It is often believed that travelling in foreign and seemingly exotic lands is the only proper way to travel. Climbing the Machu Picchu or watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat are exactly what every traveler is looking for, some sort of Holy Grail that must be achieved once in a lifetime. Those are incredible experiences for sure, but sometimes the most inspirational of places are only a short drive away.
France is a name that evokes world-famous gastronomy, stylish castles and most of all, Paris and its Eiffel Tower. Although the capital has seen a sharp decrease in the number of its visitors over the past few months, it is still one of the most iconic cities in the world. But it would be unfair to reduce France to its tourist spots and forget the rest of the country, which is home to countless other wonders that might not find their way within guidebooks but that say more about the heart of the country than any crowded sightseeing spot.
Trois-Fontaines-l’Abbaye is one of those wonders, if not the epitome of all of them for me, the dramatic beauty of its ruins akin to a romantic painting.
The dark massive silhouette of its ancient abbey always seems to cast a strange spell on me. Its stone walls covered in rampant leaves look as reassuring as they are dreadful, threatening to fall apart at any moment. They are reassuring because, as a child, I knew that this 12th-century old treasure would never betray me: I could leave to the other edge of the globe and everything could change drastically all around me but it would remain firmly rooted as it had always been for hundreds of years, a heartening pillar that could not tremble. One day, it did tremble though, and part of its roof collapsed, taking down my childhood memories along with it, but the magic of the place did not change.
Built in 1118 as a Cistercian abbey, Trois-Fontaines once was a thriving spiritual center and the vastness of the park surrounding it is living testimony of this ancient and rather forgotten time of earls, saints and monks. The park itself feels both majestic and utterly pastoral, where intricately carved statues watch over an alluring stone ornamental pool while befriending a flock of indolent cows on their right. It is this same contrast that gives the impression to wander into a deep forest at times before emerging to a bucolic view of well-maintained lawn and old inviting grey stone benches calling for idleness and contemplation.
Quiet fountains are scattered in Trois-Fontaines – that literally means Three Fountains – like young, timid members of the family to a river whose water tirelessly escapes from the boundaries of the park, rolling furiously at times on both sides of a small peninsula where I used to stop with my family and play with makeshift Champagne or wine cork boats, sending them towards the unknown. The next step, a short walk away from this secluded shelter of raging water and childish attempts at boat sailing, is no less than the ruins of the abbey itself that materialize behind a range of venerable old trees and a stone wayside cross that has seen better days.
Protected by the trees and by a nearby hill usually covered in cracking leaves that make the climbing all the more exciting, the abbey and its shadow somehow look like a sunken ship, stranded somewhere far from civilization, slowly devoured by time’s voracious appetite that eats it bit by bit as the movement of water would destroy a shipwreck. But despite the gaping holes on both its sides, despite the bad weed and the moss growing on its once brown walls turned coral, Trois-Fontaines still exudes dignity.
I often wonder what it is that I find so incredibly captivating about Trois-Fontaines, the exact reason why I always feel so mesmerized and appeased every time I step inside the park.
Is it because of the spirituality that keeps on pervading the atmosphere, turning an august, though rather decrepit, abbey into what I see as my own personal sanctuary? Is it the enticing charm of an untouched remnant of the past lost in an equally untouched countryside? Perhaps it is also the sense of mystery that inhabits the place, from the ghostly aura of its almost gothic ruins to the obscurely enigmatic cellar on its side that challenged me as a child to face its strong smell of moisture and its lack of light and explore its never-ending flight of stairs that seemed to lead to a place beyond reality.
Exiting the premises reluctantly, I walk through the gates overlooked by a statue of the Virgin before I find myself back in the village where the abbey is located, which bears the same name. Lost in the Marne region, at the frontier of the Haute-Marne, the place is quaint but humble: nothing fancy here but cosy houses made of stones, an ancient mill, pots of flowers hanging at the windows.
Trois-Fontaines definitely seems like a local secret more than anything, a peaceful haven passed on from generation to generation. I don’t ever remember seeing more than 20 people at a time on each of my visits to the abbey, adding to this sensation of belonging that always seizes me. No tourist seems to have heard of the abbey nor do too many venture into this rural area for too long. In a sense, that is perhaps in doing so that lies the true adventure.