Fontfroide is a former Cistercian monastery located 9 miles (15 km) southwest of Narbonne. From Le Fort Pouzols-Minervois the 18 mile (29 km) journey takes around half an hour. Fontfroide Abbey was founded in 1093 by Benedictine monks, who were given land by the Viscount of Narbonne. It is named after a nearby spring, the Fons Frigidus (Fountain). Fontfroide grew rapidly after it joined the Cistercian order in 1145, who wanted a return to the purity of the rules of St Benedict. They advocated poverty, austerity and simple architecture.
Fontfroide became one of the wealthiest abbeys in Europe, owning more than 20,000 hectares of land. The abbey played a key role in the Pope’s fight against a new form of Christianity that became popular in the Languedoc-Roussillon region: Catharism.
The assassination of the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau, a monk at Fontfroide, led to a bloody crusade against the Cathars. In 1334 Jacques Fournier, a former abbot of Fontfroide, was elected as Pope Benedict XII. He later built the Papal Palace in Avignon.
Fontfroide stopped being a monastery in 1901. In 1908 it was bought and restored by the painter Gustave Fayet and his wife Madeleine, visionary art collectors who owned and commissioned works by Gauguin (nearly 100 works!), Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Odilon Redon.
Fontfroide Abbey regularly hosts exhibitions, concerts and plant fairs and is renowned for its gardens. Information on all events is available on the website www.fontfroide.com.
Fontfroide is close to Narbonne, with its charming setting along the Canal de la Robine. It has a very lively indoor food market (open until lunchtime).
Alternatively, the African Reserve at Sigean with its lions and other exotic animals are very close. Visitors drive around the safari park for an hour or so before continuing their visit on foot. The nearby coastal resort of Gruissan is very much worth a visit too and has excellent bars and restaurants.