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Fontfroide Abbey: A Worthwhile Stop In The Occitanie

When I was heading from Autignac to Prades in the southern part of the Occitanie region (Trip #33), the owner of the Château where I was staying suggested a worthwhile stop would be at Fontfroide Abbey, only 17 minutes southwest of Narbonne.

While there are many abbeys in France (such as the Route des Abbayes in Normandy), Abbaye de Fontfroide is a very well preserved Cistercian monastery– a peaceful place with beautiful stained glass windows, a large terraced garden, an enormous rose garden, an annual orchid festival, and wine produced at the abbey that you can purchase or have at their restaurant. It’s worth a visit.

A. History Of Fontfroide Abbey

Inside Fontfroide Abbey

Fontfroide Abbey has had a rocky history. The monastery was founded in 1093 and joined the Cistercian order in 1145. The community grew and the land given to it by Viscountess Ermengard of Narbonne helped it prosper.

14th century to the French Revolution

In the 14th and 15th centuries, three families took possession of the buildings and then, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the commendatory abbots* kept taking more and more of the income from the abbey to the point that the number of monks significantly decreased and it became incredibly poor. By the time of the French Revolution, it was abandoned. [*commendatory abbots were ecclesiastics or laymen who took the monk’s income but had no power over them]

19th and 20th century

It was not until 1858 that the monks from the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in Gordes formed a new community at Fontfroide. But sadly, in 1901, the community was sent into exile in Spain and the monastery was once again abandoned.

Frontroide Abbey Is Purchased In 1908

French painter Gustave Fayet and his wife Madeleine Fayet came to the rescue in 1908 and purchased the abbey. It is still privately owned and the family has continued to restore the 12-century abbey. Throughout each year there are festivals and artistic presentations. AOC Corbières wines are also produced at the abbey and one can have lunch at their “La Table de Fonfroide” restaurant or café. I had a delicious salade de chêvre chaud on the café terrace.

B. Interior Of Abbaye de Fontfroide

Prayers took place at various hours throughout each day (and night). In addition to the dormatories and dining hall, there were 5 chapels in the abbey by the end of the 14th century.

1. Stained Glass In The Abbey Church

Stained glass in the church at Fontfroide
Stained glass in the church at Fontfroide
Stained glass in the church at Fontfroide

From the beginning, the windows in the church were grisaille, which means they had shades of grey. No colour. This was in keeping with the austere architecture of Cistercian abbeys.

When Gustave Fayet purchased the abbey, he commissioned René Billa, known as Richard Burgsthal (one of his many artist friends) to add colour to the windows in the St. Bernard Chapel—“verrerie des salons” —but they weren’t finished until 1925 after Fayet had died.

2. Chapter House

Chapter House

In the morning the monks would gather at the Chapter House which had 4 marble columns supporting the vault. They did their prayers and then got their work assignments for the day. Before leaving it was time for “mea culpa”—public confessions.

3. Lay Brothers’ Refectory

The refectory, or dining hall, accommodated 200-250 persons. The fireplace was in the Renaissance style and came from the château belonging to the Dukes of Montmorency (Château de Pézenas?) when it was destroyed. The Fayets added it to the abbey in the 20th century.

4. Cloister

Cloister at Abbbaye de Fontfroide

The monks would use the cloister as a passageway and as a place to meditate and read. The original cloister had a wooden roof and through the centuries it was expanded and marble columns were added.

C. Fontfroide’s Exterior: Terrace Gardens And Rose Garden

Gardens at Fontfroide Abbey
Gardens and cloister at Fontfroide Abbey

1. Terrace Gardens

Terrace gardens at Fontfroide Abbey

The hillside overlooking the abbey has terrace gardens that also grow roses, wildflowers, and shrubs. It was created in the late 1700s by Constance de Frégose, mother of a commendatory abbot at Fontfroide. The Fayet family remodeled the terrace, adding ponds, fountains, and new plants. It was awarded the “Jardins Remarquables”  and “Refuge LPO” (protected birds) designations. The abbey states that the gardening techniques “respect biodiversity and are eco-friendly”.

There are two paths through the terrace gardens that you can take:

  • Historic Path-invites you to see different themed gardens (ie. The Terrace of Neptune is in the French-style garden of the 17th century, similar to the style that Andre Le Nôtre used when designing Versailles. The garden surrounds the Fountain of Neptune)
  • Promenade du Bosquet Path-it is longer and takes you up the hill to an observation point.

2. Rose Garden

Rose garden at Abbaye de Fontfroide

After a major fire destroyed the terrace gardens, the rose garden was created. The area was originally an orchard and cemetery and today the abbey cultivates almost 2500 roses—14 varieties in many colours—and the garden is surrounded by cypress trees, perennials, and evergreen shrubs. The focal point is the circular pool in front of the abbey.

D. Circuits de l’Abbaye de Fontfroide (Hiking Routes)

Circuits de l'Abbaye de Fontfroide

Fontfroide Abbey is in the heart of the Fontfroide Massif and is surrounded by trees and nature so it is fitting that there are 3 short hikes in the area.

  1. Circuit #1:La Croix de Fontfroide
  • Distance: 900 metres
  • Duration: 50 minutes
  • Level: easy-average

You’ll get a panorama from the summit where you can see Château Saint-Martin-de-Toques, vineyards and massif of Fontfroide.

2. Circuit #2: Le  Tour du Piton de la Croix

  • Distance: 2.5 km
  • Duration: 45 minutes
  • Level: easy

Here’s a walk amongst olive trees and oak trees. You’ll be near the abbey church and have views of La Croix de Fontfroide (the cross) and the ruins which served as a watchtower during medieval times.

3. Circuit #3: Le Sentier du Vignoble

  • Distance: 4 km
  • Duration: 1-1.5 hours
  • Level: easy

Here you’ll walk amongst Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvèdre grapes vines. Then visit the abbey wine cellar back at the courtyard to taste and purchase some of the abbey’s wine or to have lunch at “La Table de Fonfroide” restaurant.

E. International Orchid Festival In Fontfroide Abbey

Pink orchids

In addition to evening light shows (showcasing the stained glass), musical events, and art exhibitions, there is an annual orchid festival for amateurs and professionals with workshops and presentations. The 15th International Orchid Festival In Abbaye de Fontfroide takes place October 1-3, 2021.

If you want an excursion from Carcassonne (1 hour away) or Montpellier (1.25 hours away), or you’re in the Narbonne vicinity, be sure to make a stop at Fontfroide Abbey. It’s a wonderful site to see a restored abbey with colourful stained glass windows. It has retained its beautiful design and has the added attractions of a terraced garden, a large rose garden, locally produced wines, and special events like its annual orchid festival.

Fontfroide Abbey

  • Address: Route Départementale 613, 11100 Narbonne (in the Aude department)
  • Open: daily from mid-May to the end of December
  • Guided tour: yes, from June to October (Note: the tour is in French; however there are self-guided English tours)

Looking for more unique sites and experiences in the Occitanie? Check out these posts:

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A visit to Fontfroide Abbey

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