West Virginia University in Vendée, France


Middle Age Splendor

26 juin 2011


We rise early this morning to take our much awaited trip to the Loire Valley.  There, we will tour four sites that tie into  several of the visits we made in Vendée or in Paris.  Today's excursions will start in the second half ot the middle ages (XIIth century) and close at the beginning of the Renaissance.


Our guide, Antoine, is most passionate about Fontevraud, and he starts our visit by reciting a poem.  His knowledge and his love for French history will keep us riveted during our 90 minute visit.

The Abbaye de Fontevraud, founded in early 1100's by Robert d'Arbrissel, a Breton preacher, was a massive international, economic and religious complex with branches in southern England and northern Spain.   Three hundred cloistered sisters, many of royal lineage, lived here.  They were served and assisted in their prayerful work by an even greater number religious men or women of a lesser social rank.


Here, the size of the smoke-house gives an idea of the number of mouths to be fed at the abbey.  Robert d'Abrissel's rule dictated that the religious women and men only eat fish and poultry.  A great number of salmon was caught in the Loire and, as salt was still rare, smoking was the best method to preserve mass quantities of fish.


One reason for Fontevraud's splendor is the high patronages that Robert d'Abrissel and his successors were able to secure for the abbey, starting with the famous Duchess Aliénor of Aquitaine.  Aliénor, her king husbands and later her children all richly endowed the abbey and expressed their formal desire to repose within the main church.  Here, our Vendéen group Aliénor poses with its namesake.


A cloister, beautifully restored, first during the Renaisssance, then during the late XXth century.
This picture shows the architectural contrast between the Roman period (top level) and the Renaissance (bottom level).  In the very back, the small windows are vestige of the hundred year period during which this abbey, like many important ones in France, was turned into a prison for men, women and children.


The chapter house holds beautiful frescos, the work of François Clouet, the royal painter for king François Ier.  Note the abbess's lack of humility: Louise de Bourbon asked Clouet to include her in his representation of the crucifixion (on Jesus' right side, of course).


The sun is hot, very hot, but not so hot that our Vendéens would not pose for another group picture.



Our official visit over, we are ready for lunch.


A beautiful table awaits us in the Saint-Lazare Cloister in Fontevraud for our most elegant meal yet.  We are all thankful for the thickness of the walls, and the coolness of the room is welcome.


We start with a soupe de tomate glacée au basilic avec son gressin-- a chilled basil tomato soup with a bread stick.


Since none of us have made our vows at the abbey, we are then treated with a pièce de boeuf rôti au thym citron, with légumes de saison. 

No translation necessary, I believe, but let me specify that the golden round is made of mashed potatoes.


Finally, a dessert everyone enjoys on a cold day: a cold crème brûlée.  Please note the dessert plate, adorned with the abbey's emblem.  A meal fit for kings and queens.


We retire to the living room after dessert...


... and coffee is soon served.


Well rested, we travel a few miles over to the castel of Langeais, where we will see transitional architecture from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  This part of the castle, built at the end of the XVth century, is representative of its Middle Ages influence.  The menacing towers, draw bridge, and narrow window openings are meant to signify military strength and power, discouraging any invader passing by.


The inside facade however is not about war but about pleasant life, large windows and gardens, all hallmarks of Renaissance life to come.


We stop in the dining room where our guide explains the various particulars of a meal at the castle at the end of the Middle Ages.


This room exemplifies the nascent need for privacy in castles where, until then, none existed.  Rooms had no designated function, masters, servants and visitors all lived together, temporarily adapting each space to the need of the moment.  Here at Langeais, the lord of the castle had felt the need for two separate chambers.  In this "show" chamber, he displayed his riches, set up a large bed where he held court, inviting his most favored visitors to sit with him on his couch.  A separate chamber was set apart for his private space and for sleeping.


In this children's room, we notice furniture (namely the high chair and the crib) that is specifically built for children--a rarity in it's day.


Langeais, one of many Loire Valley castle, was the site of a very important event in French history: the marriage of Anne, Duchess of Brittany, and Charles VIII, King of France. This royal marriage started the process of rejoining Brittany to France.


In the back of the garden, the impressive and old Xth century donjon still stands.



Charming Miranda, unafraid, climbs to the top of the scaffold to admire the view of the "new" castle.  She tells us that the view is great . . .


. . . and she's right!


Thanks, Miranda!



Brittany (problably elated of her namesakes' permanent reattachment to France), is all smiles with Amanda.


It is now time to say goodbye to Langeais.  I don't know why Brittany thought she could hide in the back, she is clearly visible between Sam's head and Jana's shoulder.  No student can disappear from a group picture--not on the Lastingkoff's watch...


It is hot, so our first stop in Tours is to visit and ice-cream shop.  Jana recommends green tea ice-cream, Kiley, Holly and I try the cappuccino.   Whatever the flavor, it's cold and that is all we need.


We are never too hot not to admire middle-age beauty when we see it.  



Although there is nothing beautiful or middle-aged about the Campanile, we are all thankful for air conditioning and a cold buffet dinner.


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