Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fontevraud Abbaye, Saumur and Chinon

Friday, June 10, 2011

Breakfast was risky business today. I cracked open what I thought was a hard boiled egg only to find a raw one, then nearly choked to death on a kiwi. Between the Kiwi of Doom and my Cheneyesque leper apparition the other night, I am beginning to wonder if there's a malicious presence at Fontevraud. Tonight will be our last night at Fontevraud and I hope to make it out all in one piece, if perhaps not entirely peacefully!

The abbey of Fontevraud was a double monastery for monks and nuns and originally consisted of several self-contained priories:

  • Sainte Marie accommodated the choir nuns and the contemplatives.
  • La Madeleine was for lay sisters and was comprised of married and widowed women who chose to withdraw from the world (the name reflects its origins as the priory of Robert d'Abrissel's prostitute groupies).
  • St-Benoît was an infirmary for the crippled and the sick.
  • Saint-Lazare was for lepers and, later, convalescent nuns.
  • Saint Jean de l'Habit accommodated priests, monks and lay brothers. 

During their time, patronage of the Plantagenets allowed reconstruction at St-Lazare, St-Jean de l'Habit and La Madeleine.  Today there is nothing left of St-Jean-de-l’Habit and only parts of La Madeleine remain.

The original chapel of the priory we are staying at, St-Lazare, was built around 1160. Much was destroyed or transformed during Fontevraud's prison years, when the chapel (to the left in the photo above) was divided into two levels and its stained glass windows were removed and replaced with barred windows. A dentist's office was installed on the second floor. The building to the back is our hotel, and was added in 1828 as part of the prison. So, no real lepers ever stayed there! 

St-Lazare was actually the first Fontevraud priory to be restored, and it took 8 years to complete the work begun in 1958 with prison labor. At one point during the reconstruction, the skeletal remains of six nuns were discovered and re-interred beneath some paving stones in the choir of the chapel. That's about where the restaurant is, where we ate breakfast! Perhaps their vengeful spirits, unhappy at being interred below a restaurant, were responsible for my Kiwi of Doom incident this morning....

St-Lazare was described by France's Architect for Historical Monuments Henri Enguehard thusly "....for six centuries, it was a house of prayer; for two centuries, a house of thieves; and now, for the future, a house of culture under the direction of the Cultural Center of the West."

The hotel at St-Lazare is scheduled for major refurbishment in 2012. These grounds are alive with history, and it is good to know that the abbey is the focus of continued preservation efforts.

Our first destination was the near-by town of Saumur, familiar to me since I stayed at a near-by youth hostel some twenty years ago. The castle on a hill greeted me like an old friend.

Photo by John Phillips

The original fortress was built in the 10th century as an important stronghold against marauding Normans, and Eleanor's Henry II rebuilt the chateau during his time. It supposedly looks much the same now as it did then. Unfortunately, our time was short in the town and a castle tour didn't fit with our schedule. Our tour was meant to visit Market Day but alas, Market Day in Saumur is Saturday, not Friday!  All was not lost, however, as it was a pretty town to wander about for the brief time we had there. 

Hôtel de Ville on Rue Molière. Photo by John Phillips.

Not much was open so early in the morning, but the butcher shop on Rue St Jean was doing a brisk business.  I went treasure-hunting and bought a few lovely little things at La Dentellière on Rue de la Tonnelle. You can check out that shop at LINK.

I must also admit to buying an item of what is probably of somewhat questionable taste when I stopped in the Office de Tourisme de Saumur: a ten inch resin replica of Eleanor's gisant. Questionable or not, it was the source of several covetous glances back on the tour bus!

We stayed for barely an hour in Saumur before crossing the bridge over the Loire to our next destination. Adieu, Saumur. Another day, perhaps, I will finally get to tour Henry's castle!

Photo by John Phillips

As we traveled around the area, we kept passing this little church below. I wish I knew what it was. You can see how overcast the sky is getting...this does not bode well.

We arrived at Chinon, our main destination for the day.  

The town of Chinon dates to Roman times and has a most strategic position along the Vienne River. The chateau we are about to visit can be traced to 5th century fortifications above the old town. Subsequent owners included the Counts of Tours, Blois, and Anjou. Henry Plantagenet dearly loved Chinon and it loomed large in his history. He added impressive and massive fortifications, initially imprisoned Eleanor here following the rebellion of 1173, and died here in 1189 having been betrayed by his sons and vowing in his despair to withhold his soul from God after the firing of Le Mans.

The section of wall shown above was likely built during the reign of Eleanor and Henry's son Richard I. His arch-nemesis, Philippe Auguste, later won Chinon from the youngest and least-able Plantagenet, John. 

Several centuries later, King Charles VII and Jeanne d'Arc began their dance of fate here. The castle fell into ruins beginning in the 1600s. When I visited the town in 1991, we were warned away from exploring its grounds. Fortunately, Chateau Chinon underwent considerable refurbishment from 2003-10.

There are three parts to the chateau. We entered through the remains of Le Fort Saint Georges. We then passed through the 13th century Tour de l'Horloge to the central part called Le Château du Milieu, and ended up at Fort du Coudray.

Photo by John Phillips

Fort St-Georges underwent extensive archaeological explorations from 2003 to 2008. It appears that it was in fact less a fort than a palace, constructed by Henry in 1160 and used by him as a residence and his center of administrative power when he was based in Chinon. The area was private property until 1994 and the Plantagenet ruins were covered by vineyards and orchards (one of the reasons we were warned away when visiting in 1991).  I found an archeological report online that shows the excavated foundations from the work done in 2003-04; you can view that report HERE.

