Sunday, 6 October 2019

Abbaye de Fontfroide 1093

Fontfroide Abbey is located 15kms  south-west of Narbonne, France, about an hour's drive from the Spanish border. It is nearly a thousand years old so it's older than Notre Dame de Paris.

The abbey is famous for its architecture, and still retains small examples of objects of everyday monastic life. The abbey gains its name from the well which supplied exceedingly cold water.

The buildings are made of sandstone and appear to have different colours but this is simply a result of differing amounts of sunshine falling on various sections of the buildings - changing colour due to varying degrees of humidity. I greatly admired the beautiful ironwork on the gates, doors and light fittings which have survived the centuries.

The community flourished until the Black Death arrived in 1438 when only around 20 monks survived.

From 1476 the management of the abbey was under the 'commendatory' abbots who were not liturgical and were appointed by the Pope and later by the King of France. They would take the entire income of the abbey but gave only the bare minimum to the community and so Fontfroide became impoverished by this greed. The Abbey was abandoned during the French Revolution.

In 1843 the first restoration work was carried out by Viollet-le-Duc ( yes, he of Carcassone and Saint Denis fame).

Some features of note are the porch and blind arcades which were added in the 18th century. The main courtyard was built between the 16th and 17th centuries. Before that the previous courtyard housed workshops including a bakery, forge and joinery. The abbot's quarters have Renaissance-style mullion windows.

The abbey is set in very pleasant countryside close to raw materials needed for an abbey: wood, stone, water, and at its height extended to 30,000 hectares between Beziers and Spain. Its greatest success lasted until the 14th century.

1093 founded,
1145 affliliated to Cistercian order,
1208 assasination of a monk from Fontfroide sets in motion the crusade against the Cathars,
1348 the Black Death reduces the community to around 20 monks,
1475 the Abbey is managed by abbots appointed by the pope and later the king,
1791 abandoned during the French Revolution,
1843 first restoration work carried out under Viollet-le-Duc. First historic classification,
1858 frugal living instigated by the Cistercians of the Immaculate Conception,
1901 the community flees into exile in Spain,
1908 the Abbey is purchased privately and their descendants continue to maintain it and preserve its history.

 We took a guided tour in French as there is nothing available in English. Tours do give a lot more detail. Inside the church they had used various niches to display 'modern' art. I found it truly ghastly, garish and a total clash with what I had come to see. I just don't see the value in flurocoloured crayons and knitting- philistine I must be. I much preferred to look up at the stained glass windows which had really required a lot of technical skill and a sense of aesthetics stretching over centuries.

Allow an hour and a half to explore the abbey. There is a restaurant where you can order meals and drinks, and a small shop. The abbey still produces wine.

After the tour I took off to explore the gardens which are on several levels so a modicum of fitness is required. There are medicinal plants, as expected. It's cool under the trees on a hot day. Climb to the top to look out on the view of the valley.

The Abbaye de Fontfroide is a good site to visit between visits to Carcassone and Montpellier or further to la Bouche du Rhone/the Camargue and Provence. Its size, age and architectural merits won't disappoint. Video 

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Valençay - Talleyrand's Legacy

Valençay is one of the grand chateaux de la Loire but it's a little off the main beaten track. You can drive there pretty directly from Blois and it is worth a visit, especially if you are staying in the chateaux region as it is somewhat different to the others. Yes it is grand, the interior is rather too 'original' but even that is interesting; to see the original furnishings of this property owned at one time by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord who was, at that time, Napoleon's foreign minister, with a few small renovations since.

Talleyrand 1754 – 1838 was one of France's most gifted statesmen and ministers.
His extraordinary career spanned the eras of Louis XVI, the French Revolution and then the Directorate, Napoleon 1, Louis XVIII, King Louis-Philippe. It's an extraordinary story detailed here

He was cunning enough to survive changing political fortunes and was often criticised for turning his coat for personal advancement but nevertheless, he was involved in many important treaties and events and didn't always agree with the head of government who employed him.

Talleyrand bought the run-down estate in 1803. In 1808 Napoleon obliged him to host the King and princes of the Spanish royal family who had been deposed in favour of Napoleon's brother Joseph. They were in this gilded cage for almost six years and in order to entertain them from time to time a little theatre was built. This survives today though it needs a lot of work.

