I don’t know about you, but there are few things I enjoy more than packing a small picnic, jumping in the car and heading out to find a new place to explore. Especially when that place is as beautiful as the Port Royal des Champs Abbey! Situated in the Chevreuse National Park and far from the crowds of Paris, it was the perfect location to escape reality for a few hours…
A couple of months ago, at a loss for what to do, we decided to take a spontaneous road trip one sunny Saturday morning. We put on our walking shoes and headed towards Chevreuse National park, a large protected woodland area West of Paris. With no fixed plans and no idea where we’d end up, the road trip itself was a little bit of an adventure!
Soon after entering the protected area of the park, we spotted a sign that read ‘to the abbey’. And I’m so glad we did because what we stumbled on next you’d struggle to find in any guidebook. There were ruins, plenty of animals wandering around, an abbey and even some honey tasting. What’s more, there was hardly anyone else visiting, despite it being a balmy summer’s day in mid-August.
Port Royal des Champs Abbey
Literally ‘Port Royal of the fields‘, this abbey is situated exactly there: in the fields, amongst the trees! Surrounded by woodland and a little off from the main road, it’s easy to forget that you’re barely 40km west of Paris proper. After all, the only sound that could be heard was the humming of bees and the occasional bray of a donkey.
Although the Abbey was established as early as 1204, it only gained fame in the 17th Century. Founded in 1204, Mathilde de Garlande, the site established several schools. This occurred more or less contemporary to the lives of Heloise and Abelard and the first French renaissance. Around this time, the Catholic church was gaining more and more power. Although early signs of the French language were starting to appear, Latin was still the official language. In this way, Port Royal des Champs became one of the focal points of power in Chevreuse and its surrounding area. This all lasted a couple of centuries until the Abbey was badly affected by the wars of religion (in the 16th Century).
From the 16th to 17th centuries, the abbey was more relaxed in its disciplines and schooling. However, around the 17th Century, the abbess of the time decided to reform the abbey, bringing it once again to the forefront of French learning. This time, the schools at the abbey were taken more seriously and pupils of the school were trained to spread the newly proposed reforms throughout France. The standard of teaching was such that it gained notoriety throughout the country. The playwright Jean Racine was schooled here.
Jansenism was the reform proposed and the reason why the Abbey gained so much fame. Jansenism was a theology and Catholic teaching which became widespread in France during the 17th and 18th Centuries, largely in part thanks to schooling at Port Royal des Champs Abbey. The theology was largely based on the works of Cornelius Jansen and focused heavily on original sin and strict moral teachings.
Jansenism was rejected by many people higher up in the church, including the pope himself who claimed the teachings to be heretical (contrary to church teachings). In fact, the movement was abolished by Pope Clement XI in 1713. The notion that Jansenism spread heresy badly damaged the reputation of Port Abbey des Champs, to the extent that it was demolished in 1711. The nuns had been forcibly removed a couple of years prior, in 1709.
Today, little is left of the once great abbey. The ruins are still visible, as is one small chapel housing the remains of Mère Angélique’s tomb. The original dove house is also still visible (pictured below).
Local Produce: Honey
There’s nothing quite like tasting honey on the very spot where it’s been made! After exploring the grounds of the abbey and learning a little of the history, we were excited to discover that it was one of the few days of the year where honey produced on site is sold. I was surprised to discover the wide range of honey that just one school of bees can produce. You see, each season means different flowers, bringing varying flavours to the honey. In the end, I ended up purchasing a small pot of honey as a souvenir. Spoiler alert: it was delicious and definitely brightened up my morning toast for the following couple of months!
Can you spot the goat in the last picture? I love that the animals were all free to wander around the ruins of the abbey. Munching on the wild mint, and generally enjoying their surroundings…