Our visit today takes us in the past to the best preserved of all the Cistercian abbeys, listed in the UNESCO World Heritage. Like the sister abbeys, Fontenay is located in a very secluded place. Saint Bernard de Claivaux, the founder of the Cistercian order, had stated the monasteries had to be established far from towns and villages, in order to keep monks in an industrious atmosphere, away from any contact with the world.
In fact, this jewel of Romanesque architecture remains exactly like it was at the time of its construction. Founded in 1118, the abbey was finished at the end of the century. It could accommodate 300 monks, and its influence was tremendous.
The building is an archetype of the Cistercian architecture: it is only impressive by its sobriety and its size. Harmony, simplicity and serenity are the main characteristics of the site, and don’t affect the impression of grandeur one can feel at its sight. Monks dormitory catches attention, but only by its extraordinary oak frame shaped like an inverted ship hull. In the transept, light comes through leaded glass windows with geometrical and vegetal patterns.
The cloister is a haven of peace and beauty, surrounded by a double row of small columns punctuated by golden archways. It was a world of prayers, and hard work. The scriptorium adjoining the cloister has a warming place the copyist monks used to keep their ink warm, not their hands.
The monastery was prosperous, and controlled a vast territory of lands, vineyards and timberland. There was a forge, hydraulically activated: it has been recently entirely restored, and works today like it did in the middle ages. And this sanctuary, nestled in a little valley, is also famous for the gardens, perfectly kept with their vegetal sculptures.
The abbey prospered until the wars of religion. The decline of religious orders that followed put an end to its expansion, and the revolutionary period terminated its life as a monastery: it became a secular building used as a paper factory. In the beginning of the 20th century, it was rehabilitated, miraculously preserved.
Back on the main road, after the town of Montbard, an adorable village pops up in front of you, perched on a pink granite peak: you have found Semur-en Auxois, a charming medieval town, with gold walls and red roofs. The typical mix of half-timber houses, French renaissance façades and 18th century residences is in perfect harmony with the surroundings. And suddenly you are in front of a marvellous church: Notre-Dame is the most exceptional gothic collegial church in the region, restored by the famed architect Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. A row of thin columns make the narrow and long nave seems higher than it really is, and the leaded glass windows are among the most beautiful in the region. You can finish you stroll with a walk on the city walls towards the river. From the bridge, the view on the fortifications gives a good idea of what shock the enemy must have felt when they came close to this fortress.
Now it is time for you to rest at a terrace , sit back and have a glass of wine, and maybe try the “escargots de Bougogne”, the world famous snails. Enjoy!