Today, a quick post for a quick outing. About 45 minutes to the southeast of us, just inside the Pays de la Loire, sits the old Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Clairmont. It’s not too far from the city of Laval, which we have also visited (see our previous post about Laval here: A Light Late Lunch in Laval). It’s not the easiest place to find. Especially if you are coming from the less well-travelled direction. Google Maps got us lost down an old dirt track. But we were determined to find the abbey so we hit the main road between Laval and Ernée where we had seen a historical marker sign for the site. From there it was fairly simple. There were yet more signs leading us down some pleasant country lanes and, finally, down a graveled drive to the abbey itself. Piece of cake!
We had been under the impression that this was a working abbey. Boy, were we wrong! The only work going on at Clairmont now is the work to save it from crumbling into the ground. And even that seems to be intermittent at best. Still, it is an evocative place and there is much to see. As we exited our car were greeted by a couple of volunteers who were on their way out. They cheerily directed us to the billetterie (ticket office). Much more grand than it sounds – especially in French – the ticket office consisted of a small, room with limewashed walls storing, amongst a seemingly random collection of household items and old furniture, an old gentleman with a table. He greeted us with a reserve customarily extended to invitees of a tax audit. The day was chilly, and so was monsieur.
After taking our payment for the nominal entrance fee, the man launched into a fifteen-minute recitation on the history of the abbey. Despite my instinct to eject myself from this uncomfortable situation, the old man’s well-rehearsed speech was interesting. I held fast. At one point during his spiel, Cherie attempted to improve the connection with monsieur by injecting that we were familiar with a location he had just spoken about. But he was having none of it. Ignoring her attempt at warmth, he simply continued on, displaying admirable breath control for someone of his age. At length, he came to the end of his presentation, handed us an informative pamphlet and directed us out of his room toward the rest of the abbey grounds. We might well have been his only visitors that day. I think he had things to do.
L’Abbaye de Clairmont was founded in 1142. Established by monks of the Cistercian order, the monastery was initiated at the behest of the baron of Laval so that he and other lords of the region might have a sacred place of burial secured by the daily prayers of its inmates. At its height, Clairmont was home to 40 monks and 60 lay brothers, active in their rigorous religious devotions. It was a thriving and wealthy abbey until decline set in toward the end of the 17th century. By 1791, the last few monks had left. The abbey became a working farm, with even the church converted into agricultural use to store hay, grain, carts and tools. It remained a farm until 1952. But by then the buildings had fallen into ruin. Two friends, beguiled by the history and romance of its medieval heritage, purchased the entire site and initiated a program of restoration which continues up to today.
From what we could discern, most of the monastic building are from the 12th century, except for a large dormitory which was added in the 17th century. Much of the complex remains in a partially- or fully-ruined state, though much work has clearly been done to shore up and stabilize the various historic structures. Despite this, there is definitely a rough beauty to this place, highly evocative of its rich and interesting history. The architecture is simple, functional and solid. But it is also, in its own way, graceful, elegant in that early Cistercian style of design which pleasingly weds form and purpose to a sense of the divine.
We spent a good hour wandering around the monastic buildings, letting our imaginations mingle with the tranquil atmosphere, interrupted only by the rustle of wind in the trees and an occasional plea from the small black sheep which meandered furtively within and without the cloister. We truly had the place to ourselves. In spite of its ruinous state, there is much to see. And it is not difficult to gain a picture of how it must have once looked.
On our way back to the car, another volunteer appeared and offered to show us into what we think was the old chapter house. It now serves as a repository for any remaining stone or wood carvings, decorative tiles, and other ephemera from the time of the active monastery. There are just enough items in here to hint at the former glory of the place. It must have been really something. We were also shown an old chapel room. Small, dark, with a vaulted ceiling, it is little more than a cave. But it still, apparently, serves as a place of occasional worship. This volunteer was very warm and inviting and we ended up chatting with her for sometime in the afternoon sun in the carpark. At length, we said our goodbyes and she returned to her work.
Although it wasn’t quite what we thought it would be, we enjoyed our visit to Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Clairmont. It tugs at our souls to see such a once-magnificent monument reduced to a sad ruin. But seeing the continued efforts of volunteers to restore it gives us hope. It’s perhaps impossible to save everything – there is so much around here to save – but it is good to see that people do care. Saving some of this remarkable cultural heritage is surely far better than allowing it all to disappear. What a sad and empty world it would be without these beautiful and important reminders of our past.
It is a marvel to see these huge undertakings that once were! How did they do it? Amazing
Beautiful site. I hope the restoration continues.