We first visited the Abbey of Fontenay in Burgundy France in 2010. It was the first Cistercian abbey that we visited. It still ranks as our favorite.
In 2016 Wanderlust passed near Fontenay when we stayed in Montbard on the Canal de Bourgogne. We didn’t make a revisit then, even though the abbey is just six kilometers by bike from our mooring in the town. There are many other things to see and do in the area; perhaps we were just burnt out on sightseeing at the time. In any event, we made up for our lapse with a return visit to the abbey by car in August of 2018 from our base in Saint Jean de Losne while Wanderlust was undergoing repairs.
The term Cistercian derives from Cistercium, the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux. Cîteaux is located near the Burgundian city of Dijon in eastern France. In 1098 a group of Benedictine monks split off and founded an abbey in Cîteaux to more closely the Rule of Saint Benedict. With time the monks took the name of the village and became known as the Cistercian Order.
The original emphasis of life at the Cîteaux Abbey was on manual labor and self-sufficiency. This led to their austere and simple lifestyle that was reflected in the style of their buildings. Belying their austerity the Cistercians also played an important part in the history of the production of alcoholic beverages.
Cistercians were extensive vineyard owners in Burgundy. They were the first to notice that different vineyard plots, the “terroir”, produced consistently different wines. This understanding laid the earliest foundation for the naming of Burgundy crus. Today when you see a bottle of grand cru Burgundy with an astronomic price on the restaurant’s wine list you can blame the Cistercians.
The Cistercian monks also impacted production of beer. The Trappist beer still sought after today originated with Trappist monks, a branch from the Cistercians. Though the Cistercians believed in austerity the monks were extravagant in their production of alcoholic beverages.
With that you won’t find out much about the history of wine and the beer production at Fontenay. Instead the well-preserved abbey complex gives visitors and sense of the quiet peaceful life the monks led in a Cistercian abbey. Fontenay is located in a gentle forested valley cut off from the natural routes through the area. It is a contemplative garden-like setting away then and now from the intensity of the world. The austerity and simplicity of the monks’ lives are manifest at Fontenay.
The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1981.