We rose to the sounds of animals stirring in the courtyard – they were getting their morning feed and very excited. We were too when Monsieur Arnaud brought in a big tray of breakfast, which included the best croissants that we’ve had so far during our vacation. We left around 9:15, after just a brief delay because we had to hunt down Arnaud so we could pay for the night. A bit weird, but also nice to see that around here, things seem to work well on the basis of trust.
It’s only a short drive to Guedelon, site of the construction of a new chateau using only authentic medieval techniques of the 13th century. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and it was raining steadily. The ground in the area has a lot of clay, so there was mud everywhere; sort of like Cob Cottage. Everything took on an ochre hue: the tools, the worker’s clothes, the building materials … but it somehow added to the feeling of authenticity. They didn’t just build castles when the sun was shining.
The building activities started in 1998 and they are now half-way along in the 25 year time line. The progress is quite remarkable: most of the castle is now 2 stories high above the central courtyard; and the foundations and moat are another 15 feet deeper. They are working closely with historians so everything is as true to the 13th century period as possible. Not just the architecture and materials, but the whole process: felling trees and processing them to beams, boards, rafters, and shingles, using just simple hand tools; digging clay and making roof and floor tiles, to be fired on site; quarrying stone and dressing it; forging nails, metal fittings, and tools; making wicker baskets of various sizes to transport building materials. The number of different skills required is astonishing.
It was nice to see a lot of enthusiasm around this project – both amongst the workers (most of whom are volunteers) as well as the many visitors. It would be fun to come back in 10 years and see the completed work. We would have liked to stay longer, but we still wanted to see Fontenay as well. So around noon we were back on the road.
Fontenay is not that far away, but the trip was a bit more difficult than expected. First a long detour; then we found ourselves stuck behind a big truck that we just couldn’t get past on the narrow winding roads. We were forced to go 60 kmh for what seemed like forever. Finally Wendy managed to get around and we had a free road ahead … only to come upon a police road block. They were stopping all traffic around Vezelay because the Prime Minister was visiting! Fortunately, the delay was only brief – but when things started rolling again, we were behind not one but three trucks. After Avallon we finally turned off onto smaller roads and had a more pleasant drive to Fontenay.
The Abbey is remarkable and definitely worth visiting. The church is not as large as Vezelay and Autun, but very striking in its simplicity; and together with the cloister and other buildings, really gives you a sense of the monastic life. Apart from that, the surrounding gardens and the setting in a secluded forest valley are very beautiful. An unexpected highlight was the grand forge: a huge 2-story building that is considered one of the first metal-working factories in Europe. It contained the most giant fireplaces we’d ever seen, along with a working reconstruction of one of the first hydraulic hammers (powered by water wheel).
After touring Fontenay, we were ready to find a place to spend the night. We drove on to Flavigny – since it’s a tourist attraction, we expected to find a lot of lodging there. Not so – in fact, the place seemed like a ghost town. Hardly a soul on the street, dark and shuttered windows, and no sign of the chambres d’hote we’d hoped for. This was at 6pm – it was very strange. We were very relieved when we finally discovered a chambre d’hote sign, and a nice lady opened up the door and informed us she had a room available.
For dinner we followed our host’s recommendation and drove the short distance over to Alise St.Reine. It’s a tiny little village half-way up the steep slopes. Like Flavigny it’s a very quiet place, in spite of its historical significance as the (purported) site of the decisive battle between Ceasar and the Gauls under Vercingetorix. It did boast 2 restaurants (compared to 1 in Flavigny) – the more upscale one did not at all cater to vegetarians, so we opted instead for a humble little inn offering very traditional local fare. It was definitely a very authentic experience, most of the guests being locals. After a bit of negotiation with the server, we had a very nice dinner accompanied by local wines.