The chateau itself dates from 1520 though a manor had existed on the site in the Middle Ages. It has grown and developed through the centuries. Valençay overlooks the Nahon River and is surrounded by significant grounds.

The East wing was demolished in the 18th century, leaving a large courtyard opening to what was no doubt a lovely garden and terrace in the past. I understand there are plans to resurrect fountains and the gardens but that all takes time and a lot more visitors, of course. The gardens, when I saw them, were suffering from a severe drought affecting most of France but the 'bones' are good and no doubt kinder weather will see plantings bounce back.

From the terraced garden you can see a vinyard next door, as well as mini chateaux and woods, so it would have been an agreeable place to live away from the hustle and bustle of Paris.

Mostly the chateau interiors are in a dilapidated state through lack of funds. The chateau suffers through not being on the grand tour of the most well-known Loire chateaux, due to its location, and this is a shame. It's interesting to see the decors and furniture and the many interesting objects of daily life contained in the rooms. The exterior is well maintained, as you can see, and the little shop is stocked with lots of tempting things to buy. Buy a copy of the book Talleyrand and his Chateau de Valençay - it's chock full of amazing details on construction, owners, politics and the beautiful objects on display. The exiled King of Spain's bedroom is as it was, in gold colourings.

I had the great good fortune to meet Frédéric who runs the shop and is also their communications manager. He kindly gave us written information and a personal tour of the little theatre located just a few metres from the chateau entrance.

The stage set itself has been completely and lovingly restored. The lighting has been recycled from the original stage lights from Marie-Antoinette's theatre at Versailles, following the restoration of the latter theatre. The rest of this theatre needs a lot of cleaning, tidying and restoring. It is not in a state for much public viewing. The seating needs to be changed in order to give a better ambiance. It was great to have the opportunity to go backstage and look out on the auditorium much as it would have been in the past. It's a lovely, intimate place that I hope gets the funds it deserves.

As you might expect, there is a lot of empire-style furniture. Talleyrand's imposing desk dominates his study. I was particularly taken with the document chair in its original leather with document pocket.

Talleyrand had a club foot and wore an orthotic boot. Some referred to him as the 'limping devil'. In his later years he was wheeled around his garden in a wheelchair, still preserved today.
A number of his official robes are on display. I very much appreciated the wonderful work on the document cases and covers in this 'museum'.

The kitchens came as a pleasant surprise. They are spacious and in good order, better than most chateaux kitchens. The facilities are excellent and give a detailed look at what was typical equipment through the ages.

It's a problem for chateaux when the owner dies without direct descendents. This was the case for Valençay in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has lost a lot of its original furniture and is now owned by an association. 

The town of Valençay, which is right next to the chateau, still retains some charm but like most rural towns, is struggling to attract commerce and inhabitants. Still, a pleasant lunch can be had there at a choice of restaurants and cafes.
Château de Valençay
2 Rue de Blois, 36600 Valençay
02 54 00 10 66

Friday, 20 September 2019

Vincennes - highest keep in France

The Capetian monarchs established a hunting lodge in the forest of Vincennes, not far from Paris, in the 12th century. John II (1350-1364) initiated work on a keep nearby. This was during the Hundred Years War. His son Charles V completed it around 1370. It is 52 m high. There was a protective wall with nine towers around it and work started on a gothic masterpiece, the Chapel.

For centuries, monarchs took refuge here. Henry V of England died in the keep (donjon) in 1422 following the siege of Meaux.  Louis XIV did some sporadic building here but finally settled at Versailles in 1682. The stronghold thus lost its status as a Royal residence but from the time of the French Revolution it became a major arsenal. It was modified by Napoleon I. Then it became a state prison for a long time. Notable prisoners included Nicolas Fouquet, Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade. Mata Hari was shot there for spying.

During the battle for Paris' liberation in August 1944, Waffen-SS German soldiers arrested and executed 26 French policemen and members of the French Resistance at the Chateau. After learning that Paris had been liberated by Allied troops, the SS soldiers set off explosions at Vincennes, badly damaging parts of the fortress.

