Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fontevraud Abbaye, Poitiers

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The ambitious tour itinerary had us arriving that evening at Fontevraud Abbaye for a stay of three evenings, but didn't include calculations of the travel drama this would entail. Our large lumbering tour bus with the malfunctioning loo was not well-suited for crossing the narrow, two-lane Pont de Varennes-sur-Loire metal suspension bridge.

Source: John Phillips

But cross it we did, with everyone on board holding their collective breath as if to help the bus squeeze through and dodge obstinate drivers who refused to yield right-of-way.

Source: Google Earth screencap

Our intrepid tour manager ran alongside to shoo cars over into the other lane whilst our driver uttered staccato expletives in English and Hungarian as he drove. As if this bridge crossing wasn't harrowing enough, we soon found ourselves in the town of Fontevraud with its charmingly narrow streets that also were clearly not meant for large lumbering buses with malfunctioning loos.

Metal bridge and narrow streets notwithstanding, this group was full of squee upon arriving in a place with a town square called Place des Plantagenets.

Source: Nicole Benkert
And our first glimpse of Abbaye Royal de Fontevraud could not fail but to impress!

Source: John Phillips

Source: John Phillips
Skillful navigation carried the day and we soon found ourselves at the gates of the hotel at Fontevraud.

The very narrow gates.

That's our tour manager over there, playing traffic cop to get the bus through. It is tempting to imagine that it would have been easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for our large lumbering tour bus with the malfunctioning loo to enter that gate. But we finally made it to our destination none the worse for the drama.

Behold, Abbaye Royal de Fontevraud Hotellerie du Prieuré Saint Lazare, our home base for the next two nights.

Above is the courtyard of our building in the former priory complex of Saint-Lazare, which was originally built to care for lepers.

Unfortunately, no dinner arrangements had been made for our evening arrival and so our group found itself at loose ends. Some members of the group ended up climbing back aboard the bus for a meal at McDonald's and a harrowing journey that included getting lost in a vineyard; another small group sat through a good but interminable meal in town; a select few were allowed into the restaurant at the abbey; others pooled odds and ends of food and had a 'feast' in the courtyard; and two of our group dined on wine and bourbon at an impromptu human beatbox concert given by one of the Fontevraud artists-in-residence.

Me? I clambered over the balcony wall in my room, opened the floor-to-ceiling windows to enjoy the view, and dined on day-old cheese, croissants, and an apple I pilfered at breakfast. It was relaxing and peaceful right up until a hot air balloon landed beyond the adjacent garden wall. I recognized the tattletale sounds of the jets right away, being a veteran of two hot air balloon rides, and watched the evil smiley face balloon descend and deflate. I couldn't help but wonder if it would haunt my dreams that night.



Thursday, June 9, 2011

I honestly hadn't given much thought to sleeping in the former leper quarters of the abbey but perhaps I should have. At 2 AM, I was visited by a dream apparition of a leering leper. My leper had dangly bits where one of his eyes should have been, a bulbous nose, and a sort of cleft lip. He was vastly amused by my shriek of terror.

I was not so amused, and I'm pretty sure amusement was not the reaction felt by anyone who heard my scream. Fellow tour-mate Caryn in the room down the hall was able to verify that I did indeed utter a long, juicy, blood-curdling scream of the horror movie variety.

 I've searched online for an image that resembles my nightmare leper, and this picture is as good as it gets in terms of conveying the sense of menace. Imagine this guy leering at you...only with more dangly bits, plus stockier and well-fed. It was a sort of Dick Cheneyesque leper apparition.

A hearty breakfast in the hotel restaurant (we were all allowed in this time) set me to rights. We all clambered back aboard the bus for our journey to Poiters, about an hour away.

Source: John Phillips
As our bus drove along the RN 107 through the Poitou-Charentes region, I kept seeing signs for Mirabeau. Eleanor of Aquitaine took refuge at Château Mirabeau when she was besieged by her grandson Arthur and the Lusignans.  She was rescued by her son John, this being the swiftest and noblest military endeavor of his life. Dear Arthur didn't fare so well after that thwarted Poitevin rebellion, thanks to John's ruthlessness. 

The town of Mirabeau was not on our itinerary but an alert John Phillips snapped a photo of the city walls as we sped by.

Poitiers is another place with many layers of history. A Gallic tribe called the Pictones or Pictavi can lay claim as the first inhabitants in this region. Romans captured their village in 56 BCE and renamed the town Limonum. Evidence of Roman occupation still exists in the form of well-preserved ruins in the area if one has time to explore, for this region boasted an amphitheater, baths, and three aqueducts.  

In 732 CE on a Roman road south of Poitiers, an Arabo–Berber army 30000 men strong encountered forces led by Charles the Bastard. The Muslim invaders were conquered, and many historians regard that outcome as one of the most significant events in the development of Frankish cultural identity. The city we now know as Poitiers became the capital city of the Poitou region, which grew and prospered.

