Monday, June 13, 2011 Journal Excerpt, Monday, June 13, 2011, Hotel Mercure, Saumur, France: Just back from my day tour of the Abbeye de Fontevraud with Pierre. However, it turned out to be much more – we went to the Abbey first and as he drove, Pierre talked about the area and the abbey. Then we spent a goodly amount of time there, two whole hours.
I had been looking forward to my tour of the Fontevraud Abbey all weekend. I was up and ready for my 9am meet-up with Pierre, my tour guide and driver. I stood in the lobby in my long pants, hiking boots, long-sleeved sweater, and back pack, waiting. Soon a wiry man with silver hair and expressive eyes walked by me without a glance. He looked around the lobby, then walked back out the door. In a few minutes he came back in and hesitated. I walked up to him. “Are you Pierre?” I asked.
“Yes, Yes!” he said. “Are you Mrs. Wilkin?” I was so relieved. I could get out of this hell hole of a hotel and spend a structured day with someone who spoke English! I wondered if Pierre didn't think I was his tourist because I didn't fit some image. Maybe I wasn't old enough or perhaps I was not dressed like the wealthy female solo tourist he assumed me to be. What does the fashionable middle-aged woman abroad wear? Is it not loose khakis that convert into shorts, a money belt hidden under two tops making you look 15 pounds heavier, and a back pack? No matter. We soon were on our way and talking about the Abbey and the surrounding area sites. During the drive, I told Pierre about my problems at the hotel. He shook his head sympathetically. "Some of these hotel staff are very young and inexperienced." I felt better. Finally, a personal connection with someone. Pierre was very neat and exact and professional. And he clearly enjoyed showing me around. It's like he took a personal interest in it. He was there for me.
One of the things that surprised me about Pierre was that he was focused on so much more than the Abbey. He knew of Eleanor of Aquitaine, of course, but had not heard of the Eleanor Vase, the artifact I went to the Louvre in Paris to see. I loved that I could tell him something he didn't know. But Pierre was very knowledgeable about everything else.
We drove to the Abbey first. The valley unfolded before us as we traveled south and east to Fontevraud and I began to relax and really enjoy being a proper tourist. Looking out the window as Pierre drove and pointed out interesting sites, I saw sandbars and the green of scrub growth across the river. The day was partly sunny, and this lent a bright intensity to the green banks and the sandbars, which left the river a dark smolder in contrast. On the other side of the road were squares of farm land with farmhouses scattered among them, and occasional villages.
When we arrived at Fontevraud-l'Abbaye, the confusing name for the town that grew up around the Fontevraud abbey, Pierre parked the van and we strolled up a narrow paved street toward impressive pale stone buildings. Fontevraud is incredible. It is the largest surviving monastic complex from the Middle Ages. Back in those days, it was one of the only double monasteries, housing both men and women in separate buildings. Even more unusual, it was ruled by an abbess. As we entered the main courtyard, Pierre pointed out the pregnant black cat, which was part of a larger club of cats that lived at the abbey. We entered the abbey courtyard. Our first stop would be the abbey church where Eleanor was entombed.
The abbey at Fontevraud was established in 1101 by Robert of Adrissel, the founder of a community of religious men and women that needed a new home. The abbey grew in prominence until it included four monasteries. Abbesses ruled over the monastery for 400 hundred years until Napoleon broke up the order. In the meantime, the abbey kept going if not actually thriving. It survived the Hundred Years War when the community lived in extreme poverty and, later, the War of Religion when one of the monasteries was destroyed.
Journal Excerpt, Monday, June 13, 2011, Hotel Mercure, Saumur, France (continued): The abbey was huge, white stone. Quiet, reflective, gardens of wistfulness – cold dormitories with glass-less windows. Contemplative. Lay as well as religious people. Huge kitchen. Silence except for in the chapter house. Where they could talk. Had meetings of the order and judged people. Perhaps where Colin [one of my novel's secondary characters] would be judged. Why the abbey, though? Penelope, the sidekick in my story, is supposed to be silent at the abbey, but she obviously can't be [because she has a horrible tic]– so maybe that's why she doesn't go to the abbey after all. Maybe Aihne is able to convince the duke not to send her?
