Rocks of Ages...
June 26, 2000

(A few WVU-Vendéens prepare to cross the moats of Azay-le-Rideau, June 26, 2000)

Our day again begins bright and early, as we bid farewell to Vendée's windmills and head up the Loire Valley to visit some of the treasures of the heart of France's central heartland.  The windmill to the right is one of the gates of Vendée and is located on the famous Mont des Alouettes, or Mount of Swallows.  We will likely pass by here again when we visit the one of the nation's most famous parks, Le Puy du Fou, on Friday.


Among the many castles we pass today is that of Saumur, where the Vendéens fought one of the most important battles in their effort to resist the forces of Revolution in 1793.


Our destination this morning is the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, final resting place of Richard the Lion-Heart and his parents Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II Plantagenêt.   While the Plantagenêts were kings if England, they were also Dukes of Aquitaine and Normandy.  Their attachment to this part of France also derived from their roles as Counts of Anjou.


The Abbey has a history that dates back to the year 1101 when the monk Robert d'Arbrissel founded a religious order unique in Christendom.  In d'Arbrissel's monastery there would be monks and nuns praying and working together under the same monastic leader, or Abbot.  Here, however, the leader would be a woman, or and Abbess.  Men would submit to her authority, much as kings at times submitted to the will of Eleanor herself who would come to finish her days here after the death of her second husband Henri.  We have of course mentioned Eleanor often in these pages, since she is said to have been born in the Vendée village of Nieul sur l'Autize and since she was a principal figure in the courts of the French kings Louis VI and his son Louis VII, the founders of Gothic art and architecture.  Chief among Eleanor's passions was music, her grandfather William IX of Aquitaine, being the world's first troubadour, a word we might translate as "Middle Ages Rock Star."  Be it music or stone, Eleanor and her courtiers were among the great artists of theirs or any other time.  It is only right that today, Fontevraud is one of the great musical centers of Europe.  A little less fortunate is the fact that part of our visit today will be hindered by a recording session of musicians gathered here to take advantage of the world renowned acoustics of this abbey.


Here the WVU-Vendéen approach the tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine (top left), Henry II Plantagenêt (top right), Richard the Lion-Heart (bottom right), and Isabelle d'Angoulême, the wife of Richard's brother and successor King John.  Isabelle's "gisant" is the oldest wooden figure of its kind in the world.  The other three are of stone, but they are among the few such lying mortuary sculptures to retain much their original polychromatic or colored decoration.


Eleanor and Henry were married just weeks after her divorce from Louis VII of France, but their own marriage would hardly be any less rocky.  

Eleanor was in fact imprisoned by Henry when she raised her voice too loudly in objection to his policies and infidelities. 


The cloister, gardens for meditation, of Fontevraud are grand and beautiful.  Those who contemplated here were indeed fortunate to have such magnificent surroundings.


The chapter room where the rules of the religious order were read was decorated centuries ago by the second great family associated with Fontevraud, the Bourbons, the dynasty founded by Henri IV of Navarre/Bourbon and which saw its greatest heights of glory under his son and grandson, Louis XIII and Louis XIV.  Renée and Louise de Bourbon were among the great Abesses of Fontevraud in times that were both tragic and magnificent for France.


Another architectural wonder of Fontevraud is the ingeniously designed kitchens of the old monastery.  Our guide Pascal wonders if their conception was not perhaps a product of the Crusades and an adaptation of the design French knights encountered in their excursions to the East.


Our luncheon today allows again to sample the cuisine from another of France's many celebrated culinary regions.


After lunch we stroll through the village to the castle of Azay-le-Rideau, a jewel of the French Renaissance.  While maintaining some of the design elements of the medieval military fortress, Azay's open windows and exquisite interiors are far removed from the times when life centered around warfare.  This castle is an abode of pleasure and luxury, whose airy facades are brightened by the nearly snow white stone called "tuffeau".  Tuffeau is the key element of many of the pristine castles of the Loire Valley.


The "moats" around Azay are designed for their beauty rather than for their defensive effectiveness.


As we leave Azay, we stop in the nearby city of Tours whose center retains some of the most beautiful old "townhouses" in France.


The Basilica of Saint Martin was dedicated many centuries ago to one of Tours' earliest and most famous residents, Saint Martin.  Martin was a soldier in the Roman Legion who one wintry day came upon a beggar along the road.  Martin felt compassion for the poor man and took his own coat and cut it in half, giving a part to the mendicant.  The next day Martin would meet another soul who had forsaken the power and riches promised to the servants of Caesar.  This man, too, was wearing the half of Martin had given up the day before.  And, it was Christ himself.  Martin would soon leave the army the ways of the world to become the bishop of Tours, devoting the rest of his life to prayer and the conversion of Gaule to Chrisitanity.


The Cathedral of Tours is devoted to Saint Gatien and was begun in the 1200's.   Its construction continued until the Renaissance, thus giving it a richness of style and decor that exemplifies several stages of French art and architecture.


Among the great treasures of Saint Gatien are its incredibly luminous and colorful stained-glass windows.


As we head back to the Vendée-Mobile we walk along the Loire River and come upon this monument devoted to the American war effort in support of France in 1914-1918.


Our budget does not always allow us the greatest of comforts, so tonight we will take refuge in a motel that is "adequate."  While we feel no immediate need to call upon the deeds of Saint Martin, Jennifer of the Same Name and Katie "Scarlett" McMullen are amazed that the all the "facilities" here are within easy reach of Cindy's non-too-lengthy grasp.


Dinner tonight is also on the cuff -- a modest but pleasant buffet in a roadside "convenience-style" restaurant. 


As the day draws to an end, a few WVU-Vendéens enjoy the evening breeze at our "Première Classe" hotel on the autoroute of Tours.  While the architecture of this European treasure might not endure the centuries known by other buildings we've seen today, it still "rocks" for us tonight.

 Stay tuned to WVU-V!

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