Poitiers was to Eleanor as Le Mans was to Henry.  Upon her father's death, Eleanor became Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou suo juore at the age of thirteen.  She announced her engagement to and married Henry in this city; returned as often as she could after her marriage; and actively managed her domains from here.

Moving forward in time to a relatively more modern era, I learned from our Poitiers guide Mary McKinley that Poitou is believed to be the region of origin of most of the Acadian settlements of North America. After
Le Grand Dérangement of the mid-1700s viciously deported settlers of French ancestry from Nova Scotia who had refused to sign oaths of allegiance to the English, the Acadians found themselves severed from their families and scattered throughout the New World. 

Deportation Grand-Pré by George Craig, painted 1893. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Some 1300 Acadians, many originally from Poitou, migrated 135 miles north to Nantes. They regrouped and tried to assimilate back into French culture, but found that was not possible. These refugees received permission to emigrate to Louisiana in 1785 (suffering delays due to Louisiana having become a possession of Spain in 1772). The city of Poitiers is twinned with Lafayette, Louisiana, which I'd visited with my family not six weeks earlier. Truly an amazing heritage for this lovely region.

Our walking tour started near Rue Jardin-des-Plantes and we strolled along to the Rue de la Cathédrale, with this view of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers teasing us in the distance.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers was founded in 1162 by Henry and Eleanor. There have been cathedrals on this site as far back as the 4th century, and in fact Eleanor and Henry even married in a predecessor on 18 May 1152. That church was pulled down and this one commissioned by Henry for Eleanor.  

Some husbands bring their wives flowers. Henry built his wife a cathedral (at least when things were good between them).

Source: Nicole Benkert

I found it oddly endearing that the western front of the church has a lopsided appearance due to the differences in the two towers. It reminded me of Chartres, and I kept wanting to tilt my head to balance things out. So far as I've been able to discover, the towers were never meant to be identical, owing to the entire church taking some 40 years to complete after its commission. From beginning to end, it took two centuries to complete all the details.

Cathedral building is a commitment

The towers have experienced subsequent repairs and alterations over the years, most recently in the 19th century, so the outward appearance of the building has certainly changed since Eleanor's time.

The church had many charming attributes.  The organ was built by François-Henri Clicquot in 1791 and is one of the largest instruments of its era. It has been restored many times over and is itself classified as an historical monument.

The choir stalls with their carved misericords date to 1235-57 and are among the oldest in France.  

Source: Sue O'Dee

But the primary architectural witness to Plantagenet history that we came to inspect is the Crucifixion window that occupies primary position in the choir:

Source: John Phillips

At the window's base is a donor panel of Eleanor and Henry holding a model of this very same window, which they commissioned between 1165 and 1170.  I think it is most likely primarily because of Eleanor that this window exists at all, as it makes sense to me that she'd want to strengthen through patronage her ties to this city, which had been so significant to her family heritage and her personal identity and autonomy.

Nonetheless, a Latin inscription confirms that this window was a joint gift.  A display that included a photo of this window at Fontevraud states that the figures on either side of Eleanor and Henry represent four of their children.  At the time I thought they were happy little clapping angels. 

This 850 year old window of 75 square feet of stained glass is considered by some art historians to be the supreme achievement of Romanesque stained glass in western France. The window suffered in a Huguenot attack in the 1560s, and underwent an extensive restoration in the 19th century.

Source: John Phillips

Eleanor seemed very close to us this day, for the donor panel is one of only three contemporary likenesses believed to be of Eleanor in existence (her gisant at Fontevraud and the mural at la Chapelle Sainte Radegonde de Chinon are the other two, although the identity of the figures in the latter are disputed).

After leaving the cathedral, we came upon Baptistère Saint-Jean, reputed to be the oldest existing Christian building in France. Although it's been altered many times over, the oldest parts date to the 2nd century AD. It is believed to have been a baptistery, as the original 6th century baptismal pool was rediscovered during reconstruction in the last century by the architect Joly-Leterme. That pool would have been filled in by Eleanor's time, since baptism by immersion was not in vogue.

Unfortunately we did not get to visit this interesting church, which was situated atop Roman ruins and even contains contains 6th century frescoes. Eleanor would have known St-Jean as a parish church in Poitiers and likely visited it. There are some wonderful images that can be viewed on this site: LINK.

Source: Nicole Benkert
It must be admitted that some of us were distracted from the history surrounding us by a friendly chat à Poitiers. Friendly as a cat can be, that is. I contemplated taking this fierce kitty back to my room at Fontevraud to keep the leper ghosts away, but the look of disdain on his face shows what Le Chat thinks of that idea.

