One of the (many) crazes in France these days is a return to simplicity, or history, and sometimes both come together. The beds won't be hard planks, the food won't be dry lentils and stale bread, in fact, you may even experience one of the best meals of your life, the loveliest of gardens will make your surroundings fragrant, unless of course, you visit in the dead of winter, and in that case, a white coat of crisp snow might welcome you.
The Fontevraud monastery is smack in the center of France, in the Loire region, some 195 miles south of Paris, a royal destination if there ever was one. Queens and kings favored the climate of the province, tempered by the Loire river, protected by soft hills, and smartly away enough from the madness of the Paris politics and the shenanigans of the Versailles court. In those days, the trip would take a few days by horse-drawn carriages, today the fast train will get out there in about one hour.
Almost 1,000 years old, and not a wrinkle in sight, the Fontevraud Royal Abbey is one of the largest surviving monastic property dating back to the Middle Ages. The vast 13-acre abbey was listed as a Historic Monument in 1840, and later as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, as part of the Loire Valley designated region.
A wing of the monastery is now a hotel with 54 rooms (not cells); the property has become a resting place for the selective tourists, a weekend destination for the Parisians, and a must-stop for foodies. With a Michelin-starred chef on site, the menu is heaven-like, just like the mattresses. Eco-friendly material are used throughout the monastery, with beautiful simple monastic furniture, nothing over-the-top design-ny - makes you want to empty your own apartment and start over, with nothing in it.
The Loire Valley (Vallée de la Loire) is a 180-mile stretch of the river of the same name, often referred to as the Garden of France, as it is home to many celebrated vineyards (Muscadet, Sancerre), orchards, and rich vegetable fields shadowing the river fertile banks. Over 300 hundred massive castles prove why the cherished location held the interest of many wealthy landowners - for the most part, the châteaux have been in the same family for centuries and are kept in pristine condition by succession of heirs. Some have turned the properties into museums; almost all of them are open to the public for visits, allowing a glimpse inside the incredibly privileged lives of French aristocrats.
When the kings of France started to build their second (or third) residence in the valley, the entire followers of the royal court had to build nearby as well, in order to stay close to the queens and kings, and their favors. From the middle ages to the last king on the throne, thousands of people commuted between either Paris or Versailles, and the valley, for better weather or for entertainment.
Many of the castles had enormous churches attached to the walls of the royal quarters, because most of the king builders were religious, and would attend mass everyday, albeit without wishing to mingle with the villagers at their more modest churches. Wouldn't want to be seen with their people.
Such a monastery is the Fontevraud. And while you may not feel like a queen or king, you will never have such a peaceful and original experience anywhere in the US. The modern life is here too, with the latest connections in each room of the hotel - even an iPad given at checking, so guests can visualize the services offered. Guided visits of the property explain who the royals were and the history of the stones.
INFO: Abbaye de Frontevraud, France 49590. Tel.: 011-33-92-4151-7352; from 125 Euros per night; menus form 20 to 95 Euros, plus à la carte choices; the website has a sleuth of information, including a video of the painting that hangs in the castle, http://www.fontevraud.fr/