Fontevraud L'Hotel, Loire Valley
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Contemporary hotel in historic abbey precinctEvery so often, a magic moment comes along that you store in
the memory bank to relive again and again. And as my husband and I stood after dark in the vast vaulted nave of
Fontevraud Abbey, I knew this was one of those moments. We were utterly alone, apart from the painted
effigies of the Plantagenets – Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine,
their son Richard the Lionheart, and Isabelle of Angouleme, wife of Richard’s
Fontevraud nestles in quiet countryside between Saumur and
Chinon on the eastern border of Pays de la Loire. Founded in 1101 near the Fontaine d’Evraud
spring, it lies at the heart of historic Anjou, homeland of our own Plantagenet
dynasty. Ransacked in the Revolution and
later converted by Napoleon Bonaparte into a prison, the once Royal abbey has
been transformed into the Cultural Centre of Western France, hosting art
exhibitions and business conferences, concerts, theatrical performances and
hotel guests within its spacious walled grounds.
And one of many benefits of staying at the newly refurbished
Fontevraud L’Hotel is the freedom to enjoy those grounds after the day visitors
have left. If you have trouble
sleeping, you can visit the Plantagenets at dead of night and see Eleanor’s
stone book lit by a spotlight, as though the queen is reading a Kindle. You can wander the cloisters and listen to
the owls hooting, or rise before first light to catch the dawn chorus from the
Not that there's any excuse not to sleep. The hotel
is located in the former St Lazare Priory, within the abbey precincts. The 54 rooms are blissfully quiet, simply
decorated in keeping with the monastic surroundings, but with every modern comfort
including dream-inducing mattresses made especially for the hotel. There’s complimentary bottled water from the
abbey’s own spring; natural soap made in the village from vegetable oils; and
honey from the Fontevraud hives.
But what really makes this hotel stand out is the blend of
old building and new technology. Everything
in the bedroom operates from an iPad, from the television channels to the internal
phone system. We received two failed calls
from Reception before I eventually managed to press the right button to ring
back, and I own an iPad, but once you get the hang of things, it’s very simple. Honestly.
And as an added bonus, you can apparently call anywhere in the world
free of charge, though sadly I had no friends in Australia to help me make use
of it. Don’t forget to hand the iPads
in on checking out though – guests pledge a deposit on a credit card on
Technology doesn’t stop in the bedrooms either. One of the highlights of this unique hotel is
the iBar, housed beneath the soaring roof of the priory chapel. Sit
down at an interactive table and just touch the screen to find out more about
the history and architecture, do a jigsaw of a Fontevraud scene, or access
ground plans of the abbey across the centuries. There are even games to keep
children occupied whilst parents enjoy the atmospheric surroundings over a
glass of sparkling Saumur.
Open to abbey visitors as well as hotel residents, the iBar
– like the rest of the public rooms – is equipped with sound baffle panels and
lampshades that stop your private conversations from heading up into the
rafters or reverberating off the white stone walls.
The bar leads into Le Restaurant, imaginatively created
around a small cloister planted with a herb garden. Chef Thibaut Ruggeri scooped the prestigious
Bocuse d’Or award in 2013 and diners here are in for a treat – seasonal produce
transformed into edible masterpieces that perfectly reflect the historic
surroundings. To say more would spoil
the succession of surprises!
Even the cheapest menu sits you down to starter, fish, meat, cheese, dessert, all perfectly balanced. And in-between come artistic creations to tantalise the tastebuds or cleanse the palate. I don’t much like radishes, but the delicate pink sphere of radish sorbet topped with an exquisite tiny collar of sculpted white vegetable, was a treat to both the eye and the tastebuds.
In fact, there was just one thing that got up my nose – literally
– and that was the incense burning in reception. I've always hated the smell and whilst it's
clearly meant to evoke monastic life, to me it will always be associated with
Kensington Market, Afghan coats and 1960s’ smock tops.
A generational thing maybe, but I’m prepared to overlook it
to stay at this glorious hotel a second time. I’ll just hold my breath as I head out to visit the Plantagenets …!
More informationFor information on Fontevraud, visit www.fontevraud.fr. Gillian travelled overnight with BrittanyFerries from Portsmouth to Saint Malo, enjoying a gastronomic dinner on board. Fontevraud is around 3 hours from the ferry
terminal along quiet roads.
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