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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #564: Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay

The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay is a 12th century former monastery in Burgundy. The Cistercian godfather Saint Bernard of Clairvaux found a sufficient remote location to create a new community of monks, one of many at that time. The Cistercians broke away from the mainstream Benedictines because they felt that the Benedictine monks had become too worldly and devoted too little time to manual labor. The Cistercians made up for that in self-sufficient communities like this.

The Abbey owes its place on the List to its excellent state of preservation. I visited it by car from Reims on a combined day trip with the WHS of Vézelay. In the year 2015 this still is an off-the-beaten track location, though the Abbey receives over 100,000 visitors a year. I drove on minor roads for over an hour, passing this region’s typical ramshackle villages that look deserted. Only at the site’s car park I was back among living creatures again. I arrived around 10.30, at the same time as two buses with German tourists. Also I counted some 40 cars with individual visitors.

Access to the site is run professionally. As the Abbey is now in private hands, they rely on the income from tourists to cover the costs of conservation. There’s a 10 EUR entrance fee if you go in by yourself, or 12.5 EUR if you join a guided tour. They hand out brochures in several languages, I received one in Dutch which was informative enough to get to know the monastery complex. I was keen to take a tour though. Before that started, I walked around by myself to take photos. The grounds are kept immaculate. There’s a large garden at the back, and water features both there and to the side.

Inside the Abbey Church

The 11 a.m. tour attracted some 35 people. Explanations are given only in French, so when that's not your first language you have to listen in very closely. Honestly I missed about half of the stories that were told. They do come in great detail. The tour covers no other areas than you can visit individually, but it is worth joining for some extra detail. One of the nicest spots is inside the Abbey Church, where a floor covered with enamelled tiles, the old altarpiece and sarcophagi of a Burgundian knight and his wife fight for attention.

The interior of the buildings is very austere. The Chapterhouse for example is nothing like the fully painted one of the Dominicans in Florence that I visited a few weeks ago. The absence of paintings and colours was done on purpose, to comply with the order's simplicity and not distract the monks during their contemplative prayer.

In the Forge

This might not be one of the most famous French WHS, but it is really worth a detour. I especially liked the variety in buildings, such as the dovecote, the dog kennel, the monks' sleeping quarters, the bakery. The tour ends at the forge, where the monks produced tools. They extracted iron ore from a hill that overlooks the monastery. By diverting the river of Fontenay, water wheels were able to power the hydraulic hammers that would beat the iron. The forge was created around 1220 and became the first metallurgical factory in Europe.

Published 17 May 2015

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