Friday, 1 January 2016

Mature Traveller's Hotel of the Year

Fontevraud Abbey
To say that Fontevraud l’Hotel is a grand place to stay is something of an understatement. It is also highly innovative, environmentally friendly - and its kitchen produced what was, by a fair distance, the finest restaurant meal I ate in 2015.
The hotel
The 54 room hotel, which opened in 2014, sprang from the sensitive conversion of Saint Lazare Priory, part of the Fontevraud Abbey complex near Saumur in the Loire. Which once housed lepers. The temperature was over 30C when we arrived, leaving our car discreetly hidden a couple of hundred metres from check in. They would have sent transport but we opted to toil up the path to the hotel entrance, where we were compensated with cold face towels. On arrival guests are handed mini iPads, which can be used – among other functions - to make free local and international calls and research the history of the Abbey, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our bedroom’s design was minimalist but efficient and we were delighted by the discovery of locally made honey shower soap in a little sisal pouch so it could be used as a skin scrub, A note encouraged us to take it with us when we left. While the original fabric of the priory has been left more or less intact, this has not prevented the installation of modern technology. Before dinner we drank aperitifs in the bar with a touch screen on the table between us on which we could further explore the rich history of the abbey and those associated with it. Founded in 1101, it was unusual in that it incorporated priories for men and women, overseen by a succession of Abbesses. Later that century it became a necropolis for the Plantagenets. After the French Revolution Napoleon had it converted to a notoriously tough prison. During the Second World War its inmates included members of the Resistance. Ten were executed there. The prison didn’t close until 1963. Dinner was far removed from the fare served to religious ascetics, jailbirds or victims of the Nazis.
The Cloister resraurant
The restaurant runs around the priory cloister. Diners sit looking out though its arches. We chose the €58 menu opting to pay the €83 that covered a glass of wine with each course. It was outstanding. Dishes included herb crusted pollock with grape, onion and a beurre blanc sauce, a “trou Normande” of radish sorbet with apple black pepper and a little honey, to cleanse the palate between courses – and a wonderful dessert of crème brûlée, citrus sorbet, cheesecake and black olives. Replete – and glowing with the enjoyment of it – we strolled out into the warm, clinging night to see the royal tombs in the Romanesque Abbey church, most famously those of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son, Richard Lionheart. To stand by their effigies, that of the unusually literate Eleanor holding a book, the chalk white columns of the church soaring around us, alone after the Abbey’s daytime tourists had left, was an extraordinary experience.
Breakfast in the Cloister

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