionheart and Henry II of England. You enter the complex (7.90 euros for adults and free for children) via a grand gateway and a distinguished eighteenth century courtyard. Beyond the ticket office is a 34-acre site containing a series of remarkably coherent medieval buildings, topped with steeply sloping slate roofs and enclosed by a high stonewall. You come first to the church with its attractive bell tower. Inside, there are four recumbent statues of dead Plantagenet kings and queens - the main feature of the austere and elegant nave.

Picturesque cloisters
From the church you can wander through into the picturesque cloisters, rebuilt in the sixteenth century, featuring dozens of arches around a plain green square planted with small box hedges. Adjacent to the cloisters are several large rooms, including the chapter house in which you can admire a series of arches painted with dramatic frescos showing the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Beyond and above the cloisters are the Abbaye’s more secular buildings, including a hotel housed in a former priory, surrounded by gardens planted with an array of vegetables and herbs. Look out for the substantial kitchens housed in a circular building with an extraordinary set of dimpled spires that resemble slim pine cones. You can also climb up the hillside and walk around the perimeter for a sweeping view across the site. Thanks to zealous cleaning and restoration work, the Abbaye’s 170 years as a prison are hard to detect and on a weekday morning in May, largely empty of visitors, it is a peaceful and atmospheric place to visit. 8/10