France // Burgundy //

Abbaye de Fontenay

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Abbaye de Fontenay is the biggest draw in the area. Founded in 1118, it’s the only Burgundian monastery to survive intact, despite conversion to a paper mill in the early nineteenth century. It was restored in the early 1900s to its original form, while the gardens were re-landscaped in 2008 in full harmony with its Romanesque structure. It is one of the world’s most complete monastic complexes, including a caretaker’s lodge, guesthouse and chapel, dormitory, hospital, prison, bakery, kennels and abbot’s house, as well as a church, cloister, chapterhouse and even a forge.

On top of all this, the abbey’s setting, at the head of a quiet stream-filled valley enclosed by woods of pine, fir, sycamore and beech, is superb. There’s a bucolic calm about the place, particularly in the graceful cloister, and in these surroundings the spartan simplicity of Cistercian life seems appealing. Hardly a scrap of decoration softens the church and there’s no direct lighting in the nave, just an otherworldly glow from the square-ended apse.

One base worth knowing about if you’re counting on public transport in the area is the rather unexciting hillside town of Montbard, on the main line between Dijon and Paris and where buses leave for both Chatillon and Semur. It may even be worth an overnight stop if you’re heading to the Abbaye de Fontenay and the site of Alésia.