Some minimum fitness is required to climb the stairs inside the keep, to access various levels. You can visit the chatelet terrace which gives views over the whole site. Charles V's study can be viewed. He worked there a lot, assisted by two secretaries in the two adjoining turrets. Walking around the ramparts is interesting, as the King would have done the same walk during the Middle Ages. It was later covered over. We know there were painted walls but the colours and designs have been lost over time. Some ancient graffiti still remains.

Inside the keep there is the council room. It would have been used for receptions and working meetings between the king and his advisors or even as the King's bedroom if necessary. Other levels contain the bedchamber which has a nice fireplace. The King would have put his best manuscripts in a chest placed in the window recesses. Painted rafters, though damaged and faded, suggest what the exquisite interior decoration might have been. The treasure room did not, alas, contain any treasure during the visit.

We did not get to visit the chapel. It was closed for a very lengthy lunch break and we had not been warned when we arrived, so that was annoying, but though styled like La Saint Chapelle in Paris, it is not as impressive so we didn't mind so much. The relics of the Crown of Thorns were temporarily housed there while the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris was being readied to receive them.

The restoration work on the keep and walls is well done but there is still much to do.

Apartment buildings for the King and Queen need doing. The King's building is being used to house France's military archives so researchers can easily visit it. The Queen's building seems to be locked and rather destitute, awaiting significant funds, I imagine.

This site is worth a visit. I hope in future an effort will be made to re-establish gardens there as it's a rather sterile site, especially in the heat of summer.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Chateau d'Anet - disappointing

Here is an example of lost history that begins with a great story but can be a disappointing tourism experience. Mostly it's about Henri II and his favourite mistress Diane de Poitiers. Naughty goings-on, of course.

Diane as born in 1499 and married Louis de Breze who was 40 years her elder. Through this marriage Diane was often called to the court of Francois 1. Her skills and interest in hunting went down well with various men. In particular she caught the eye of of the second son of the King, Henri. Diane's husband died at Anet in 1531. She genuinely mourned him.

Although Henri was married to Catherine de Medici he took Diane as his secret mistress. Henri came to the throne in 1547 and in the meantime Diane was busy enlarging and improving the Anet property. She added monograms of herself and King Henri which can still be seen. Gradually the relationship became less and less secret; the court often visited Anet for entertainments and, of course, Catherine de Medici was not happy but she bid her time.

Henri died violently in 1559 - killed by an arrow through the eye during a tournament. The new king was still a child so Catherine, his mother became regent. Diane tried to make peace with the most powerful woman in France by returning the crown jewels to her but Catherine remained dangerous and confiscated her magnificent chateau at Chennonceau. Diane stayed a refugee at Anet and designed a tomb for herself which you can visit.

Over the centuries the estate was handed down, sold, put on hold, changed. As with most chateaux, things deteriorated during the French Revoltion and many things of value were stolen and lost. In 1804 Diane's damaged estate fell into the hands of a new owner who demolished major wings of the building, felled all the trees in the park.
The chapel was untouched. The inhabitants of Anet town were not happy about the vandalism and riot ensued.

The chateau remained empty and abandoned until purchased by the dowager duchess d'Orleans who was daughter of the Duc de Penthievre. She died less than 9 months after purchasing it and her son, the future King Louis-Philippe, couldn't afford to retore the property so it was sold and resold. Some restoration work occured once it was purchased by an architect and this drew the attention of the Ministry for the Interior which classified parts as historical monuments and accorded a substantial subsidy.

The old park had been designed by Le Notre (Louis XIV's famous garden designer) but was now unrecognisable. Years passed, it changed hands. During 1914 the owner turned it into a Red Cross hospital. The property suffered greatly during WW2 with outlying buildings bombed and up in flames with all their furnishings and books. The German military occupied it. Fighting around it in 1945 . saw the surrounding forest destroyed. Restoration has taken place over the years and it is still of some interest but it is far from what it was in Diane's day. In fact only a third of the main chateau remains, the gardens are truly boring, most of the interesting landscape features are long gone.

