Thursday, September 8, 2011

Misbehaving At The Abbey 8 Sept 2011

- 8 Sept 11 Fontevraud Abbey

Got up and went looking for brekky because E14 at the Hotel Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud was too much. Our room was a bit noisy but OK, small shower. I'm glad I'm only paying E52 per night for it (bargain special) because it's definitely not worth the E100 they want to charge. We found espresso coffee at the nearby Le Croix hotel then did the Abbey tour.

Abbaye le Fontevraud was founded by a hermit who made the unusual decision of putting women in charge. Alas, he wasn't an early feminist; rather, he thought that placing men under the authority of women was yet another form of humiliation for them - good for their souls. Seems he was quite the cult leader in his time.

Save your soul by putting women in charge. You know it makes sense.
The Abbey is famous because it's the resting place of Richard the Lionheart, King Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitane. Their likenesses are the only things inside the grand cathedral which is now used for concerts.
Eleanor and King Henry. Eleanor was the mother superior of the convent and lived into her 80s.

The Abbey is a forbidding place in a lot of ways. Catholics were good at making people miserable. The Abbey features a "death chapel". In this small, cold and dark place, dying nuns were laid on beds of ashes and made to wear a cilice while others prayed over them. This was to remind them, as they died, that the body would go back to the Earth. Nice. There was also a punishment cellar and dungeon where nuns were put in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, in the chapter house, nuns had to make public confession of their sins. The walls are painted with scenes from the death of Christ with nuns - various Mother Superiors - added later in the corners.

We found this image of Jesus ascending into heaven rather hilarious:

Jesus is YOINKED up into heaven.
In the open part of the cloister was a large wooden structure which we called the "Cloister Coaster" - a temporary wooden sculpture that resembled a roller coaster made of steps. In theory you were meant to walk along it slowly and meditate on the meaning of life. Naturally Luke and I raced along it, pretended we were in a roller coaster and made a time-lapse video of it all. Lots of fun.

Cloister coaster
Every room in the Abbey is now empty. The place is used as a gallery and performance space. Unfortunately this meant it was lacking in personality. You didn't get a chance to really imagine what life was like when it was an Abbey. There was supposed to be an exhibition of that kind of thing in the "treasure room" but it was closed. The treasure room was originally called the "warm room" because it was the only place in the Abbey that was heated. Nuns would go there to do delicate work that required concentration, like embroidery.

In the nun's upper dormitories
The Abbey was confiscated after the French Revolution and turned into a prison. There was a fascinating exhibition about prison life in one of the cloister rooms; like the nuns, the prisoners had a fairly hard life in this place. No heating, lots of corporal punishment, lack of sleep, no food, nasty guards... the usual. The prison turned the cathedral into a multi-story dormitory and added extra buildings all over the place.

The kitchen building is impressive - it's completely unlike the rest of the Abbey, done in a Turkish style. The many chimneys and doors apparently helped with cooking because it allowed smoke to be blown away easily.

The kitchen building with its "fish scale" roof
Looking up into the main chimney of the kitchen.
Luke had coffee at the Orangerie but we didn't have an eclair. We were engaging in self mortification, of course.

We had Lunch at La Croix brasserie, I had French Onion Soup, Luke had Moules Frites and Affligate beer. A lot of Affligate beer. It comes in 500ml glasses, they made his hands look little.

Beware, French Onion Soup
We got chatting to an older English couple who are travelling in their motorhome. She was rather snobby and enjoyed correcting my French pronunciations. She also declared that the French are ruining their rivers by not dredging all the sound out of them.

We had a nap afterwards, then wine in the garden as the sun went down, watching bees, smelling the roses, patting the cat. Yes, OK, I patted a cat. It was a French cat. It came right up to me. It had an accent and a beret. What could I do?

The French Onion soup made quite the impression on me and anyone who came within 50 metres smelling distance of me. Spectacular.

Lazy, we went back to dinner at La Croix, Duck L'Orange for me, Luke had the onion soup just to be smelly. Once again we drank too much. After that we went wandering in the Abbey grounds in the dark, squashing apples in the orchard, reading the information panels in the garden and giggling too loudly. There's something delightful about drunkenly sniggering your way around religious monuments by moonlight. It's almost spiritual. That's what I planned to tell the security guards anyway.

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