Fontenay is arguably the brightest star in Burgundy’s vast historical firmament.
This beautiful Cistercian Abbey, a Unesco World Heritage site since 1981, has been restored, preserved and maintained by several generations of the Aynard family. It is open to the public 365 days a year.
About 90 minutes drive to the west of Les Deux Chevres. It lies in close proximity to Epoisses, famous for the cheese of the same name, and Semur-en-Auxois, where the church Notre Dame contains many fine examples of Gothic art.
The history of the Chateau at Epoisses is even more ancient than that of Fontenay. There was a castle at Epoisses in the 6C, and it remained an important fort for the Dukes of Burgundy over many centuries. The Montbard family (the mother of Bernard of Clairevaux, the founder of Fontenay, was a Montbard) lived there for some time, along with many other important French aristocratic dynasties. It has been in the same family for the last 300 years.
The approach to the Chateau is via an open space, reminiscent of an English village green. On one side of the green is a beautiful dovecote, dating from the 15C. On the other side, the 13c Church of Epoisses. On the other side of the road from the Chateau is a shop selling local delicacies and specialities, and of course there is the cheese factory!
Visiting Semur arouses feelings of wonder and despair in almost equal measure. As with many other towns and villages in Burgundy, some of the country’s most illustrious buildings and structures are in danger of entering a phase of terminal decline.
The construction of Notre Dame Collegiale commenced in 1225 on the site of a former Roman church. It has some truly beautiful examples of Gothic art and architecture, with significant parts of the building dating from its inception –the apse, the nave, the transept and the choir, and opposite the pulpit, an effigy of Christ from the end of the 13C. A beautiful stained glass window denoting the Assumption, and at the top a keystone, said to be one of the finest from the 13C, representing Mary’s coronation. On Notre Dame Street, the ‘Porte des Bleds’ – due to the fact that originally it opened onto cultivated fields, again dating from the mid 13C. The building abounds with priceless ancient treasures, of which those mentioned here are but a selection of the earliest.
And so on to Fontenay.
Fontenay was founded in 1118 and constructed in its present location from 1130 under the tutelage of Bernard de Clairvaux, perhaps the most influential of all the Cistercian monks. The Abbey resonates with a serenity derived from its surroundings, the elegant and harmonious use of space, and the gentle linear simplicity of the architecture and stonework. The funding for the construction of the Abbey Church, came in part from the fortune of the Bishop of Norwich, Ebrard of Arundel, whose tomb can be found at Fontenay. It was a place where he found solace and refuge. The Cistercian Order was a shining example of a truly European organization, long before the concept of a European super state was first conceived!
The Abbey receives more than 100,000 visitors each year, and has been the scene for many famous films and tv series, including Cyrano de Bergerac with Gerard Depardieu. It is simply a wonderful place to visit.