While the chapel is now pretty much in it's original state, as is Diane's tomb (having had bits retrieved from being cattle troughs) the rest of the place is disappointing. Most of what is left is not open to the public, only a few rooms. They contain furniture from Diane's period, which is quite a rare thing these days, as well as collectables over the centuries. You are not allowed to take any photos inside the chateau. You are not allowed in the park. It is not a pretty site. The bare minimum has been done around the back of the chapel.

The visitor experience could be so much improved if a potager or medicinal garden was reinstated and if more rooms were available for viewing, even if the current owners have their own private areas which they use over winter months. It would be helpful if a display of the various changes to the estate was available for viewing. One could allow visitors to stoll along the man-made lake, have some refreshments etc. Alas none of this is possible. The owner, who must have plenty of money to own the property will be supported, to some extent, by subsidies from the State to keep it maintained.  Parts of the front buildings have rather large fissures and seem to be out of use.

Yes, I know very well it takes a lot of money to keep these places going but to attract more visitors and to give them a better experience the management will need to create a longer and more interesting experience for them. We arrived on a very hot day and there was nowhere to get a drink. It seemed to us that the owner was Ok letting us see a few rooms for a fee and couldn't be bothered otherwise. Well, that's the impression I and others comment on.

They have a minimal shop where I bought a copy of an engraving of the original estate in Diane's time as an example of true Renaissance achievement.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Conciergerie - a temple of death

If you are exploring the Ile de la Cite, in Paris, and you are planning to visit the Sainte-Chapelle, you might as well tack on a visit to the Conciergerie, right next door.

Originally built over the remains of a Roman palace, the first small palace of Merovingian kings was turned into a grandiose castle by the Capetian dynasty's successive kings. Philip Augustus, Louis IX and Philip IV transformed it into a residence.
 The Conciergerie, an important remnant of the palace, provides a remarkable example of 14th century civil architecture with the Salle des Gens d'Armes (1302), Salle des Gardes and the historic kitchens.
Other than the Saint-Chapelle, the lower parts of the the palace are all that remain of the medieval royal residence. They served the needs of the king and his family and substantial staff, totalling 2000 people.

Almost the entire lower level of the palace was turned into a prison in the 15th century; you can visit the dungeons, as well as the Chapel where Marie Antoinette was held prisoner during the French Revolution and which is now dedicated to her memory.

The site is presently used mostly for law courts. It was part of the former royal palace, the Palais de la Cite, which comprised the Conciergerie, Palais de Justice and the Sainte-Chapelle. During the French Revolution hundreds of prisoners were taken from the Conciergerie to be executed by guillotine at various locations around Paris.

Three towers survive from the medieval Conciergerie: the Caesar Tower, named in honor of the Roman Emperors; the Silver Tower, named for its supposed use as the store for the royal treasure; and the Bonbec Tower, named for the torture chamber that it housed. The building was extended during the reigns of later kings, with France's first public clock being installed about 1370. The current clock dates from 1535.

The dungeons, which have not been used for the last thirty years, are twenty-three feet in length by eleven and a half in height. Depending on the financial resources of  prisoners they could have a personal cell or have to share with many others. They could be afforded pen and paper and occasional visitors or they could be lying on the floor in communal excrement.

Marie Antoinette spent her last days here and went through the normal prisoner preparation for the guillotine. Her young son aged 10 who became known as Louis XVII (though he was much too young to be crowned, even in monarchist times) died a miserable death here from sickness and neglect. Only one of her children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, lived past the age of 11, survived the Revolution and went into exile.

There are various exhibitions including audiovisual ones you can view during your visit and there is a souvenir shop. There isn't much available in English, alas, other than a couple of books. Notable things to see are examples of locks and bolts, the flood level indicator to show just how high the Seine flooded in 1910, a prison guard's office and an administration office.

Visitors can view the largest fireplaces I've ever seen by visiting the site of the old kitchens. They were built in 1350-1364 by John the Good. There's nothing else to see there though.

There's a fair bit on the Revolution. The prison quickly filled with suspects, accused of threatening the Republic. A visual presentation allows you to follow the lives of prisoners whose conditions depended on their own financial resources.

Palais de la Cite
2 boulevard du Palais
75001 Paris
Average length of visit 1+ hours