Back on track, we next visited La Tour Maubergeon, which is part of the Palais de Justice de Poitiers.

What we now know as Le Palais de Justice was once a palace that served as the seat of power for the Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine, and was the royal residence for Eleanor, Henry and their children in Poitiers. The first palace on this site dates to the 9th century but was destroyed by fire, as so much was in medieval times. The palace has had many subsequent transformations and owing to changes from the 1300s and beyond, what we see before us is not what Eleanor would have known. Still, this was likely her best-loved home. 

In 1104, Eleanor's grand-father Count William IX added a rectangular keep with a polygonal tower at each corner, called La Tour Maubergeon. He built it to house Amauberge, called La Dangereuse, whom he abducted (apparently quite willingly) from her husband and eventually married. Keeping it all in the family, William's namesake and heir was wed to Amauberge's daughter Aenor. Their surviving children were Aliaenor ("the other Aenor" known to us today as Eleanor) and her younger sister Petronilla. The oldest child, William Aigret, died in childhood, thus leaving Eleanor as heiress of the duchy of Aquitaine.

Source: John Phillips

Due to a fence and refurbishments, we unfortunately couldn't get any closer to the exterior of La Tour Maubergeon.  In the background of the photo above is the aula or official hall of the palace, which was also built by Eleanor. This closer view shows its later Gothic exterior additions. The exterior was not quite so flamboyant in Eleanor's day, but it was an impressive building nonetheless.  

Source: Julia Markovitz

We walked around to the other side of the aula, which later was known as La Salle des Pas Perdus. Lots of footsteps involved, actually. We had to show our passports and get screened by security before entering, since it is an active appellate courthouse.

We entered into the Great Hall of Eleanor's day. At 147 feet long, it was the largest hall of its era -- which is to be expected since Eleanor did nothing in half measures!  The large fireplaces, windows, and window tracery behind the dais are later additions.  

Another famous French woman, Jeanne d'Arc, was sent to Poitiers by order of the Dauphin Charles to be examined by a panel of clergymen in 1429 following her claims of a divine mission to save France. She also had a physical examination to confirm that she was a maiden as she claimed. Jeanne 'passed'  these exams and was sent back to Charles to fulfill the destiny she had set for herself.  Although the transcripts of this exam have been lost, it likely took place in this Great Hall.


Closer view of the upper window, above. The south gable of the Salle des Pas Perdus was renovated at the end of the 14th century, which is when these stained glass windows and elegant Gothic arches were added.  Lovely as they are, I admit to being partial to the rounded Romanesque look.

We had fun standing on the dais and looking toward the back of the aula trying to imagine the hall as Eleanor would have seen it...fewer draughty windows, but likely brightly painted and hung with gorgeous tapestries.  Great trestle tables would have lined the hall for feasts, with everyone sitting according to his or her rank (or lack thereof).

We wandered next to the center of town where market day takes place. Excavations have revealed that the Église Notre-Dame la Grande at Place Charles-de-Gaulle was erected on the site of a pagan temple. A bit of Roman construction is even included in the north wall of the church. Notre-Dame la Grande was completely rebuilt in the late 11th century.  It has been altered many times over and the cloister on the north side disappeared in the 19th century. The church underwent cleaning and restoration in 1996, thus accounting for its current bright appearance

The western front of Église Notre-Dame la Grande is considered to be one of the finest Romanesque facades in France. Hallmarks of the style called Plantagenet or Angevin Gothic Architecture, a short-lived period that bridged the Romanesque and Gothic periods, include fish-scale or pine cone spires, three doorways, specific sculptural details, bulging vaults, and single nave with a vaulted ceiling crossing the nave sans buttresses. All of those are present at Église Notre-Dame la Grande.

Eleanor would certainly have attended this church, given its prominence and proximity to the Palace. I somehow doubt that she was confronted with a performance artist on stilts busking for his lunch money outside the entrance. But we were.

Source: John Phillips

The inside of this church was a marvel. The columns are painted to evoke the medieval era, and those around the altar were temporarily wrapped in red fabric for Pentecost this coming Sunday (red symbolizing the tongues of flame in which the Holy Spirit descended on the first Pentecost). We were lucky to arrive during noon-day Mass, which served as a reminder for us of the function of this place. This was a sacred space uplifting in its beauty and would have pleased Abbot Suger. But a church is devoted to the practice of faith and worship, and even those not of the faith could appreciate a reminder of that dynamic purpose. In medieval times, we would have come upon services for the office of Sext, the noon-day hour. Mid-day was liturgically significant because it represented the time when both the sun and the divine Light were strongest, and was the hour when Christ was nailed to the Cross.