From the Visitor's Center we crossed this bridge across the centuries to begin our tour. The bridge dates to the 19th century and replaced a drawbridge and portcullis gate.

At one time, the three floored Tour de l'Horloge we passed under housed a museum devoted to Jeanne d'Arc. I believe that museum may be permanently closed or repurposed, given the move of some of its displays to elsewhere within the Chinon complex. The tower owes its name to the clock it houses, which dates to 1399. The original bell is called Marie Javelle by the inhabitants of Chinon and has a rather threatening associated rhyme:
Marie Javelle / Je m’appelle / Celui qui m’a mis / M’a bien mis; / Celui qui m’ôtera s’en repentira.
Which translates (more or less, with some embellishments) to:
Mary-Javelle is my name. Whoever set me set me well. Who may remove me the day will rue in Hell.
Moral of the story: don't mess with the clock.

We next walked along the ramparts with the above view of the Vienne and the coutnryside to our left.

The ruins of Château du Milieu constitute the central part of Chinon as we know it today. The U-shaped Logis Royal was built in the 1400s, of which only the southern portion now remains.

Photo by John Phillips
Above is the first floor chimney from Le Grande Salle that was built by Charles VII, whose arms are displayed. It was in this building in 1429 that Jeanne d'Arc identified Charles and inspired him to reclaim his kingdom.

A tent had been set up outside Le Grande Salle for an event and we made use of it to escape the now-relentless drizzle. These grounds were once the site of the priory of Saint-Mélaine, where Henry Plantagenet drew his last breath as he muttered "Shame, shame upon a conquered king." 

We wandered around the atmospheric ruins of the royal lodgings of Château du Milieu.

Maybe it was a sense of unease from my near brushes with death at Fontevraud (for that Cheneysque apparition and the Kiwi of Doom surely could not be coincidental). Perhaps it was the dreary weather and the strain of navigating wet cobblestones with bad knees. Perhaps it was the menacing presence of the immovable Marie-Javelle bell. Or perhaps it was Henry's restless soul, denied to God and too angry for the Devil to handle, doomed to eternal wandering at Chinon, poking me between the shoulder blades.  Causality undetermined, I nevertheless felt a sense of weariness and sadness at Chinon that I could not wait to escape.

It wasn't all gloomy, though. To the right is Tour des Chiens, built by Philippe Auguste to serve as the royal kennel. I must never show this photo to mine own dogs lest they demand such a fine house for themselves.  Fine, aside from being in ruins, that is. Then again, let's face it, dogs aren't bothered by ruins.  

We crossed another stone bridge, itself a replacement for an earlier drawbridge. Here is La Tour de Boissy, an impressive 49 feet long and 10 feet high built into the hillside, with walls that are 9 feet thick in places!

This marks the edge of the section known as Fort Coudray, largely reconstructed and added to in the 13th century by Philippe Auguste.

The tower below is Tour de Moulin, the oldest of the surviving towers. In Henry's time this was a powerful defensive tower. It is here that author Sharon Kay Penman placed Eleanor at the start of her imprisonment, where she remained until Henry moved her to Falaise and then the long years in England.

Photo by Julia Markovitz
I did not venture much into Tour Coudray, where Jeanne d'Arc was once lodged and where 140 Templar knights were imprisoned for three years when that order was suppressed in 1307. They left behind graffiti in parts of the tower.

I was less concerned with graffiti and more with preserving my buckling knees on the wet cobblestones. I decided that having survived the Flaming Dessert Omelette of Doom at Mont St-Michel, a Dick Cheneyesque leper apparition and near Death by Kiwi, I was not about to be done in by Chinon's oppressive spirit and slippery pathways. I decided to visit the (hopefully more easily navigated) town and sit out the rain with a café au lait, so skipped the Templar graffiti and some multi-media exhibits and headed to the Visitor's Centre and the off-limits ruins of Fort St-Georges.

Remains of Fort St-George before Visitor's Centre was built. Source: Wikipedia Commons
The St-Georges area was irrevocably demolished in the 17th century when Cardinal Richelieu dismantled the walls and transported the stones for construction in his town of Richelieu, allowing the grounds to decay.  The ruins of a chapel with a crypt were extant until covered over with farming and vegetation.

Once the archaeological excavations were completed in 2008, the ruins were reburied for preservation purposes.  A new building was added to this section in 2010 to house the gift shop  and tourism office, to restore the original role of St-Georges as the entryway into Château de Chinon.

Photo by John Phillips
Oppression literally hovered over Chinon in form of heavy grey sky.


After warming up and drying off in the gift shop, I met some other  friends who had decided to escape the tour. We rode the spiffy glass elevator to the town of Chinon and found ourselves drawn to a boutique called Jadis, located at 23 Place Général de Gaulle. We wandered in, found wonderful treasures, bought things, wandered back out, then came back for lunch.  Our host, Sébastien Vallon, found us 'adorable' and we thought he and his boutique and his little Bouledogue Français were absolutely enchanting.  

Refreshed, with sunlight peeking through the clouds, we walked along the Quay Jeanne d'Arc and enjoyed this view of boats on the Vienne.

Photo by Sue O'Dee

I was briefly separated from the group because I was distracted by this incongruous palm tree in a park along Rue Descartes. One of these trees is not like the other....

Next:  Chapelle Sainte-Radegonde de Chinon