Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tuesday: Abbaye de Fontfroide and Narbonne shopping

Because Wednesday is planned to be a really busy day (Carcassonne and wine tasting dinner)and Browen, Mike and Katie leave 6 AM on Thursday, we decided to have an easy day Tuesday. We travelled to l'Abbaye de Fontfroide near Narbonne and then finished the afternoon with a choice of shopping or visiting sights in Narbonne. Then home for an early-ish dinner (cooked by Mike and Christie) and early bed.

L'Abbaye de Fontfroide is an intact Cistercian abbey that escaped ruin because it was in use until the 1895 and then bought only a few years later, in 1908, by a French businessman and art collector named Fayet. Because of its near-constant occupancy, the abbey buildings did not fall into ruin. He restored the abbey in the tastes of the day, which means that the statues, fountains, furniture and stained glass are not only not original, but probably not representative of the way the abbey would have been decorated originally. Nevertheless, his efforts have preserved Fontfroide as a spectacular example of Romanesque religious architecture. It can be rented for film-making, although they don't give a list of the films that were shot there.

The Cistercians were an especially austere order of Benedictines who, in 1145, took over the running of this Benedictine abbey built at the end of the 11th century. It soon became an important orthodox Christian center that was in part responsible for the papal-endorsed crusade against the Cathars. (One of their monks, Pierre de Castelnau, a papal legate trying to convince the Cathars to repent, was assassinated by the Cathars, setting off the Albigensian crusade that wiped out the Cathars.)

Since the Cistercians were not allowed to mingle with the world outside their walls, an additional order of "temporary" monks, called Confrèeres, were also housed in the abbey for the purpose of managing the agriculture, business, and properties outside the abbey. These confrères were local townspeople who took a vow for a year to live according to the rules of the abbey. They were housed within the abbey, but in separate quarters, with a separate refectory (dining hall) and separate entrances to the church. They dressed like monks, complete with tonsure (the shaved top of the head with hair around the edges) but could come and go from the abbey as needed to complete abbey business.

In the 14th century, one of the abbots of Fontfroide was named Pope Benedict (Benoît) XII. (He's the one who had the Papal Palace built in Avignon and started the schism with Rome.) During this period, the abbey became quite rich and strayed from it's austerity. Renaissance buildings and decorations were added, a hostellery for wealthy folk required the addition of a floor with apartments that were more luxurious than those of the monks.

In touring the abbey, you get a sense of how monastic life unfolded in the middle ages. We even had a glimpse of music in the church as a Gregorian Chant choir was rehearsing for an Easter performance.

In spite of the tour group (you can only tour with a guide), the abbey grounds felt spacious, restful and separated from the world. You get a sense of how this peacefulness allowed the monks to concentrate on their relationship with God as their primary occupation.

We head back to civilization to Narbonne. Browen wants to do some shopping for French clothes. Since, when we were last in Narbonne, the cathedral was closed for lunch and we didn't have time for a "proper" tour, the rest of the group heads off to see what was missed. We agree to meet at 6. The inside of the cathedral is open this time, but as it is Tuesday, the museums and Hotel de Ville are closed. (It's common for museums and other historic sites to be closed one day per week, with Tuesdays being the most common.) Browen and I head off to the shops where she finds 3 dresses, a lacy sweater-wrap, and a skirt. Not bad for 2 hours.

Once home, Mike and Christie create a wonderful lamb and pasta dinner with baked artichokes. Delicious. Those leaving begin packing as we know tomorrow is a late day. Once again, another successful adventure.

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