Fontevraud Abbey: A Loire Valley Getaway

Saint-Tropez, France during the day
Saint-Tropez, France // Photo by LiliGraphie/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Fontevraud royal abbey, a UNESCO-protected site near Saumur, was first established in 1101 as one of the era’s largest monastic communities.
Fontevraud Royal Abbey, a UNESCO-protected site near Saumur, was first established in 1101 as one of the era’s largest monastic communities.

Last summer saw the debut of a sublime new hotel inside a landmark destination in the Loire Valley: the Fontevraud Royal Abbey. First established in 1101 as one of the era’s largest monastic communities, Fontevraud is where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart were buried and where their recumbent statues remain. Later converted into a prison under Napoleon, the Abbey is a UNESCO-protected site and an important tourist attraction near Saumur (a two-hour train ride from Paris). For this 16 million euro ($18.5 million) project, the Pays de la Loire region enlisted the star design team of Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku to dream up the hotel interiors. The result — as we discovered on a recent stay — is a special place that’s steeped in history yet groundbreaking in its deft use of technology. Everything about the guest experience has been carefully choreographed to create a sensory journey: from the unique fragrance perfuming the lobby to the bathroom soap handcrafted by a local artisan. And with a focus on sustainability, Fontevraud is paving the way for the future of hospitality.

Rooms at the Fontevraud Royal Abbey echo the past with their pared-down look.
 
Rooms at the Fontevraud Royal Abbey echo the past with their pared-down look.

The Paris-based design duo explained that they wanted to give life to a contemporary vision that would respect the spirit of the building. The visionaries behind projects like Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée Paris and the flagship store for Van Cleef & Arpels in New York, Jouin Manku sought to capture the building’s essence, from its monastic simplicity to its prison austerity. Every piece of décor was custom-designed for the hotel. Special attention was given to the lighting and acoustics for perfect comfort.

The 54 rooms echo the past with their pared-down look. They are furnished simply with the basic essentials, but the décor is covetable in its smart design — solid oak doors, a stool that tucks into a table, the cloth headboards angled perfectly for comfortable reading, the oak coat hook on the wall. Even the mattresses were specially made for the hotel by the Nantes-based company Biosense. (They’re 100 percent natural, and available for purchase.) In the bathrooms, bespoke glass bottles are filled with spring water that’s sourced onsite.

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In our room (No. 206), we admired the wood floors and the large window opening directly onto a garden. Suites come with sitting areas and espresso machines. Families will want to opt for one of the six duplex suites with the separate adult sleeping area situated upstairs. In fact, Fontevraud has focused on creating a number of family-friendly activities, with children invited into the kitchen to help prepare dessert. For group reservations, contact Roselyse Bastin ([email protected]; 011-332-4646-1010), guest relations manager.

You’ll also appreciate the in-room technology. At check-in, you’re handed an iPad loaded with videos and helpful apps (it also doubles as your telephone with free calls). Your media hub has its own Fontevraud original programming. This smart technology continues in the iBar, which is housed in the former chapel. Beneath soaring vaulted ceilings, the iBar is a glorious setting for a glass of Loire Valley sparkling wine before dinner at the restaurant. The centerpiece is a long, “altar-like” bar, fashioned from centuries-old wood beams. Leather seating areas are tucked into this pièce de résistance, and the tabletops are actually touchscreens where you can explore the Fontevraud story through digital maps.

The centerpiece of the iBar, housed in the former chapel, is a long “altar-like” bar, fashioned from centuries-old wood beams.
 
The centerpiece of the iBar, housed in the former chapel, is a long “altar-like” bar, fashioned from centuries-old wood beams.

Don’t miss a meal at the restaurant helmed by Chef Thibaut Ruggeri, winner of the prestigious Bocuse d’Or 2013. The experience starts with an amuse-bouche that pays homage to the Abbey’s history. Ruggeri sought to find a dish that was shared by all Fontevraud residents over time; hence it’s a riff on the simple soup served with dry bread (eaten by both nuns and prisoners). Local vegetables — like mushrooms cultivated in local caves — take pride of place on the menu. A real highlight is the cheese tray stacked with dozens of different fromages. Private dinners can be arranged in the former refectory, where an enormous table illuminated by candle-like lights calls to mind the feasts of the Middle Ages next to a crackling fire.

The breakfast area is installed in the former cloister, with tables facing the interior courtyard, planted with an herb garden for the chef’s kitchen. When the sun’s shining, you can choose an outdoor table and soak up the Abbey’s peaceful atmosphere while eating croissants and drinking café au lait from ceramic cups created by a Franco-American artist who lives a few miles from Fontevraud.

The Loire Valley was a favorite playground of the kings and queens of France and Fontevraud is well-placed to enjoy excursions to the famous chateaux and vineyards. A good way to explore the region is by bike, and the new La Loire à Vélo connects 500 miles of cycling paths along the banks of the Loire River. But the best part of staying at Fontevraud is the unique opportunity of exploring the Abbey grounds at night when all the visitors have gone home. Nothing quite compares to strolling the gardens by moonlight.

More than a hotel concept, Fontevraud has been developed — much as its medieval-era founders dreamed — as “la Cité idéale” (ideal city). There are conference rooms to welcome business seminars and exhibit spaces for contemporary art shows. It’s quickly become a favorite place for businesses hosting conferences, wedding parties and chic Parisians looking for a weekend getaway. Bref, the project demonstrates a masterful approach to preserving France’s rich cultural heritage, transforming Fontevraud into a lively 21st-century destination. 

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