The art of negotiation has always been one of my strengths, and so my husband was no match for me.
After months in confinement, I was up for a road trip.
To say he is a pathological anti-social hermit is no exaggeration. Believe me, lockdown is his usual lifestyle.
So getting him to budge, on the pretext that le déconfinement had been declared, was like getting a boulder to roll uphill.
Rule number one of negotiation is to meet the other person halfway. And so I proposed visiting a Cistercian abbey. That this had become my idea of a good time just goes to show the impact of months of lockdown on my psyche.
Fortunately he took the bait, which probably had to do with the Gregorian chants I had playing in the background. Never underestimate the power of suggestion.
And so we were off into the wild blue yonder for a change of scenery.
At this point I should disclose that we had been sequestered in our country house in Burgundy, the Morvan to be precise. So that would be the wild green yonder…
The Morvan is a Parc Naturel Régional, which is the equivalent of a national park, where both the exceptional environment and the historic and living culture are protected. If you look at a map of France, the Morvan is situated right in the middle of Burgundy’s four regions: The Yonne, the Nièvre (where the Morvan is located), the Côte d’Or and the Saone et Loire.
Historically, its isolation, impenetrable forests, rugged granite terrain and mountains ensured its relative poverty. Intensive agriculture is impossible here, and so the green hills are dotted with white Charolais cows. In centuries past, the forests provided a reliable supply of heating wood for Paris and the logs were floated up to the capital along the region’s canals. The women of the Morvan, les Morvandelles, offered their services as wet nurses to the Parisian bourgeoisie. In a reverse movement, the children under the auspices of social services in Paris, were sent down to the Morvan to be raised in foster homes in the countyside.
The landscape consists almost entirely of mountains covered in dense forest. Pine trees are overtaking the indigenous oak, as they are easier and faster to grow and supply the Christmas tree industry. As a Canadian from Quebec, the countryside feels overwhelmingly familiar, even more so as the forests are interspersed with pristine lakes surrounded by tall pines. Thankfully however, we are not blighted with the mosquitos that plague most of Canada !
The road trip would take us into the neighboring region of the Côte d’Or, best known for its vineyards, which proved to be an additional incentive for my French husband.
Setting off super early, we made a first stop in the medieval village of Montréal…another reminder of my home !
Strategically perched on a mountaintop in the Yonne, the village was a fortified stronghold that was invaded systematically since the Vikings. Medieval history being all about shifting loyalties and land grabs, Montréal found itself alternately besieged and protected by rival dukes and kings over time – ultimately landing in the crosshairs of the Hundred Years War. What remains is a village that is relatively intact and all of a piece architecturally. Beautiful stone houses line the streets that wind their way uphill to the site of the impressive 12th century Romanesque church that looks out over the valleys below. Notre-Dame de Montréal was first visited by the architect Viollet le Duc in the 1840’s. Famous for the flying buttresses he added to Notre Dame de Paris and his work on Burgundy’s most notable churches, he was captivated by Montréal. He declared the 12 century church, with its magnificent rose window, “a pristine example of the architecture of its time” and set about restoring it before it collapsed into obscurity.
Next stop on our itinerary was Époisses, home of the stinkiest cheese in France.
Though the town is not much more than a crossroads and the artisanal cheese is now made in a factory, the Château d’Epoisses (which dates back – in part – to the 6th century) is well-worth the visit.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, tours of the interior were cancelled, but the exterior and the gardens offer more than enough to ogle. Unlike other strategically placed chateaux on hillsides with sweeping views, this one is completely integrated into the town. Though historically it was the other way around. The grounds still encompass some of the houses that villagers were allowed to build inside the castle walls for protection. In exchange, they were expected to take on the upkeep of the grounds and surrounding walls. What wars miraculously left unscathed, the Revolution took care of, as several towers were destroyed. Thankfully, restorations have managed to preserve the château’s unique features and a sense of harmony.
As I gravitate to all things rustic, it was the dovecote that captured my attention. Of course, they are not uncommon in Burgundy but it is rare to find one in complete working order. Dating from the 15th century, it still has its inner helicoidal rotating wooden staircase, which enabled access to the 3,000 nesting holes covering the inner walls. Each individual nesting hole was attributed to the owner of one arpent (approximately 1 acre). As there are three arpents per hectare, this dovecote was in fact used collectively by the landowners of a thousand hectares! And so, more than any other aspect of the property, this humble outbuilding is all the evidence we need of the extent of the territory that depended on Époisses.
Onward we drove into the Côte d’Or, heading for the Abbaye de Fontenay. One of the oldest Cistercian abbeys in Europe, Fontenay was founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard himself. An incredibly intact ensemble of Romanesque architecture, it is a private property and – unsurprisingly – classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The church is a truly remarkable edifice. Though no longer consecrated, a contemplative silence resonates within. The design of the interior and the cloisters is of the strictest sobriety as not to distract the monks from the rigors of their vows, in accordance with Saint Bernard’s teachings. Even the stained glass windows are austere, made of pure white glass encased in simple geometric patterns.
In an ironic footnote to history, the restored windows are copies those in the Cistercian Abbaye d’Aubazine in Corrèze. Its most famous boarder was not a monk, but rather the young Coco Chanel, who borrowed the ancient motif for her own logo of intertwined C’s.
In the nave, a few exceptions to the Cistercian rule catch the eye. The massive tombstone bearing the image of Bishop Ebrard of Norwich comes alive thanks to the etched presence of a little beagle at his feet. Another, which must have delighted the monks, has become the hallmark of the statue of the Virgin of Fontenay. A masterpiece of medieval sculpture, Mary holds the Christ Child in her arms and gazes down at him with a sweet smile. In a moving detail carved in stone for all eternity, the artist graced her smile with lovely dimples. Happily Saint Bernard did not veto them!
A staircase leads to a great hall above, which was the monks’ communal dormitory. As they slept on their straw mats, one imagines them looking up at the magnificent beamed ceiling modeled after the hull of an upturned boat, dreaming of escape!
The ingenuity of the community knew no bounds, as the monks harnessed the adjacent river to create a massive hydraulically-powered hammer used in their forge. Given this discovery dates to 1220, the forge at Fontenay was named the first metallurgical factory in Europe.
As the story goes, the Abbey of Fontenay began its steady decline in 1547. From that point on, the monks no longer elected their abbot, instead he was named by the King. This overt example of medieval cronyism inevitably led to widespread corruption much as it does today. By 1777, the order had morphed into a dissolute commune and a punitive edict was issued forbidding gambling, hunting and the presence of women on the premises of Fontenay. Mon Dieu!
The ultimate end came with the Revolution, when all the properties of the Church were seized by the Republic. In 1790, the last eight monks left Fontenay, 672 years after it was founded.
As we headed home, my hermit waxed lyrical about the monastic life and I reflected upon the virtues of dimples.
In the end, we were inspired by our visit to count our blessings. For after spending months together in close confinement – more time in fact than we had ever spent together in 30 years! – we were grateful that had we managed to overcome each other’s venial sins without committing the mortal sin of murder.
François AYNARD, Fontenay, l’Abbaye et son vallon. Les Éditions du Palais, Paris, 2016
Lorraine Chesterman Holl is a Canadian freelance writer who has lived in Paris for 27 years. She has an extensive experience in advertising, having worked as a Creative Director for international agency networks, both in Canada and in France.
Lorraine Chesterman Holl @morvan_forever