Fontenay Abbey is a Cistercian jewel in the crown of northern Burgundy, in a remarkable state of preservation due to its remote valley setting. It has UNESCO World Heritage status and is often used as a location for films and concerts.
Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard and originally a dependant of Clairvaux Abbey, Fontenay flourished up to the 16th century, before royal interference in the abbey’s affairs and the Wars of Religion led to its decline. The abbey became public property during the French Revolution and was sold to the Montgolfier family who used it as a paper mill. In 1906 Édouard Aynard, a son-in-law of the family, repurchased it in order to restore it. His descendants opened it to the public as a living museum of 12th-century Cistercian monasticism.
The abbey church has all the sober harmony of Cistercian architecture, accurately reflecting monastic life. Be sure to walk around the Romanesque cloisters, one of very few to survive intact, and take in the 15th-century roof structure of the monks’ dormitory, which looks like an upturned ship’s hull. The forge by the river is one of Europe’s earliest ironworks – you can see its hammer at work (just as it was in the 13th century) on a tour of the abbey.