Between 1842-1866, the architect Charles Joly-Leterme supervised the restoration of many buildings significant to our Plantagenets, including Château de Chinon and Cathédrale Saint-Maurice d'Angers (both of which we will visit later in our tour). In Poitiers Joly-Leterme was responsible for restoration at Baptistère Saint-Jean and for the 1851 painting of these columns in the nave and vaults of Église Notre-Dame la Grande. His choice of motif was more Byzantine than Romanesque, and as such has been criticized for historical inaccuracy and garishness. Still, the paintings give us a sense of how highly decorated churches of the medieval era would have been.

We imagined that Eleanor would have admired this 12th century Romanesque fresco above the choir.

Source: John Phillips

There are also frescos from the same period in the 11th century crypt under the choir, but we did not get to view those.

Our guide Mary pointed out this old window in the church which she and Sharon had noticed on a previous trip. Eleanor used a double-headed eagle in her standard so it is tempting to think that this simple window is associated with her.

And then, this statue stopped me dead in my tracks.  

St. Expedite is greatly revered in Voodoo circles in New Orleans, Louisiana. The story goes that a crate arrived in 1826 at the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Rampart Street labeled "EXPEDITE." Mistaking the shipping instructions of 'expedite' to be the name of a saint, the statue inside the crate was installed in the New Orleans chapel where he remains, thusly named, to this day.  Knowing this story, I was gobsmacked when I saw this hand-labeled St. Expedit in Poitiers. There is in fact a cult of St. Expedit that extends beyond New Orleans, although of course it's questionable if Expeditus ever actually existed. Nevertheless, he is the patron saint of quick fixes and cures against procrastination. The Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe in New Orleans is the only home Expedit has in the USA. But this statue formed another connection between Louisiana and Poitiers that made me shake my head in wonder!  

Here's the story of St Expedit for those who are curious:  LINK.

Our tour of Poiters' historical offerings had sadly come to end. While much of the group sat down for a long leisurely lunch, our group of Bastard Babes gathered at a market counter, chatted in a small garden while we ate, and then used our time to explore a bit more of this charming city. From the sublime to the prophylactic, we were amused to find a condom machine in the middle of Rue de la Régratterie. Just in case shopping puts one in the mood, I guess. We did our share of shopping. La Boutique à Chapeaux lured me in its doors, and a box of chocolates came home with me from the Poitivin branch of De Chocolat Neuville, a 130 store chain established in 1883.  Some of the tour group went on to visit the 11th century Église Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand across town, where 14 year old Richard was invested as Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine. I didn't join that excursion, much though I'd have liked to, because we were pressed for time and my knees said "enough." When my knees talk, I listen.

We wandered back to our bus, snapping photos as we went. Poitiers was a lovely town.


On the way back to Fontevraud we stopped at Domaine Filliatreau, a vineyard and winery characteristic of the Saumur-Champigny region. According to its website: "Many of the Filliatreau vineyards run along a site known as La Grand Vignolle, a riverside plot situated on very typical tuffeau (limestone) bedrock. There are many ancient vines here, facilitating the production of an old vines cuvée, and yields are carefully restricted. "  The Filliatreaus practice organic farming, tout a reputation for having modernized winemaking in the region, and lay claim to being the largest single estate in the Saumur-Champigny area.

I must admit that I am not a oenophile so much of the allure of this stop was lost on me. I'd rather have had more time exploring Poitiers or Fontevraud. However, I was quite taken with the setting and spent more time wandering around the Filliatreau estate than sipping wine. The winery was housed in one of the many troglodyte sites that can be seen along the Loire Valley's tuffeau hillsides. Often the caves were created when tuffeau was mined for construction, allowing elaborate estates to be carved into the rock like this one had been.

Source: John Phillips
The estate is described as "a rare example of a seigniorial troglodyte dwelling space with dovecoat and 16th century chapel."  In other words, it had been a lord's well-appointed manor.

A lovely photo of the author Sharon Kay Penman at Domaine Fillitreau:

Next: an evening at Fontevraud Abbaye. 

Sharon Kay Penman's blog entry about our visit to Poitiers can be found HERE.


  1. I have enjoyed your blog tremendously! ... (Probably more, I think, than having gone on the tour, as it seemed to me to have been very poorly planned!!!) Thanks for Sharing!!!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! Yes, the planning was incomplete, which is partly why I wrote this blog afterwards in order to synthesize the experience, sense of history and place that flew by so quickly and at times wasn't covered at all. I hope that would-be Eleanor/Plantagenet pilgrims find it be a useful resource in planning their own travels! But even the planning deficits worked out in the long run. Travel is an adventure, after all. Plus, I met some incredible folks on this tour who have become dear friends and travel companions!


Please let me know what you think! As Eleanor once wrote: "So that this day may be firm and persevere unchanging in perpetuity, we have commended it to writing. Your comments thereof are welcome and may be affixed forthwith."