Founded in 1093, Fontfroide Abbey became affiliated with the Cistercian Order in 1145, and quickly acquired a strong influence reaching Catalonia, where Poblet Abbey was founded in 1151. In 1203, Pope Innocent III ordered two monks from Fontfroide to preach against heretical Catharism. However, one of these papal representatives, Pierre de Castelnau, was killed, which led to the Albigensian Crusade in 1209. Another monk and abbot from Fontfroide distinguished himself at the end of the 13th century: Jacques Fournier, elected the Pope of Avignon under the name Benedict XII, built the Papal Palace in Avignon. In 1348, the Black Death reached the monastic community. The Abbey fell into disrepair from the 15th century, losing its title as "abbey" in 1764. It was stripped bare at the start of the 19th century, before the cloister, chapter house and church were classed as historic monuments in 1843. In 1908, Madeleine and Gustave Fayet bought the Abbey from an American buyer. They moved in, restoring and decorating the building, and built an artistic and bustling reception area.
Its simplicity inspires silence. During the Middle Ages, the monks would read, meditate and do their washing here. In silence. The arcades resting on their gleaming marble columns open up the space. The roof was originally mono-pitched. The Cistercian monks, whose links with the crusaders had made them rich, replaced it with stone vaults. The sunlight dances on the finely-sculpted greenery on the capitals. Peace reigns here.
The chapter house
The abbot sits on his bench opposite the entrance. Under the nine rib vaults covering the room, higher-ranking officials and monks are spread out on the tiered seats behind him. The Chapter, meaning the community of monks, would convene here after the First Hour, making it a room of great importance. The seminary monk would read a chapter from a commented copy of the Rule of St Benedict. The day begins...
The Abbey Church
In this enormous twelfth-century church, the Roman nave contrasts with the fourteenth-century Gothic chapels. The "Matins" staircase goes down into the Fathers' sleeping quarters, thus allowing them to come directly to the church for the Night Office. The transept contains 20th century designs in its quatrefoil stained-glass windows, signed by Richard Burgsthal. In the adjoining chapel of Saint-Bernard, light filters through abstract art (stained-glass windows by Father Kim En Joong).
The lay brothers' building
The lay brothers worked in the courtyard, or in the fields. As un-ordained members of the Abbey, they had a separate dining hall and sleeping quarters, and would convene in the Abbey church via the "Lay brothers' passage". This is an unusual and outstanding example of a semi-barrel-vaulted passage. A real gateway between two worlds, memories of silent and solitary footsteps of the indispensable companions to the Cistercian monks have remained intact since the 12th century.
On the hillside, the terrace garden has replaced the monks' design. It's an Italian-style garden, created in the 16th century by Constance de Frégose, the mother of one of the Italian abbots that led Fontfroide during this period. The sweet scents from the rose garden waft towards the Abbey's former cemetery.
Things to explore
As you walk
Water is a fundamental element in Fontfroide. 'Fons Frigidus' in Latin, and 'Fontfreda' in Occitan: Fontfroide was named after a fresh water spring, which can be seen in the small wells in the Louis XIV courtyard. As with all Cistercian monasteries, water is a vital element, shown by the simple waterleaf on the capitals. Numerous streams gurgle in the mountains. Near to Castellas, three channels are still visible: this small constructions potentially show how water was collected from the 3 springs that supplied Narbonne between the 16th and 19th centuries.
From afar, the dark green undergrowth contrasts with the blinding white limestone. However, in the paths weaving through the mountains, the Mediterranean landscape is adorned with bright colours. At the end of the path is the rare fumewort flower, with its tubular white and purple blooms. The buzz of honeybees fills the air, as they create the famous Montseret honey. This protected nature reserve is home to very rare species, such as the endangered 'psammodrome algire', a small reptile that can only be found in a few areas in the Midi region. Sometimes, you can see a Montagu's harrier soaring above the beautiful landscape. Far away, the blue coast and Narbonne faces into the wind.
Cross of Fontfroide
A small staircase leads to a garden, then a path opens up onto the fragrant heath. The gentle incline passes in front of a watchtower, overlooking the vineyards of Fontfroide, and climbs to the summit, where a cross, once made of wood, was placed in 1858 to mark the place where the monks finally returned.
The Regional Natural Park
The Regional Natural Park in the 'Narbonnaise en Méditerranée' area contains some of the most well-preserved landscapes in the Mediterranean. It's a mosaic of blue, green, white and orange countryside covering over 70,000 hectares of lagoons, heathland, and canal beaches. With a collection of outstanding natural sites, from the Clape mountains to the Isle of Saint Lucie, from the coastline to inside the earth, the Park has a wonderful diversity of flora and fauna. This is where fishermen, salt merchants and wine-growers came to develop their industry and turn these fragile ecosystems into living, growing spaces. In order to understand the construction and development of this area, the Maison de la Clape in Vinassan has a 4D reconstruction that takes the visitor on a journey through time: 'The Narbonnaise between earth and water'...
Lakes and islands
1200 hectares between the earth and sea form the heart of the 'Narbonnaise en Méditerranée' Park, which includes the Lakes of Bages-Siegan and Peyriac, the Isle of Saint Lucie and the Isle of Saint Martin. These lagoons are 'wetlands of international importance', and contain one of the most diverse fauna in Europe. This place is a paradise for both ornithologists and nature lovers alike, where you can see flamingos, egrets, kingfishers and wagtails. Eel fishers continue to practise their ancient craft, and salt manufacturing has left its geometric marks. Islands break up the watery landscape with their height and heady perfumes. On the horizon is the Corbières, the peak of Canigou, and somewhere on the plain, Narbonne Cathedral.
42km of sandy beach for bathers and sailing lovers... Gruissan alone can summarise the diversity of the area: the lively beaches and party atmosphere of holiday makers lies side-by-side with a peaceful village perched above a lake where fishermen cradle their brightly-coloured lines. The Clape mountains are reflected in the water, which is a home to pink flamingos. The Clape contains 800 hectares of protected countryside, including hills, valleys, heathland and vineyards. The Leucate plateau is another remarkable landscape: almond trees and dry stone walls protect little vineyards and orchards. The plateau finishes somewhat abruptly, with a white cliff plunging into the sea.
Alone on the plain overlooking the sea, Narbonne is a proud 'daughter of Rome'. 'Narbo Martius' developed throughout Antiquity along the Via Domitia, which still runs through it. Its archaeology museum, in the magnificent Archbishops' Palace, displays one of the richest collections in France, notably its Roman mural paintings. The group of buildings including the Cathedral and the Archbishops' Palace dominate the square that leads to the designated 'ramblas' along the Robine Canal. Wander along the banks of the canal, quench your thirst in the terrace of a café, whilst listening to a song by Charles Trénet... why not!
Gustave Fayet et Madeleine Fayet-d’Andoque came to Fontfroide with their family in 1908. This was a period where various artists were creating a new style of art, far from Paris, and were leaving to work in the Midi of France. Gustave Fayet, the inheritor of a wine fortune, collected modern art: Gaughin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse… he had good taste. He didn't hesitate in inviting artists and musicians to Fontfroide, who nicknamed themselves the 'Fontfroidiens' Odilon Redon created many paintings and pastels, and a monumental masterpiece: the panels of 'Jour' and 'Nuit' that adorn the library. Ricardo Vines, the piano virtuoso admired immensely by Debussy, would play Ravel on the library's piano... In Bièvres, not far from the house of Odilon Redon in Paris, the artist Burghstal created the stained-glass windows of the abbey in Verrerie des Sablons, that the Fayet couple had specially built.