Travel back in time
History buffs will be in heaven here! It's hard to believe that the tiny, unassuming village of Fontevraud is home to such a unique jewel: Europe's largest monastic complex, founded in 1101. In its heyday, the 14 hectares of the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud housed four priories and 800 nuns. Three of these remain, later used as a prison under Napoleon until 1963. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site alongside the Loire Valley itself, Fontevraud is a unique set of religious buildings, cloisters and dormitories, all sublimely restored. Wander through the maze of old stone and you'll stumble upon masterpieces, hidden around a bend in a vaulted gallery or on the thick walls of an old refectory. You can also see the Plantagenêt tombs of Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son Richard the Lionheart in the nave of the main abbey.
Enjoy art and culture...
As early as 1975, the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud stepped ahead of its time by becoming a cultural centre. It welcomes artists in residence and organises exhibitions, concerts and conferences. The most spectacular of the permanent installations is undoubtedly the giant work by Claude Lévêque entitled 'Death in Summer', which illuminates an entire former dormitory in red. Temporary events complete the visitor experience at Fontevraud: the 'Stained Glass Artists' exhibition (until November 1) will be followed in 2021 by an exhibition on liturgical decoration, including works by couturier Christian Lacroix. Until then, a magical journey will take over for Christmas: digital snowflakes projected on the walls of the abbey, fragments of porcelain suspended from the ceilings, a 17th-century terracotta nativity scene, and a son-et-lumière (sound and light) show in the cloister.
...and more art
On December 5, 2020, a very special modern art museum will open its doors in the main courtyard of the monastic complex, taking over a building from 1786 (the 'Fannerie') which housed the former stables and coaches. Across three floors and 1,200 square metres, visitors will be able to admire several hundred paintings and sculptures from the 19th and 20th centuries, donated to Fontevraud by passionate collectors Martine and Léon Cligman and supplemented by works from national museums. Careful curation and the latest technology will bring masterpieces by Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Rodin, Derain and Buffet to life. The museum will also feature an exceptional set of pieces by Germaine Richier, recognised as one of the major figures of modern sculpture; a spectacular set of glassware by Maurice Marinot; and Mesopotamian, Asian and American-Indian objects.
Dine and sleep in style
It's not enough just to visit Fontevraud - you should consider staying overnight, too. Its four-star eponymous hotel was installed in the Saint-Lazare priory, one of the four priories on site. The 54 rooms have an intimate atmosphere with simplistic decor in stone and wood, clean lines and light colours, providing a calming retreat in keeping with Fontevraud's origins. Enjoy a drink in the ethereal chapel bar and a meal at Fontevraud Le Restaurant, occupying the former cloister. Chef Thibaut Ruggeri, awarded a Michelin star in 2017, creates pure magic with local flavours and ingredients. Perhaps best of all: hotel guests can roam the abbey and its grounds after they're closed to the public - even all night long if they wish.
Explore the treasures of Saumur
With abundant fresh fish, mushroom caves and mile upon mile of vineyards, it's all about flavour and pleasure in this part of the Loire Valley. Allow time to visit the Château de Saumur which dominates the river, and the troglodyte villages of Souzay-Champigny and Louresse-Rochemenier. Along the way, stop off to eat and drink (naturally): at the Robert & Marcel cooperative for an introduction to Saumur-Champigny wine, at the Combier distillery to sample their delicious liqueurs, before lunching at chef Anthony Vaillant's L'Essentiel in central Saumur, or Les Quais if you want Loire fish. A few kilometres out of town in Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent, 30 skilled riders train the horses of the famous Cadre Noir: visits include tours of the stables and meeting the horses, but nothing beats a show in the arena where you can watch all their work come alive.