abbaye de valmagne

IMG_2611The magnificent Abbaye de Valmagne in Montagnac, founded in 1139, is one of the most well-preserved in France. Unusual in that though it was home to just a small handful of monks, the church and accompanying cloister are massive, having been inspired by the great cathedrals of Northern France. As with all good ruins it went from prominence to obscurity in just a few short centuries. Eventually it was confiscated by the government and sold into private hands. Having been looted and abandoned the empty church made the perfect 18th century wine cellar for a Mr. Granier-Joyeuse. Ironically it was the wine that ultimately saved the structure, providing support to the interior walls until proper buttresses could be added to the exterior. To this day the abbey remains in private hands, focusing its efforts on organic gardening and in a nod to monks, brewing small batch beer.

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keeping watch

Inside the central door of Iona Abbey and to the immediate left is a tiny room tucked into the corner. A discreet flight of stone steps leads up to what is in essence a cubbyhole containing nothing but a single squat chair which looks barely suitable for even a child. So low is the lintel, I had to enter the room on my belly. It has a window like an archers slit allowing whomever is inside to see not only the main entrance but also the nearby nunnery and  in the distance, the island’s main dock. I learned that this was intentional, of course: at the height of Iona’s ecclesiastic importance the room was manned by a sentinel around the clock, so that anyone seeking out the abbey would be sure to be greeted. As I crawled out feet first I noticed a reminder carved into the small door: stand fast.

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full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Now an ecumenical church, Iona Abbey, is of particular historical and religious interest to pilgrims and visitors. For one, it’s the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages in Western Scotland. Though modest in scale compared to medieval abbeys elsewhere in Europe, it has a wealth of fine architectural detail, and monuments of many periods: in front of the Abbey stands the 9th century St Martin’s Cross, one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in Britain; the ancient burial ground, called the Rèilig Odhrain, contains the 12th century chapel of St. Odhrán and a number of medieval grave monuments. The abbey graveyard holds the final resting place of kings from Ireland, Norway and France, as well as a number of early Scottish Kings, including Malcolm, Duncan, and Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, better known as MacBeth.

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