It was a cloudy day when we drove to Fontfroide Abbey in Narbonne, France. We didn't mind, though, as the dark skies somehow seemed fitting for a place with such a rich history.
First mentions of the Abbey Fontfroide date back to its foundation by Benedictine monks in the 11th century. From then until now the Abbaye has survived the rise of the Cathars and several transformations. In 1908 painter and collector Gustave Fayet and his wife Madeleine purchase the Abbaye. Today, the Abbaye is still co-owned by his descendants, who look after his artistic legacy as well as the continuous restoration of the Abbaye.
Visiting Fontfroide Abbey
When visiting the Fontfroide Abbaye, you can choose to buy a ticket for the Abbey (including the rose garden), the terrace gardens or both. We did both and started our self-guided tour at the Abbey.
When doing the self-guided tour you get a ground plan of the Abbey with information on the different rooms and squares you'll see. There are arrows spread throughout the domain to indicate which direction to follow and to make sure you don't miss anything.
Want to come along?
The visit starts at the entrance court.
We move through the building of the lay brothers…
… to get to the beautiful Louis XIV court.
A hallway takes us further…
… and a little later we find ourselves in the cloister, which used to be both a place of passage and of contemplation. The monks would pass here on their way from prayer to have a meal or from having a meal to where they'd study. They would also walk around the cloister meditating or reading.
Next, we entered the church.
Often when visiting churches in Europe, we are amazed by all the grandeur, all the decoration, artworks, and – let's face it – bling-bling. Not so in the church at Abbaye de Fontfroide. I appreciated the austerity of the Cistercians as the lack of, well, anything, created a peaceful atmosphere.
The only thing that really caught our attention here was the stained glass of the windows.
The cells of the monks, located on the first floor, overlooked a promenade which was also used to collect rainwater. The rainwater would be held in a tank buried in the cloister garden.
The dormitory of the lay brothers was interesting because of the stained glass windows made by artist René Billa, better known as Richard Burgsthal. The windows are like mosaics, put together with the debris of windows from churches all over northern and eastern France that were destroyed during the First World War.
Burgsthal also created stained glass windows for the church of the abbey.
The rose garden
The rose garden of the Abbaye de Fontfroide can be admired from April to September. It's one of the largest rose gardens in the south of France, with around 2,500 roses. What's special is that this rose garden was planted on top of the old cemetery of the monks and thus now covers their graves.
The Abbaye de Fontfroide even has its own rose variety: the Rose of Fontfroide:
The rose garden concludes our visit to the abbey, but we still have the terraced gardens.
The terraced gardens were created in the late 16th century and maintained by the monks for centuries. When Gustave and Madeleine Fayet bought the abbey they took over that task, but after their deaths, interests in the gardens disappeared.
On top of that, a large fire in 1986 destroyed most of the terraces. Restoration started in 2007 and now the Abbaye de Fontfroide has its own garden team taking care of the trees, the plants, and the beehives.
Art at Abbaye Fontfroide
Artist Gustave Fayet was no hermit. He invited other artists to stay with him at the Abbaye de Fontfroide and some of them even left their traces.
We already mentioned Richard Burgsthal, who created the stained glass windows for the dormitory, but who was also a personal friend of Fayet.
Another friend of Fayet was Odilon Redon. This painter created two large works for Fayet, “Le Jour” and “La Nuit” that still decorate the abbey's library.
Lastly, we have to mention Paul Gauguin. Gauguin was a close friend of Fayet and frequently stayed at the abbey to work there. Fayet supported Gauguin and owned many of his paintings.
Of course, you'll also find works by Fayet himself at the Abbaye de Fontfroide. There's a small museum on the domain which only opens upon request. Although it only consists of two rooms, I'm glad we've seen it and would recommend a visit if you're going to the abbey.
Winter and summer
Not all parts of the Abbaye de Fontfroide are open all year through. As we went in summer, some of the rooms, like the library and dining hall were closed. These are open in winter when the rose garden is closed.
Why don't they keep everything open all year round?
The domain of the Abbaye de Fontfroide is pretty big and it's simply impossible for the people working there to keep an eye on everything all the time. They've also told me that there are many people from the region who visit several times a year, bringing friends and family. This way they always have something else to show them.
Address (gps):Latitude : N 43° 7′ 45.0336” – Longitude : E 2° 53′ 51.1038”
Opening times: the Fontfroide Abbey is open all year round, except on December 25 and January 1
Please visit the website for up to date information on prices and tours.
Where to stay in Narbonne
Budget: Les Chambres des Barques
This guest house is full of character. Rooms are equipped with a TV, much-needed air conditioning, tea/ coffee making facilities and free WiFi, and guests can make use of the communal living area and kitchen. The location is perfect for rolling out of bed for a stroll along the canal.
Boutique: La Maison Gustave
La Maison Gustave is a quirky and stylish bed and breakfast with an amazing city centre location, right next to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and the Cathédrale Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur. Rooms are all individually styled – modern, while making use of the original features. Free WiFi and continental breakfast are available.
Chain: Novotel Narbonne Sud A9/A61
Located a bit further out from the centre of Narbonne (about a 5 minute drive away), Novotel Narbonne Sud has the advantage of a seasonal outdoor heated pool, terrace and dining area. Rooms are simple but modern with all the necessary amenities, including free WiFi and air conditioning.
Apartment: Cathédrale Appart
Cathédrale Appart is amazing value for money, located right in the middle of Narbonne. A modern, compact flat with a bedroom, bathroom, living room, terrace, WiFi and minimal kitchen, this would make a perfect base for exploring the city and surrounding areas.
If you'd like other apartment options, check out Airbnb. While I use Booking for hotels, I always check Airbnb’s large selection of apartments for some great finds.
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We received two complimentary tickets to visit the Abbaye de Fontfroide, but do you think I would have taken so many photos if I hadn't genuinely liked it? That's right.