France: Nancy, Fontenay Abbey, Vézelay, and Provins

A few months ago, we flew to France to visit a few places of interest. Granted, there is much to see all over France, as it is quite a beautiful country. But, as is normally the case, we could not see everything as there is just too much to do and see and so little time in which to see and do it all in. But, when deciding what to see on a journey, especially if you know you’ll make multiple visits to a country, sometimes it is best to tackle planning a trip by focusing on just a section of that country at a time.

In our case, we have been to France quite a few times now. But, on this occasion, we decided to rent a car and drive through the north-east section of France, starting in Nancy, driving south towards Fontenay Abbey and Vézelay, before going back north to end our journey in Provins.

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Gate to Place Stanislaus, Nancy

You might wonder how we decide where to go and what to see on our trips. Often, we do look to see what UNESCO sites are in the area we are visiting. Sites are put on the UNESCO lists because they meet at least one of their ten selection criteria as well as have, according to their site, “outstanding universal value”.  To learn more about UNESCO and see more about their selection criteria, you can visit the UNESCO site.

When sites make it on the list, there tends to be something special and unique about those places making them historically or culturally important. When we, therefore, see that these sites are in the vicinity of where we are travelling, we try to visit. We have yet to be disappointed by visiting one of these sites. However, having said this, there are many other impressive sights in the world that have not made it onto this list, which are still very much worth visiting, such as our recent visit to the Bagan valley with thousands of stupas in Myanmar. You can read more about this in my recent article called Myanmar (Burma): Land of the Golden Pagodas.

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Place Stanislaus, Nancy

Starting off in Nancy, we walked through the lovely town until we reached the Place Stanislaus. Walking past the golden, gilded gates, I was met with a gorgeous and overwhelming view of the great square! The square, built by the Duke of Lorraine, was his vision for a more modern city. But, aside from this grand square, he also had two more built, named the Place de la Carrier and Place d’ Alliance.

 

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Fountain at Place Stanislaus, Nancy

All the buildings erected by the duke surrounding the Place Stanislaus were built in a Baroque style and the attention to detail in the decorations of the building, as well as the surrounding gates and fountains all in Baroque style are truly beautiful. As I stood in the vast, open plaza, I found the uniformity of all the surrounding buildings to be quite impressive. And, with as many people as we saw scattered throughout the plaza, it was clear that this was a popular area. There were also some beautiful fountains that graced corners of the plaza.

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Fountain at Place Stanislaus, Nancy

My daughter, who loves fountains, immediately ran to one of them to see it up close. The fountains, whose statues were impressive, were also graced with golden accents throughout, highlighting them as features of the plaza.

 

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Fair in Nancy

After walking around and past the other squares, we came upon a street fair. We have come across various street fairs before on different travels, and it is always nice to take a break and enjoy a bit of fun. And, if you have children, you know that once a child sees the splendor of a fair, there is no other recourse but to let your child go on some rides. So, my husband and daughter got to enjoy a ride on the big Ferris wheel, while she and I screamed a bit on a quick ride on a roller coaster afterwards. But, she may have had the most fun when she got to enjoy jumping to her heart’s content at very high heights out on a trampoline on her own.

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Abbey de Fontenay

After Nancy, we continued driving on to the Cistercian Abbey de Fontenay. There were very few people there when we arrived, so we luckily enjoyed a quiet visit. Fontenay Abbey was founded by the french Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118. Situated in the french Burgundy region, this abbey is said to be the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world. It had also been used as a royal abbey.

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The monks who resided there left the abbey after the French Revolution and it was then used industrially, having been turned into a paper mill. One of the more interesting things to be seen there, aside from the lovely cloister halls, was a hydraulic hammer (an early mechanical machine), ingeniously powered by a water wheel, which the monks used to refine metal coming from the furnaces. Though we only visited a short while, it was certainly worth the stop!

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Vézelay Cathedral

After this, we drove on to reach our next destination to see another interesting abbey, which also had a tie to Saint Bernard since in 1146 he preached the Second Crusade there. This time is was the Benedictine abbey in Vézelay that we visited, which also boasts having had other illustrious historical visitors there such as Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip II Augustus. Moreover, the monastic church there is an important place of pilgrimage as it holds relics of St. Mary Magdalene.

