On taking a tour to the ancient Abbey of Clairvaux in Champagne, it is necessary to hand over one’s passport or ID card, for this is also the site of France’s maximum security prison and makes for a highly unusual visit. Janine Marsh treads the thin line that divides good and bad at the 12th Century Abbey de Clairvaux…
My visit to the ancient abbey of Clairvaux in the Cote des Bar, Aube, Champagne is one of the strangest tours I’ve ever undertaken. Although the Abbey buildings are a major tourist attraction in the area, the grounds are also the site of France’s No. 1 maximum high security Prison where the infamous Carlos the Jackal was transferred to in 2006.
Take a tour here and you must hand over a passport or other form of identity, which definitely sets the scene for a highly uncommon outing.
The tour guide was emphatic that we must not take photographs of the look out towers or the high walls topped with barbed wire, nor of the grand prison entrance. Mobile phone use was prohibited and absolutely no videos.
It is impossible not to feel a moment of unease when you are told that on the other side of the wall is home to 150 of some of the worst criminals in France. I tentatively ask if there has ever been a break out. Yes, I’m told, but a long time ago, 1971. The prisoners killed two people but they were caught and punished. I gulp and in the spirit of good reporting, I take a deep breath and get on with it.
I’m glad I did because the Abbey buildings are astonishing. Established in 1115 by a Cistercian monk who later became St Bernard, with add-ons throughout ensuing centuries. It is incredible to stand inside the restored Lay Brothers refectory knowing that 900 years ago, monks once lived and worked here and yet it looks almost new.
Bizarrely the huge area on which a series of ancient buildings stand is run jointly by the Ministries of Justice and Culture it all goes back to Napoleon I. Considering the need for a place to keep prisoners under his reign he saw the huge, empty Abbey buildings, abandoned after the French Revolution when hundreds of religious buildings were closed, as an ideal place to put the many detainees of the day. His word was the law and the cold, draughty and uncomfortable rooms became holding pens for up to 3000 prisoners at a time. Conditions were certainly shocking, even more so when the tour guide takes you into the “improved” area of cells, a series of metal cages which look like they’ve been plonked in the middle of a huge, echoing chamber. Just about enough room to put a small mattress on the floor, a bucket, a tiny shelf for a bowl of food. Known as chicken coops, they were a place of abject, festering misery.
If you think they’re bad, wait until you see the former monk’s cells in which up to 30 men were held at a time. Spy holes in the walls, no facilities and hardly any light, here men were kept locked up for 23 hours a day or more.
Worse still, just when you think it can’t be, we discover that women and children as young as five years old were also banged up in this hell hole. Steal a loaf of bread 200 years ago in France because you’re starving and can’t help it, the will to survive is strong, and this is where you could end up. Truly appalling and somehow quite compellingly fascinating. Certainly Victor Hugo thought so when he visited the place in 1834. Years later, his memories were used to write the prison scenes in Les Miserables.
It is with relief that we discover that the cultural side of the business has been spending time and money restoring the bits that are under their auspices to their former glory. Long, plain white rooms with stunning vaulted ceilings where concerts are held to make the most of the wonderful acoustics.
When we emerge into the sunlight, collect our passports and file out of the gate we decide that the best way to celebrate our freedom is to head for Champagne Drappier. At the prestigious Champagne house is another of St Bernard’s creations, a vaulted 12th Century cellar where today the Champagne is stored and visitors can enjoy a tasting – a great way to bring some sparkle into the day.
Website with details of times, how to get there and tours: www.abbayedeclairvaux.com
Visit the town where Renoir lived close by
Find lots of information and details of what to see and where to stay in the area at: www.champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk