A visit to Fontfroide

Yesterday, the day here in Laroque started with the threat of snow, finally realised this morning.  But with our Rando group, we set off for the brighter if bracing Corbières.

The Corbières are of course well known for wine production.  As our mini-bus reached the area, we saw no cows, sheep, donkeys…or any animals at all.  What we did see was acre after acre of vineyards, along the narrow plains, scrambling up the hillsides, with each Domaine favouring a different style of pruning, from the wild and wiry abundance of tendrils clearly being left alone till the spring, to almost knobbly stumps sticking bare out of the ground, scalped of any living shoot.

The Abbey, as we first saw it

Walking here is so very different from the Ariège.  The scrubby garrigue, so reminiscent of Spain, is covered in tough herbs such as rosemary and thyme, tiny wiry green oak trees with richly burnished brown acorns, and olive trees.  The soil is sandy, shot through with red ferruginous deposits.  There were views of the sea, of distant castles, and of the monastery we’d come to see, Fontfroide. We loved it as a change, but this scenery simply seemed lacking in the variety that our own patch offers – map reading was a nightmare, so we’ll stick with it as a holiday destination, we think.  Still, our trek was invigorating in the bright winter sunshine, and it was a good way to spend the morning before an afternoon devoted to cultural matters.

The elegant courtyard, once the scene of manual labour

The Abbey of Fontfroide was founded as a Benedictine abbey in 1093 and affiliated with the Cistercians in 1145.  It began its history then, as a Romanesque gem, though it was added to in Gothic, Romanesque and elegant 17th and 18th times.  It’s been privately owned since it ceased to be a monastery in 1901, and in this last century, accomplished craftspeople have continued to restore and add to it.  Quite simply, it is an architectural gem.

It looks old - but it's Catalan and early 20th century

Right from its early days, the monastery flourished and soon became a centre of orthodoxy.  The murder in 1208 of Pierre de Castelnau, a Fontfroide monk and legate to Pope Innocent III, led to the Albigensian Crusade, which is such a living part of our history over here, at nearby Montségur.  After peace was restored, construction on Fontfroide Abbey continued. The influence of the abbey soon dominated the entire region, all the way to Catalonia, and a daughter monastery was founded in Poblet.  After the Black Death, the monastery had a chequered history, but it always escaped physical damage, and was often added to and improved with taste and elegance.  Nowadays, it’s almost unique among Cistercian abbeys in being in such wonderful condition.

The cloisters

The Abbey of Fontfroide is an excellent example of the kind of monastic town prescribed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in which the buildings and surrounding gardens and land contain everything necessary for simple living. The monks devoted themselves to hard work and worship, and had no contact with the lay people who worked there too, physically separated from the monastic community.  This is only apparent now whenpointed out, but despite the Abbey now being in private hands, many ecclesiastical references remain, especially in the cloisters and church.  If you ever have the opportunity, do visit this very special place.

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