We first read of the Royaumont Abbey in the book by Annabel Simms entitled, "An Hour From Paris". The abbey was originally founded in the 13th century by King Louis IX and served as a Cistercian abbey until it was declared national property during the French Revolution and eventually sold. After going through a few different incarnations, it returned to its original purpose as an abbey in the 19th century. In the early 20th century it was sold to private owners. During World War I it served as a hospital. In the 1930s the owners turned the abbey into a residence for artists to work and rest. In 1964 the Royaumont Abbey Foundation was established, and since then the estate has served as an important center for the arts.
It was our good fortune that the Royaumont Festival was taking place through October 3. This is a major music and dance festival with performances by the artists in residence. The concert scheduled for Saturday evening was by a small baroque string ensemble, Le Consort, along with soprano and bass soloists. The abbey has an offering called A Weekend at the Abbey, which includes dinner, a room in the abbey, and breakfast. Since our concert wouldn't let out until close to 11 p.m., we decided to make a weekend of it.
Getting there from Paris involved taking the Metro from the Bastille Metro station to the large Gare du Nord train station, where we caught a regional train (RER H), taking it to the terminus at Luzarches. A shuttle bus picked us up there for the 15 minute ride to the abbey. In her book, Simms wrote of a 4.5km walk to the abbey from an earlier train stop, but since it was raining hard all weekend, we are happy that we took the shuttle bus.
A three-course meal started off our weekend. We were seated in a beautiful ancient room with a vaulted ceiling. The first course was a wonderful roasted chestnut & mushroom soup, with chestnuts coming from the many chestnut trees on the grounds of the estate. The main course was fish and the dessert was a baked pear tartlet. This was a fixed menu, so you had to be willing to eat what the chef had prepared, which we definitely were. Everything was delicious.
After dinner we made our way to the Monk's Refectory for the concert. The photo above is from a rehearsal the next day being held in this space. The hall has high vaulted ceilings and lively acoustics. The pillars made finding a seat with good sight lines a bit tricky, but eventually we found seats that provided us an unobstructed view of all the performers.
The title of the concert was D'un coeur charmé, which translates to "of a charmed heart". The pieces performed were by 18th century French baroque composers–Francoeur, de Montgaultier, Bernier, Travenol, and Lefebvre. Neither of us had heard of any of these composers. Everything was sung in French, of course, but the language of love is universal, so we could figure out just when someone was being jilted or when they had just fallen head over heals in love. The soprano soloist was Gwendoline Blondeel and the bass soloist was Edwin Fardini. Along with the fabulous string ensemble, Le Consort, I'd have to say the performances were world class, from top to bottom. When you're only paying 20 Euros for tickets, you don't go in with sky-high expectations. But from the moment the first chord was struck, we knew we'd hit solid gold. The performers looked all of 25 years old, but they played and sang well beyond their years.
Our favorite place to relax at Royaumont was the cosy nooks in the cloister hallway with its vaulted ceilings. It was a rainy and blustery weekend, but in our little hideout we were as comfy as could be. The French probably figured we were crazy for sitting in such cold conditions. To us Minnesotans, it was simply perfect. We had no competition for spots.
Sunday morning, after our breakfast, we ventured out for a walk, but soon were drawn to the ethereal sounds of voices coming from the Monk's Refectory, the site of the previous night's concert. There was a rehearsal in progress of a chorale from the Normandy region. Priscilla asked about and was able to gain us entrance to the hall for five minutes to listen to the rehearsal. The sounds of the singing in that hall were absolutely gorgeous.
Although it was still raining, we decided to get out to walk the grounds and check out the gardens. The photographer in me was actually happy to be out shooting on a rainy day. Priscilla was in her element. The gardens are working gardens, not show gardens. That is exactly the type of garden we both appreciate. Priscilla especially fell in love with the marvelous fig tree in the garden of nine squares, with its beautiful lattice-work raised beds.
Our weekend at the Royaumont Abbey is a perfect example of the type of travel experience we love...something off the beaten path and distinctly unique and memorable. We're pretty sure we were the only Americans at the abbey that weekend. It was evident that the Royaumont Abbey is largely enjoyed by the French.
The afterglow from our Weekend at the Abbey has left us with wonderfully warm feelings about the experience. This was definitely one of those "pinch yourself to see if it's real" type of experiences. We will definitely be back at the Royaumont Abbey.