Friday, April 28, 2017

Tuesday April 25 - In search of Clark's 27th great grandmother

Clark's birthday breakfast - eggs, bacon, croissants, clementine juice, apricot jam and coffee - satisfying
Today is Clark's birthday and in honor of his day, we are off to visit Fontevraud Abbey where his 27th great grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, lived her last days.

The weather is not cooperating today as it's grey and rainy, but we're off anyway, with all our layers. Much of what we'll see is inside anyway and we have raincoats.

Getting to Fontevraud was a challenge as the road our GPS wanted us to take was closed for military exercises. Who knew that these last 8 km before Fontevraud travel through a military camp which was on maneuvers today. After wandering blindly for 15 minutes, and listening to a GPS that was determined to send us on the same road, we pulled over, studied a map and took a course that skirted the military area. End result, a one hour drive took one hour and 45 minutes. But we got a good look at the Chateau de Brézé from all sides and will have to come back one day to visit it.

Fontevraud Abbey was founded in 1101 by Robert Arbrissel an austere itinerant preacher. It soon attracted the patronage of both religious and royal leaders of the day. A new order based on Benedictine practice was established with several unusual twists. Both nuns and monks were housed, separately of course, in the Abbey and the order was ruled by an abbess. Eventually 4 separate communities were established to include virgin nuns, nuns who had been married or were not virgins but had repented and withdrawn from life, monks, and lepers. The leadership by an abbess was challenged several times by the monks, but was always suppressed, sometimes with help from the King.

The abbey is known as the necropolis of the Plantagenet family - kings and queens of both England and France. Of course, we now know that Clark is a long-lost Plantagenet descendant.
restaurant outside the gates of the abbey

Clark and his name-sake

The abbey was turned into a prison during Napoleonic times and remained so until the 1960s. It had the reputation of being the harshest prison in France. Quite a change from when it was an abbey. During that time, significant changes were made to the church and the grounds to house up to 750 prisoners at a time, but frequently housed double that number. The church in particular was reworked to house 5 floors of prisoner barracks.

The abbey itself was built under the patronage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II Plantagenet.
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Eleanor lived here after Henry's death in 1189 until her death in 1204.
effigies of Eleanor (reading her prayer book) and Henry
They were both buried here as was their son, Richard the Lionheart, and daughter-in-law, Isabelle of Angoulême, wife of their youngest son, John Lackland.
effigies of Isabelle and John
Their bones were likely dispersed during the French Revolution, but effigies of these four remain and are placed prominently near what may have been their burial places in the church.
The four effigies located in the center of the church. This is thought to possibly be near where they were buried, but there's no evidence one way or the other, thanks to the French Revolution.

The church is enormous and bare today, but would have been colorfully decorated as can be seen from several remaining paintings on the walls.

Until the revolution, it held beautiful furnishings including the altar and grills used to separate men from women during services. It's size is a testament to the thousands who lived and worked within their walls.
restoration work is on-going. Main entrance is closed and you enter on the side now

Side entrance 

vaults of the ceiling have been replaced
When Fontevraud was a prison, floors were added to the church and the arched ceiling of the abbey was mostly removed. Much work was required to restore the church to its former glory.

rounded absidials are called chevets - the definition says it's an apse with an ambulatory allowing one to walk behind the altar to access the small semi-circular chapels. The altar would be under the highest round tower, the ambulatory walkway would be the next level below and you can see 3 of the chapels at the lowest level. Very fancy.

From the rear of the church, we entered the Grand-Moûtier convent through the St. Benoit courtyard. This convent housed the virgin nuns who were the most prominent members of the Fontevrist order. This part of the convent was used as a hospital and to house invalid nuns.
St Benoît courtyard

the refectory where the nuns ate
The nuns cloister included the refectory, chapter room and the only heated room in the abbey, the moniales room. The chapter room was where the business of the abbey was conducted. The Moniales room was where the nuns did their embroidery here and needed heat to keep the hands warm.
Cloiser of the Grand-Moutier, the house for the virgin nuns

a peek into the chapter room

A carving in the chapter room

Gardens of every sort provided the means of feeding the order and a gigantic byzantine-styled building was the kitchen and smoke house.
This building confused archaeologists at first, but it has been decided it was the kitchen

central smoke hole in the kitchen - the side bays also had smoke holes
It's multiple chimney openings presumably lifted the smoke out of the kitchen, but I have my doubts.

Since the 60's the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud has become a Cultural Center of Western France. Work continues on restoring and maintaining this UNESCO world heritage site.

We plan to return on a day that is sunny and warmer to revisit the abbey and better appreciate its gardens and paths and to take better photos with less rain. Hopefully, next time, there won't be military maneuvers blocking our way.

Returning home, we warm up with aperos, then have a lovely grilled steak dinner using the tournedo steaks we bought from the local farmer at the Asseray vineyard. Dessert is a repeat of the chocolate cake from Janis' birthday. Clark has chosen our wines carefully for maximum enjoyment.
Bonne Anniversaire, Clark

Happy birthday, Clark. Many more to come.

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