Upon arriving, we had to park at the bottom of a hill, as the abbey was located at the top of the hill and cars were not allowed up, since the main road was a walkway for pedestrians. So, on that hot day, after we had parked our car, we trekked up the road as we made our way to the sight we had come to see:

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Tree in Vézelay

the monastic church at the top of the hill. I enjoyed the walk, and I could almost feel the age of the town surrounding me as we slowly made our way up surrounded by old buildings. As we walked up, I spotted a long, beautiful green vine that clung to the side of a long wall which led to a tree adorned with many beautiful purple flowers. I stopped there a moment to enjoy the colorful blossoms on tree before continuing on my way.

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Vézelay Cathedral

When we came upon the church, though it looked lovely from outside, what I loved the most was the structure of the many archways inside the church, made even more beautiful by its contrasting colored brickwork that really highlight the archways and make the church come to life.

I love walking around cathedrals, especially ones that are so beautifully designed with arches and columns. When walking within a cathedral, it is also good to see if there is a section below ground where you might also be allowed to visit, as often

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St. Etienne Cathedral, Bourges 

underground is where hidden chapels, crypts or spaces that hold interesting artifacts can be found. In this case, when I walked downstairs, that is where the relics of  St. Mary Magdalene were displayed.

After Vézelay, we drove on to our hotel for the night in Bourges. In the morning, before we left the area, we stopped to see the Cathedral of St. Etienne of Bourges. A truly beautiful sight from

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Inside St. Etienne Cathedral, Bourges

both outside and within, this very large cathedral is Gothic in style. Its impressive architecture, it’s beautiful ceiling and it’s stained-glass windows were all quite striking. Upon walking in, my eyes were quickly drawn to the multi-arched ceiling

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Inside St. Etienne Cathedral

and the very large columns. The symmetry of the room was quite pleasing and I enjoyed just standing there for a while admiring the general splendor of the room.

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Stained glass window St. Etienne Cathedral

There are times when we visit a church during our travels at just the right time of day to see the very lovely sight of the sun shining through the stained-glass windows of the church and reflecting its bright colors onto the floor or wall of the church.

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Colors reflected onto pillar, St. Etienne Cathedral, Bourges

This time I was lucky enough to see this soothing sight as the sun reflected colors onto one of the great pillars of the church. I am not quite sure why, but this sight always tends to calm me and I enjoy taking a moment to simply enjoy it. In a way, it makes me feel that no matter what may be happening in the world at that moment, I feel spiritually refreshed, as if it was God’s spirit shining through and being reflected through those bright colors onto the church.

After that moment of contemplation, we left Bourges and continued towards Provins. We made, however, a temporary deviation by driving to Fontainebleau to take a quick look

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Château de Fontainebleau

at the Château de Fontainebleau, which served as a royal medieval hunting lodge and is located by the Fontainebleau Forest. Though we were strapped for time and couldn’t go inside the Château, we did walk the grounds outside as well as some of the gardens beside it. It was an impressive building from the outside and imagine it must be even more impressively decorated from within. But, as we wanted to spend more time at our final destination, we continued on.

Our last stop on our trip was Provins, the Town of Medieval Fairs, in the Champagne region. As it is a walled medieval town, we had to walk in through a gate to enter the town. We have visited fortified towns before on various occasions in other countries and we have always enjoyed them. Specifically built to host medieval fairs and other activities, this is a well-preserved example of a medieval town that helped link Northern Europe to the Mediterranean via its international trading fairs.

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Fortified Wall of Provins

As we walked through the streets and took in our surroundings, it felt quintessentially French and medieval to me, especially the closer we got to the town center square. The town square was open and surrounded by lovely old buildings, some with visible wooden beams throughout, and we sat for a few moments enjoying the surroundings.

 

From the square, we could see two impressive structures: the Caesar Tower and Saint Quiriace Collegiate Church. The church, built in the 12th century, was never finished as the town could not afford to complete it. But, as I walked inside, it was still lovely and spacious, even though it was plainer than many other churches we’ve visited before.

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After Provins, we drove to the airport and dropped off our rental car before flying back home. Aside from all the lovely sights we got to visit during this trip to France, I also greatly enjoyed the delicious french food we ate. Of course, I enjoyed the tasty french desserts the most. We will undoubtedly travel back to France again in the future, as there is still much to see and do there!

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