An Abbey Run by Women and Other Diversions

One of the great things about visiting the gardens of countries like France and Italy is that whenever you need a break from the gardens – and, as beautiful as they are, this does happen – there is a tantalizing embarrass du choix when it comes to diversions from all things horticultural.  Often you don’t have to go further than the front door of your hotel.

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The tiny historic centre of Chinon is perfect for a late afternoon stroll after a day of visiting gardens.

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How it all survived World War II is beyond me.

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In some places ‘new’ 15th and 16th century buildings huddle against the half-timber buildings of the Middle Ages.

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A less fortuitous blending of the centuries. You have to wonder how these neighbours get along.

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And above the historic centre, what is left of Chinon’s once great castle.

At street level the Château de Chinon doesn’t look like much.  But don’t be fooled.  Remember that photo of the castle from the other side of the river (“Elsie’s Garden”)? And after a massive four-year reconstruction project costing 14.5 million euros – that’s almost 22 million Canadian at the rate I’ve been charged lately – it’s a fascinating place to visit when you need a break from gardens.   However, anyone travelling with a history buff, be forewarned.  All those hours your companion has spent traipsing around castle gardens with you are about to be redeemed.

A large part of the reconstruction involved the creation of museums dedicated to the castle’s long and event-packed history.  Several rooms portray the story of the ill-fated Knights Templar.

By the end of the 13th century, of all the Christian military orders, the Ordre du Temple was the most powerful and wealthy.  Much of their wealth was derived from loans made to various European monarchs.  This was to be their undoing.   In order to finance a succession of wars – mainly in the pursuit of strengthening the monarchy – King Philip IV became heavily indebted to the Templiers.  Faced with the disagreeable prospect of having to repay this debt one day, he resorted to an age-old solution.  He charged the order with heresy, had all the knights who had the misfortune to be in France at the time arrested, thrown into the bowels of the castle and tortured – all of which is displayed in gory detail.  The resulting ‘confessions’ gave the king the pretext he needed to suppress the order and seize all its assets.  Debt gone.

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At the top of the 14th century Tour de l’Horloge (Clock Tower), the white mantle and distinctive red cross of the Templars.

This is also where, in 1429, France’s favourite heroine, Joan of Arc, was first put to the test by a sceptical royal court.  After a harrowing 11-day ride, she arrived at the castle and was immediately taken to the royal throne and presented to the Dauphin.  But rather than kneeling before this figure, she turned to a peasant in the crowd, who, as you history buffs will know, was the real Dauphin, and future king Charles VII, disguised to discredit Joan’s claims that heavenly voices were guiding her.

Imposing from any angle.

Imposing from any angle.

This was the favourite castle of Henry II and the birthplace of his most famous son, Richard the Lionheart.   It’s about this point that I become totally muddled.  The Plantagenêts, ‘aka’ the Counts of Anjou were, as the name suggests, French.  So far so good.  But one of the French counts marries Matilda, daughter of the English King Henry I and they have a son, another Henry, who is married to Eleanor of Aquitaine and after a while he is crowned King of England, the net result of which is that the King of England and the founder of the Plantagenêt dynasty are one and the same person.  It gets worse.

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Reconstructed remains of the Chateau du Milieu. The name sounds so intriguing in French, it seems a shame to translate – Castle in the Middle. It really is in the middle of the fortress complex.

Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of guided tours.  On the day I visited this consisted of an extremely energetic, young guide delivering a script jam-packed with events and dates and personnages who seemed to fill their days betraying, killing and otherwise making life miserable for each other. All delivered at bullet speed. En français.

I don’t think I would have been able to follow all the intrigues any better even if the tour had been in English.  Maybe it would have helped if I’d known a bit more about the history beforehand.  As to the other members of the group – all French – they seemed totally at ease with the torrent of events.  Even asked some challenging questions.   From what I had seen of the French educational system, they had probably started memorizing all this stuff from their first day in school.  History is treated differently on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Cypresses. An unusual sight in the Loire Valley.

I did get in one good question.  Of course it had nothing to do with history.  What were the cypresses doing in the garden?  She smiled, just the faintest hint of surprise crossed her face.  From the no doubt stupefied expression on my face as I followed the group around, she probably figured I hadn’t understood a word.  The cypresses were indeed an anomaly. They had been added later, when the Renaissance gardens of Italy became all the rage.

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View from the castle of Chinon’s historic centre and the Vienne River.

Sometimes you get lucky and there is a festival.  I could see lots of activity on the other side of the river.  It was just a 20-minute walk to the bridge.  All downhill.

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Flat-bottomed gabares, the main mode of transportation for centuries.

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Despite a series of sudden downpours, a good crowd had come out to see traditional crafts…

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…and enjoy some traditional songs.

One of the diversions I had planned was to visit the largest and best preserved medieval abbey in Europe.  But for this, I had to go further afield.

The abbey is so large I can't get it all in one photo.

