Feast your eyes on the soaring structure of Fontevraud Abbey, considered one of the greatest monastic sites in Europe. It was transformed into a prison by Napoleon in 1804, then saved from destruction and later became a dreaded penitentiary centre – the last prisoners didn’t leave until 1985. Today, as a Centre Culturel de Rencontre (Cultural Encounter Centre), Fontevraud is a renowned venue for concerts, symposiums and exhibitions, and it also plays a role in creative development thanks to artists’ residencies.
The abbey is austere but impressive, built in a combination of regional architectural styles with radiating chapels at the east end. Once inside Fontevraud, take time to admire its carved capitals depicting animals and plants, and the four royal effigy tombs dating from the 12th and 13th centuries (including those of Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine), each topped with a painted effigy of its occupant. The 16th-century Grand-Moutier cloister combines late Gothic and early Renaissance styles. The galleries are spacious and bright, with beautiful rib vaulting above and checkerboard tiling below. There are also some interesting paintings on the walls of the chapter house: scenes of the Washing of the Feet; Betrayal of Judas; Flagellation; Crowning with Thorns; Crucifixion; Burial; Resurrection; Ascension; Pentecost; and Assumption of Mary.
Other sights at Fontevraud include a monumental Renaissance staircase, three dormitories (one with a beautiful timber roof, used as an exhibition hall), and the Saint-Benoit infirmaries and mortuary chapel. The best views of the abbey are from the east, where extensive terraced gardens climb up behind it. Guests staying at the impressive Fontevraud L’Hôtel next door have 24 hour access to the abbey and its grounds – and the opportunity to enjoy a Michelin-starred meal in the hotel restaurant thanks to the talents of chef Thibaud Ruggeri.