L’Abbaye de Beaulieu – A Hidden Gem

Abbaye de Beaulieu - Main Buildings

Today, our walking group chose a route that took in the Abbaye de Beaulieu, a magnificent Cistercian abbey that sits in splendid isolation alongside the River Seye. We walked along paths in woods carpeted with snowdrops behind the abbey and negotiated slippery wooden and stone footbridges over the rushing brook.

A Chequered History

Looking at this well-preserved monument, it’s hard to believe that it was in such a poor condition in 1860 that it was in danger of demolition. It was only through the intervention of Prosper Mérimée – Inspector of Public Monuments and novelist – that the buildings were saved for posterity.

The Bishop of Rodez founded the abbey, probably in 1144, and it housed a dozen monks to start with. It’s not clear why they chose this particular spot, whose name derives from bellus locus in Latin or Belloc in Occitan. However, an old anecdote says that the chosen monks set off from Clairvaux to found the abbey in the Rouergue, bearing their only treasure, a wooden cross. After a long and tiring journey they stopped at a savage but beautiful place which suited their need for solitude.

Abbatiale

 

The abbey has had a chequered history. It prospered initially but was partially destroyed during the Albigensian Crusade and rebuilt in 1272. It sustained further damage during the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion. Lax discipline in the late 16th century also contributed to its decline. By the Revolution, only four monks lived there and the place was sold in 1791 to a family from Saint-Antonin. During the 19th century the place became a farm and there was a cowshed in the choir of the church.

Saved for Posterity

Abbatiale - Front Elevation

Although the abbey became an Historic Monument in 1875 it remained in a terrible state until 1959 when two art-lovers bought it and restored it. This was a labour of love. We have seen photographs of the church at that time, literally metres deep in ancient cow muck, hardened to the consistency of concrete, which was allowed to accumulate on top of the ancient stone slabs.

Now a Monument Historique again, the abbey is a centre of contemporary art. Exhibitions are held in the church, whose majestic simplicity sets off the sometimes riotous colours and surreal shapes of the art. We have been to concerts and vernissages (exhibition previews) in the church, followed by repas champêtres or apéros in the cloistered courtyard. The abbey provides a wonderful setting for these events.

Sculpture in the Grounds

The other buildings have been restored and rearranged over the centuries. The monks’ former dormitories are now an exhibition hall. Their vivier (fishpond) is still there. At one time it would have been full of carp. Unfortunately, during the past decade green algae has invaded it, and despite several attempts to drain and clean the pond, it always comes back. It’s probably due to nitrates leaching into the stream that feeds it and rises in the hills above the abbey.

Picturesque Pigeonnier

Pigeonnier at Dreuilhe

From Beaulieu we followed the course of the Seye before turning uphill again towards Lardaillé, the small hamlet from which we had started. We took a detour through an even smaller hamlet, Dreuilhe, where we saw this pigeonnier (dovecot). Most pigeonniers in this area are square, but this one is round and could well have been part of the abbey’s possessions during its halcyon days.

 

 

 

 

Further reading: Les Abbayes de Midi-Pyrénées, Jacques Dubourg, Editions Alan Sutton, 2009.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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8 Responses to L’Abbaye de Beaulieu – A Hidden Gem

  1. Hi Vanessa, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve nominated you for a Liebster Blog award because I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts. It’s for blogs of less than 200 followers which deserve a wider audience. If you’d like to accept it copy the image off my blog and then, if you want to, chose another five serving recipients.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Hi Victoria, that’s very kind of you, thank you. I’d like to think my blog deserves a wider audience but I recognise that my stuff doesn’t appeal to everyone. I’m very pleased to accept, though, and now have the difficult task of choosing five other deserving recipients.

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  2. Steph says:

    How wicked that the place was allowed to nearly fall down. And to think there were cows in the choir! I hope the two people who bought it had an easier time of things than the Parisian who single handedly restored Sarzay Castle, near us. The authorities seemed to do everything in their power to be obstructive and he ended up with a criminal record. We should be grateful to anyone who is prepared to take on a restoration project on these sorts of scale and rescue national treasures from being lost.

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    • nessafrance says:

      The people who restored it gave the place to the State about 30 years ago but the woman, who is now quite elderly, still has the right to live there (the man died some time ago I think). Of course, the State is now trying to divest itself of as many historic monuments as it can, so I don’t know what will happen to Beaulieu ultimately. Let’s hope it never goes back to its dilapidated state.

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  3. Evelyn says:

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful place. I’m definitely making a visit when it opens in April!

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    • nessafrance says:

      It’s well worth a visit. Choose a sunny day when the place is shown to best advantage. April is a good time, before the summer crowds get there.

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  4. Deborah says:

    Love going on walks with you, Vanessa! Always to beautiful places and with a curiosity you manage to both pique and answer in fine description. Great post.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Deborah. I find you see so much more on foot or by bike. I always feel it’s too intrusive to drive into little hamlets to look at things, whereas it’s perfectly permissible if you are walking.

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