The Abbaye aux Dames

I write this from my cell in the Abbaye aux Dames, an 11th century convent now serving as a hotel and venue for concerts and artist residencies. I’m listening to a female choir, either in rehearsal or in concert. The acoustics are such that their voices fill the entire complex. In fact, sound carries so clearly here that I was compelled to carry my luggage rather than rolling it down the long, vaulted stone hallway to my room when I arrived, because the noise of my rolling bag echoed and felt disruptive to the contemplative air that this place exudes.

Abbey blueprint
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

Earlier this afternoon I unlocked the door and walked into a cell that is austere and unexpectedly claustrophobic. It’s one of about 50 nun’s cells that have been converted into simple rooms with whitewashed stone walls, vaulted ceilings and waxed wooden floors. There’s no TV, clock, sink, toilet, or shower; just a pair of narrow beds, a chair and a writing desk, and towels and bathrobes to use at the facilities down the hall. It smells a little like wet brick in spite of the absence of recent rain. The wooden door is very heavy and shuts with a distinctive thud: I learned at an abbey I lodged in in Genoa that this construction detail was how the abbess knew when nuns were coming and going. Some things seem to be universal…

Abbey hallway
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

At the registration desk, I asked about the large, pinecone-shaped structure outside, and learn that it encases a carousel that they call Musicaventure, where the riders become musicians and improvise music on digital harps, drums and piano during a 3 euro,10 minute ride. I would see the next day that the electronics are wrapped in wicker structures, and after watching a few rotations, realized that the largest structure was a phoenix.

A phoenix
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

History of the Abbey and the Notre Dame Church

The abbey was founded by Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou and his wife, Agnes de Bourgogne in 1047, the same year as the Notre Dame church that is part of this complex. The abbey lays on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago-de-Compostella, where pilgrims would stop to pray at the relics of Saint Eutrope, who is buried in a crypt below his cathedral in Saintes. Eleanor of Aquitaine lived in this abbey in 1182 between her divorce from Louis VI, King of France and her marriage to Henry II, King of England. She helped to support the abbey through largesse in her role as Duchess of Aquitaine and granted the city of Saintes its first general charter. After fearing that I had failed in my mission to follow in any of Eleanor’s footsteps in France, I’m now sleeping and supping in the very place that she had once called home.

Abbey archway
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The abbey was sacked in 1326 over a feud of ownership between England and France, and again in 1568 by the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. By the 17th century it was the second largest abbey in France after that of Fontevraud, before being ravaged by fire in 1608 and again 40 years later. Reconstruction began in 1650, which is when many of the current buildings date to. The abbey became a prison during the French Revolution, and a military barracks from 1808 to 1924 when it was purchased by the city. When German troops swept through in 1940, the abbey became a transit camp for French prisoners of war.

Another exterior shot
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

It was restored once again during the 1970s-80s to host the Saintes Early Music Festival, which is now known as the Musical Academies. The Jeune Orchestre de l’Abbaye (JOA – the abbey’s youth orchestra) offers professional training to young musicians finishing their studies or embarking on their careers to interpret classical and romantic pieces using period instruments.

The Abbaye aux Dames is now considered the cultural center of Saintes. Learn more about this historic site and their musical festival at https://www.abbayeauxdames.org

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”

You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.