The chapel houses the tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband, Henry II. Their second son Richard the Lionheart lies near them as does the effigy of their youngest son John's wife, Isabelle. Very eerie. The carving of Eleanor on her tomb seems unlike her. Her hands hold a prayer book-- a very contemplative image for such a radical queen. However, Eleanor was a complex woman. She probably spent some time in prayer and reflection during the 12-plus years she was locked in a tower as her husband's prisoner. And just before she died at 80, Eleanor was living a contemplative life at the abbey. But that was at the end of a long and active life and was actually her second attempt to retire from public life. The first time she retired, she was 72 and ready to leave governance to Richard, but then Richard died. She then had to leave the abbey, get on a horse, and ride through the Pyrenees to negotiate alliances of marriage between her grandchildren and rulers of other European countries to ensure the stability of King John's rule. However, as Sue Morris points out in her blog about traveling with Sharon Kay Penman during her “In the Footsteps of Eleanor of Aquitaine” tour, Eleanor's effigy holds her book open rather than closed like so many devout-looking effigies do. This indicates to her that Eleanor was being honored for her understanding of the spiritual world as well as her wisdom regarding the material world. I accept that as an appropriate tribute to this wife of two kings and mother of two kings.
As we moved on through the complex I noted the emptiness and lack of furnishings in the huge rooms, Some structures were destroyed, yet others lived. The original living quarters of the nuns and the monks were still in tact, yet you could see where furniture and decoration had been completely removed, perhaps to accommodate the prison housed here beginning in Napoleon's reign and lasting until the 1960s.
The abbesses were well-respected, retaining a lot of power at Fontevraud. Some, such as Gabrielle de Rochechouart (the sister of Madame de Montespan who was the most famous of Louis XIV mistresses), were honored during the 16th and 17th centuries when painters included their likenesses in depictions of Christ's life. Later abbesses felt that they, too, should be part of the paintings, so they had themselves painted in much after the fact.
By the middle of the 12th century, the Order of Fontevraud had fallen on hard times. At that point to help save the order, the nuns were allowed to keep their inheritance in contradiction with normal monastic practice. The devastation of the Hundred Years War, which ended in the mid-15th century, caused further economic problems. In the second half of the 16th century, the abbey and its surrounding buildings were vandalized as a result of the Wars of Religion. Many statues were beheaded. Some of these still reside at the abbey looking eerily like the statuary at the Cluny Museum in Paris.
One bizarre aspect of my visit to the abbey was that French artist Vincent Lamouroux was creating an "experience" in the cloister -- a walkway that looks like a roller coaster where people can traverse the gardens from above and look down on the pathway where monks and nuns walked in silence centuries ago. In a way, I was I glad that I missed the opening of this "attraction." It didn't seem appealing to me. See what you think: Here is a link to a short YouTube video from alternatif-art that walks you through the installation a year and a half after it was completed.
The Romanesque kitchens at the abbey are cool. They are the only preserved Romanesque kitchens in France. The huge octagonal building is known as Tour Evraud. Its shape and steep "pine cone" roofs are distinctively 12th century, although the building underwent heavy renovation in the 20th century.
When you go inside you see that walls contain several ovens in a circle. There are holes in the roof to let the smoke from each oven travel out. The ovens are huge. I wondered how much bread they could bake here in a day. Lots, I figured. But in researching the subject a bit more, I found one source that says the ovens were not added until 1904! I am so disappointed.
There is controversy over whether the kitchens were EVER used to cook or bake. More likely they were a smoke house. My husband Dave suggested this is logical because being able to preserve food by smoking it would be more useful to more people over time than cooking fresh food that had to be eaten within a day or so. Smoking allowed for storage of meat for months. This idea also supports the notion that the building had no ovens--not until the 20th century, anyway. It is strange that a kitchen could be so controversial. And I was unable to find a second source to confirm that the ovens were, indeed, 20th-century additions.
The alcoves that held the ovens were guarded by columns with ornate capitals at the top as if these were entrances to great rooms in the abbey itself. I was continually impressed by the ornate nature of everyday objects from the middle ages, from door ironwork to the entranceway to ovens!
We visited the Eglise Saint Michel, a small church in the town near the abbey. It was built by Henry II and Eleanor about 1170 for the townspeople. I like the smaller churches best. This church was beautifully decorated with fresh lilies and wildflowers. Someone was tending it very closely. The stain glass windows were brilliant, and the altar gleamed with the gold altar piece and tabernacle.
We were at the end of the tour, and I thanked Pierre and sadly turned back toward his white van to return to the hell that was my hotel in Saumur. He said, "Would you like to see Chinon Chateau?"
"Why yes," I said, trying not to shout with glee. "I would!"
To Be Continued!