Friday, March 30, 2007

Plantagenets, plants, castles and caves

The cloister, Abbey of Fontevraud

All righty – last post on this...

Technically, this is end of day one, for one we realized we couldn’t get into the castle of Saumur, we hopped in the car and made our way to “Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud” (translation: Royal Abbey of Fontevraud).

Sadly, it was closed when we arrived, so we booked a hotel in the village and stayed there for the night (La Croix Blanche, which I highly recommend to anyone who finds themselves in Fontevraud l’Abbaye in need of a bed. Hey, it could happen). The place has been around since 1696 according to their card.

I won’t go into to much detail about the hotel, but they were extremely courteous, sitting Amynah and I in a separate dining area because they were afraid that the large group of people celebrating a family reunion would disturb us. They also had parking, which as a relief, as it meant I didn’t have to leave the car in the weird little Potempkin suburb that lay on the village outskirts.

All of the villages and towns we saw on our journey were of the same kind of beige limestone with black slate roofs (the slate roof is supposed to be a local trademark. Black slate roofs – you sure you want to go with that as your distinctive local selling point? Okay…). In the rain, the unrelenting limestone looks soul-suckingly drab. In the sun, it looks warm and inviting.

Fortunately, we got a bit of sun for our visit to the Abbey. The place has a fascinating history. It was founded by a hermit who, apparently not understanding what “hermit” means, decided to found a large religious community on a large hill not far from the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire.

The huge complex ended up hosting a community of nuns, another of monks, lay brothers, lepers and repentant sinners. All of it – even the men folk – was under the authority of an Abbess. The holder of that office was usually related to royalty in one fashion or another, and so the Abbey was pretty good at attracting some fairly influential patrons.
Richard, Couer de lion

These include a couple of historical Mega-Celebs: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart. Ricky spent very little time in England – most of realm was in fact in France and he was much more interested in looting his way around the Holy Land. In any case he is buried here, along with his Plantagenet parents, all of whose effigies are in the Abbey Minster.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, catching up on her reading

After the Revolution, the Nuns were dispersed and the place became a prison, holding some 1800 prisoners in some pretty horrible conditions (though, presumably not much more horrible than what the nuns endured, given that only one room in the whole complex was ever heated). In the 1960s it became a meeting facility and historic site.
The Judas Kiss - note the Nuns on either side. It was customary to depict the donors in religious art, sort of like "American Idol is brought to you by Chevrolet."

Abbey done, and faced with a debilitating long list of potential chateaux to visit, we asked our innkeeper for a recommendation. Without hesitating, he recommended Vilandry – “It has the most beautiful gardens – even this time of year, they are amazing.”
Vilandry Chateau

Ok then, Vilandry it is. Driving there was an adventure – Amynah foolishly recommended we take the highway route that was direct and recommended by our hotelier. I, using navigational skills honed in my numerous backwoods adventures, was confident that if we just followed the river we’d be fine. As if we were in the Rockies and I was Simon Fraser in an Opel or something.

When we arrived at Vilandry in the mid-afternoon; me, tense and communicating in monosyllables, Amynah grinding her teeth with the effort of not saying, “I told you so.” It was a pretty drive though – French highways are amazing.

The sky looked particularly changeable when we arrived, so we decided to hit Vilandry’s garden’s first. They were amazing, to say the least. I’d just finished reading a book in which Frederick Olmstead’s (he of New York’s Central Park and Montreal’s Mont Royal) landscaping theories were featured prominently. He would have hated this thing.

Everywhere, nature was controlled, boxed, categorized and slammed into little green cupboards. The hedges were perfectly shaped – I saw exactly one twig that was out of line.
Note the Maltese Cross in the centre

The gardens had various parts to them – some were purely decorative, though the flowers hadn’t grown in yet, the postcard we bought makes me want to return in two months time. Others were for herbs and medicines. There was even a hedge maze. Amynah, remembering the lessons from Carol Shields’ “Larry’s Party” better than I, turned left at the entrance. I turned right. She thus made it to the central viewing platform to mock me from on high as I floundered about, reduced to looking for trails of crumbs to find my way out.

The most interesting patch was the “garden of love” which consisted of four large squares, each designed to represent a different kind of love: passionate love (with a pattern of wounded hearts), while adulterous loves features horns and fans and is dominated by yellow flowers in season. Tender love has flames and ballroom masks while tragic love gets swords and blood red flowers, representing duels.
Garden of Love

All of this was due to Joachim Carvallo, a Spainard who purchased the place in the 1900s. He brought his considerable art collection and poured much of his American heiress wife’s money into the gardens. The family still owns the place, though they no longer live there. They did leave the art though, and much of it was spectacular, including an Islamic (or Islamic inspired) ceiling imported from Spain and painstakingly reconstructed.
Fancy ceiling

Next on the list (he said, breezily skipping the driving to Tours debacle) was the troglodyte village of Rochemenier. Turns out these are quite common here in France – we picked up a freebie magazine where one of the stories was a Better Homes and Gardens-style “I love my trogdo!” complete with all the glossy photos and Bauhaus type furniture that implies, only in a cave. Hole-based living is quite common – we saw a row of quite modern-looking dwellings whose facades were right in the middle of a cliff face.

Rochemenier, strangely enough, is nowhere near a cliff. Rather, one drives though the kind of rolling French countryside one sees in the movies before seeing a few scattered homes in the distance.

This is Rochemenier – or rather, the above ground portions of it. Two thirds of the town is below ground, even today. Probably this is a good idea – during the Thirty Years War this place was spared the incendiary fate of its neighbours because, after all, you cannot raze that which is not raised.
Trogdo village

The museum itself was not all that different than the “Here’s how the old timers did it” farm museums you might find in North America: a lot of old photos, farm implements, old cloths and the like. In addition, there was a small section debunking the negative connotation the word “troglodyte” has acquired, which they depicted with a couple of panels of a sputtering Captain Haddock from the Tintin books. Charmingly unpretentious.
Chapel nave

Chapel stairs

The most interesting spot was the underground chapel, converted in the 1600s into a chapel. It came complete with a staircase to the surface, a bell “tower” and a floor plan in the rough shape of a cross. There was no word as to whether it, like its above ground cousin, was dedicated to St Emerance, patron saint of the village and reputed to be able to forestall thunder and hail.

In addition, if you had diarrhea, she was supposedly the one to run to.


Travis said...

Leaving a comment because such a lengthy and well-written post needs some acknowledgement; not much specific to say.
Ego-coddling is fair trade for the entertainment you're providing us, right?

Mark Reynolds said...

Thanks! I also work for Smarties.