15km from the busy city of Narbonne, hidden amongst the rolling, cypress-covered hills, lays a place of calm and contemplation. The Abbey of Fontfroide, founded in 1145, first housed Benedictine monks and then Cistercians. It became one of the richest and most influential abbeys and at one time possessed 30 million hectares of land in the region. Of course, the monks could not manage their estates alone and huge numbers of lay-brothers toiled in the fields, vineyards and maintained the network of fortified farms and storehouses. I find one of these not far from the abbey in the village of Gausson. It was restored by the followers of Viollet-le-Duc and has a certain fairy-tale charm as a result.
The monks continued valiantly through many troubled times, including the great plague in 1348 when their numbers were greatly reduced, and in 1791 at the height of the French Revolution they fled to Spain for 67 years. But it was finally in 1900, when the French government took possession of such grand buildings that the huge, stone rooms and the peaceful, columned cloister lay empty.
That same beautiful cloister was almost stripped and shipped to America, as many others were at the start of the 20th century. Luckily, in 1907, the remarkably preserved building was saved from abandonment by Gustav Fayet, a local art lover who invited his artist friends to help in the renovation and restoration of the abbey.
I have to take a guided tour to see inside the abbey but it is worth every penny for the enthusiastic guide who reels off dates and events with ease and amuses us with his talks of ‘paradox’. How could the Cistercians, who owned so much land and wield so much power over the region, really live a life of poverty? Their church may have been plain and simple but it is huge and to have been built in only 20 to 30 years must have involved a lot of costly labour. Although decoration was frowned upon by the monks, Gustav Fayet, with the help of his friend and Rene Billa (also known as Richard Burgsthal), installed some beautiful stained-glass windows in the church and dormitory, some of which were created using fragments of glass recovered from damaged French churches after WWI.
Almost as a bonus, and only possible during winter tours, our guide takes us through the private rooms which Gustav decorated with more modern art and furniture, In the dining area, a table is laid out as if waiting for some VIP guest and the photos of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, on a sideboard attests to the quality of previous VIPs who have dined here. There are two very different fountains mounted on the walls at each end of the room. I wonder if they function and think I would find them rather distracting if I were eating at this table.
After the tour I climb up one of the hills to an old ruined tower and a very large cross. It gives me a fine view of the abbey and the gardens. The vineyards have been in place since the monks resided here and I feel as though I should taste the wine produced by the abbey and even buy a bottle in support of the ongoing restoration work. The chardonnay, though not cheap, makes rather a delicious contribution.