The magnificent Abbey Fontevraud in the Loire

Written by on December 26, 2017 in Centre

The royal Abbey at Fontevraud has to be one of the most beautiful abbeys in all of France – and there are a lot of them. Historic, immense and absolutely magnificent, the UNESCO World heritage site listed abbey is the largest in Europe and is one of those places that you must see when you’re in the Loire Valley. Built in the 12th century, the abbey makes for a most fascinating visit, has gorgeous gardens and a stunning onsite hotel, restaurant and bar.

Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine at Abbey Fontevraud

White stone nave of the abbey of Fontevraud, Loire ValleyThe Abbey de Fontevraud was the burial place of several of the important Plantagenet family members. Eleanor of Aquitaine died at the Abbey in 1204 and was entombed there alongside her husband Henri II of France who died in 1189 in nearby Chinon. Her son Richard the Lionheart died in her arms in 1199 and was also interred at the Abbey. Isabelle, wife of King John of England (Richard the Lionheart’s brother) also died at the Abbey and was interred there.

Their recumbent effigies lie in state in the magnificent nave of the Abbey and have a strangely human air to them. Eleanor looks younger than her 82 years, peaceful and regal, she’s shown reading a book. Seeing their likeness in the soaring nave, it really brings home to you just how important this Abbey has always been considered.

It has immense history you can almost feel when you walk through the doors and into the cool interior with enormously high ceilings. Byzantine style domes and white stone walls give it a bit of an other worldly air.

The women rulers of Abbey Fontevraud

Unusually this was an abbey that was run by women, powerful Abbesses who answered only to the King and the Pope. The women who lived here dedicated their lives to praying. It was a hard life; they were not allowed to speak to each other or make eye contact, even during meals.

When Louise de Bourbon (1673–1743), daughter of Louis XIV, became Abbesse it became quite popular for the aristocracy to send their daughters there. Gorgeous wall paintings show Louise had herself added to a religious scene, it seems worldly vanity didn’t completely disappear from life at the Abbey. Subsequent Abesses followed her lead – making the frescoes at Fontevraud a sort of ancient “selfie”.

During the French Revolution the Abbey was ransacked and in order to save it from being destroyed, the town leaders decided to convert it to a prison. Their idea was that if the building had a use, it would survive, and they were right. Amazingly the prison, the largest in France after the one established at the Abbey of Clairvaux, only closed in 1963.

In 1975 the Abbey was designated a place of culture and arts. Restored and renovated it is now famous not just as an ancient monument but for the fabulous exhibitions that are displayed in some of the ancient chambers. There are concerts, workshops, artists in residence and regularly changing exhibitions.

Staying at the Abbey Fontevraud

On site is a beautiful hotel converted from one of the buildings. Truly tranquil, it is exquisitely updated keeping as many features as possible. It’s the perfect marriage of modern and ancient. The air is scented with oils, the rooms are spacious and über luxurious but organic at the same time.

Staying here gives you access to the abbey and the gorgeous gardens. The bar and restaurant are open to non-residents and are worth going for on their own merits.

The Abbey de Fontevraud makes for a spectacular visit with its uniquely rich history and so much more.

More brilliant places to visit in the Loire Valley

The Loire Valley as you’ve never seen it – the secrets and hidden gems you’ll love… in our free ezine: The Good Life France Magazine
The enchanting Chateau de Brissac where you’ll also find the most amazing B&B in France!
The Chateau du Rivau a fairy tale garden and romantic castle
How to spend a perfect weekend in Angers
Chateau hopping in the Loire – 5 of our favourite castles

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