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Abbaye de Fontfroide

South of Saint Chinian, near Narbonne, is the beautifully restored Fontfroide Abbey. Founded in 1093 by a handful of monks in search of a place of prayer and tranquility, it lies nestled in the depths of a valley near a cold spring ('Fons frigidus'). In the ensuing centuries it became rich and powerful. It was the assassination of one of its brothers, Pierre de Castelnau, who had become a papal legate, which was used as a rallying cry for the First Albigensian Crusade. In the early years of the 14th century Fontfroide was ruled by Jacques Fournier who became Pope Benedict XII in 1334. However during the French Revolution, Fontfroide was abandoned by the brothers and sold. It is now privately owned.

Fontfroide abbey

Two very large and very loud dogs barked at us furiously from the terrace of the high walls surrounding the courtyard as we waited outside for the tour. As tourists visit almost every day, almost all day long, they must be very dedicated watchdogs! Hourly tours (which leave on the half hour) begin in the Cour d'Honneur and lead into the Cour Louis XIV, built by the luxury loving abbots in the 17th century. Most of the buildings were built in the 12th and 13th century, but this lovely courtyard looked as if it belonged at Versailles. It was easy to imagine ladies and gentlemen in powdered wigs and brightly colored satin garments 'taking a turn' on a fine afternoon.

Fontfroide Abbey

That image was dispelled however when we were led into the cloisters with its dark vaulted galleries and ornate arches and columns, the perfect setting for silent monks filing into the church for prayers. The Tour Guide led us into the adjacent church and turned on a recording of chanting which echoed impressively in the vast interior. The tour also took us through the Chapter house, monk's dormitory, the laymen's dormitory and then out into the Rose Garden. The dozens of rosebushes were past their glory but the walled garden was lovely all the same. The Italianate Gardens along side the abbey gave the impression of elegant serenity.

Cloisters

Piecing together information gathered from the tour guide, my tour books and the tour of the abbey, I concluded that the monks lived pretty well! When first founded, the monks, at the abbey were hard working and pious, ministering to the poor and living in poverty themselves. However as the abbey's wealth grew (from gifts and from the worldly possessions of those who became monks themselves) the monks became more interested in acquiring wealth and less in helping the poor.

Cloisters

Their lives were spent in communal prayer and indeed it seems they even ceased the 'hard work' part, leaving that to the lay brothers (the men who did not have money or property to donate to the abbey). The abbey and the monks became unpopular with the surrounding populous by the mid 13th century and they were accused of avarice and depravity, of living in luxury while the common man who they had vowed to help died in want and poverty. No matter! They now had enough wealth to buy other wealth producing property, to eat meat and to drink wine, to wear silks and walk about their gardens!

Abbaye de Fontcaude

Near the village of Cazedarnes are the ruins of the Abbaye de Fontcaude. It is not far from St. Chinian. Unknowingly though we took one of the back ways up to it and as we slowly drove the really narrow road, up and up, twisting and turning, we were certain that it was at the end of known civilization (just the right place for monks to escape to and find solitude!). It is secluded but it probably once wasn't. The ruins bespeak a once fairly wealthy Abbey (wealthy for medieval times) and for that they would have had to have pilgrims and own land and have power. Unfortunately none of my guidebooks mention this Abbey so I know nothing about it.

Fontcaude courtyard   Fontcaude Abbey

 

Bibliography

Discover Cathar Country, Michele Aue
Wonderful Languedoc-Roussillon, Alain Dag'Naud, Catherine Bibollet
Michelin Languedoc Roussillon
The Road from the Past, Ina Caro



 

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