The Abbey of Fontevraud is so large that, even standing by the fence that encloses it, I couldn’t get it all in one photo.

As soon as I arrived, I knew it had been well worth the drive from Chinon – all 15 minutes of it.  And on top of the fabulous architecture, the Abbaye de Fontevraud was exceptional in that it was run by women.

But first, what was that bizarre structure to the left of the main building?

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For a long time historians didn’t know what to make of it.  In the end, it was a Brit who solved the mystery.  An English archeologist, John Parker, had come across similar structures in England.  It’s a kitchen.

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There was a lovely little border of perennials around the base of the ‘kitchen’. And not a rose in sight!

La Tour Evraud was used primarily for smoking the fish consumed at the abbey.

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Depending on the winds, fires would be lit in one abside or another…

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…and the smoke would circulate savamment (nicely, like a good child) throughout the entire space.

As extraordinary as the kitchen is, there is something even more extraordinary about the abbey.  It was always headed by an abbesse.   That’s right – a female.  According to my guide book, the founder of the abbey was a ‘visionary itinerant preacher’.  ‘Visionary’ seems a mild term for the Middle Ages.  ‘Radical’ is more like it.

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Reflecting the abbey’s feminine nature, lots of women are featured in the frescos decorating the walls of the Chapter House.

At the time, being head of a Abbaye Royale like Fontevraud would have been a highly attractive opportunity for intelligent, noble women whose career options were otherwise limited to marriages arranged by their ‘lords’, ie. fathers, whose sole purpose was to further the ambitions of said lord or their male siblings.

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The halls of the Chapter House open on to the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden typical of the Middle Ages.

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But whatever are these decidedly unMiddle Age creatures doing here?

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The Kitchen Tower. Even more remarkable from the rear.

To reach the entrance of the abbey church, you have to retrace your steps, which gives you a chance to see the Tour Evraud from another angle.

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Grotesques on the columns at the church entrance. To scare off evil spirits undaunted by the prayers of the devout.

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Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most famous of Fontevraud’s abbesses.  Lying next to her for all eternity, hubbie Henry II, who may have loved living in the royal castle of Chinon, but seems to have hedged his bets when it came to the afterlife.

Instead of the elaborate coffins and statues one usually finds in a medieval church, there are painted effigies of the abbey’s VIP’s lying on the floor in the middle of the nave.   It seemed somehow undignified.

By now my time in the Loire Valley was almost up.  Before heading south for the gardens of Provence, there were two more sites I had to visit.  The first was the castle that was the inspiration for ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – more precisely, for the version of the tale that most of us are familiar with – the one by the 17th century French author, Charles Perrault.

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Château d’Ussé had worked its magic on Perrault during a brief stay.

As a child, I am sure the idea of there being multiple versions of  ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – or of any of the fairy tales we were read – would have been unimaginable.  Even as an adult, it is a vaguely unsettling idea.  No doubt the version by the Brothers Grimm, published  a century later, had a much darker plot line than Perrault’s.

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Enormous tapestries line the entrance hall. Here a village wedding. A bit on the earthy side, but probably a realistic depiction.

In an earlier version, a lovestruck prince does not wake up the sleeping princess with a gentle kiss.  No, no, no.  He has his way with her.  (Psychologists must have a field day with this one.) She somehow sleeps through the whole thing (?!) and only wakes up nine months later when the baby she has just given birth to starts sucking her finger and the splinter that plunged her into the century-long nap comes out.

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One of the disadvantages of not reading the pamphlets you’re given at these places is that you sometimes end up spending time in a place you would have normally bypassed for some other activity – like sitting in the village square with a glass of something local.   I didn’t realize the castle was populated with wax effigies.  I’ve never liked wax museums. There is something creepy about the figures.

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Despite the creepy factor, I had to admit, these were beautifully done.

The upper floor was filled with children running in delight from room to room.  This is where the fairy tale was portrayed.  It also was well done and if I’d been a child I would have been running and shrieking too.

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Roses were trained up the walls of the elegant courtyard.

It’s a funny thing about names.  I had always known this tale as ‘Sleeping Beauty’.  So when I first came across ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’, it seemed somehow wrong.  Totally irrational of course.  The tale was first written in French, for heaven’s sake.  But there it was, this feeling that the ‘real’, true name was the one I had grown up with.  Also the emphasis was all wrong.  It was the princess dormant, not the forest, that mattered.

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When I was living in Italy, I first heard a saying.  There are probably countless versions of this saying throughout different cultures, but as someone who had grown up surrounded, immersed in the only language that mattered, that was real – please add as many air quotes as you like – I had never heard,  let alone contemplated the concept underlying it before.  Cambia lingua, cambia personalità.  (Change your language, change your personality.)  I have often wondered about this.  Do things change when we call them by a different name?

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Luckily, all you have to do is ruffle your r’s a bit and even in France “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

 

 

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