Saturday, March 16, 2013

Fort Saint-André, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

One day, shortly after we signed the papers to buy our house in Sablet, we were with cousin Jean-Marc and wife Christine, who suggested we go visit elderly cousin André and wife Mauricette who live in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Until just recently, I didn't know we even had relatives who live near Avignon or anything about Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

Jean-Marc suggested we get our own Notaire, preferably one who spoke English when we signed the Promesse de Vente (promise to sell). Stay with me, this is relevant to my story; The agent immobilier (real estate agent) recommended a Notaire, Maître Florence Falque in Carpentras who speaks and writes English. For any of you who are thinking about buying a house in France, and English is your first language, it's a good idea to use a Notaire who can explain and translate legal documents into English, no matter how well you speak French.

As it turns out, Jean-Marc has not had much contact with the cousins until recently. André is my father's first cousin (their father's were brothers). Jean-Marc is a renown cardiologist at the University of Montpellier and André had recently come to see him about his heart. Jean-Marc mentioned that we signed a Promesse de Vente and were using a Notaire from Carpentras. Turns out Maître Falque is a friend of Mauricette (she is originally from Carpentras) and is the Notaire that André used.

We called the cousins and asked if it was a good time for a visit? Once seated, and offered cookies and a drink, we discovered that after André heard we were buying a house in Sablet, he got on his bicycle and pedaled to Sablet and back so he could see where we were going to live. André is a long-time bike rider, has ridden up and down Mont Ventoux quite a few times, but I think it was a mighty feat to ride 90 kms (56 miles) at nearly 80 years of age.

We had a wonderful visit with the cousins, he worked for the SNCF (France's national state-owned railway company) for many years, has an amazing green thumb, you should see his garden, and both are very good painters. We are now proud owners of several of their paintings. I have since found out that she is a very good cook. We visit each time we are in Sablet but until a few months ago, we still didn't know anything about Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

So one day I called André and asked if he would show me the special sights around town. We drive past Fort Saint-André on the way to the cousin's house. And so although there is no relation between the fort and cousin André, the Fort was our first stop on our tour of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. The town and Fort Saint-André are located in the Gard Department at the eastern edge of Languedoc-Roussillon, on the border with Provence directly across the Rhône River from Avignon.

Fort Saint-André

King Philip IV of France, known as Phillipe le Bel (the Beautiful) commissioned the construction of Fort Saint-André in 1292 as a show of power of the Kingdom of France and to keep watch on the Holy Roman Empire on the other side of the Rhône River. At that time, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon was on the eastern border of France and Provence was part of the Empire.

Fort Saint-André Reception Building

Although the Fort was commissioned in 1292, it was not built until the 1360's by King Jean II le Bon (the Good) on Mount Andaon, a rocky hill that rises over the floodplain of the Rhône River. Prior to the 1770's, the Rhône flowed just below the rock where the Fort was built on Mount Andaon. Around 1770, the Rhône River moved its bed 900 meters away from the rock.

Saint-André Abbey Garden

Besides showing the power of the Kingdom of France, the Fort also provided protection for the Benedictine Saint-André Abbey and the small village of Saint-Andre already present on Mount Andaon.

Saint-André Abbey Garden

The walls and towers of the Fort protected a large area of more than 3 hectares (7.5 acres). The current reception area and neighboring building were used in the 18th century as the military headquarters and garrison.

View of Papal Palace in Avignon from Fort Saint-André

The fortification walls are 750 meters (2,460 feet) long and included comfort amenities such as latrines, fireplaces in the entrance fortress and sentry boxes on the wall walk.

Cousin Andre heads towards the vaulted rooms under the terrace

As I mentioned, the Fort surrounds the remains of an abbey built on Mount Andaon near the tomb of Saint Casarie in the 10th century. Very powerful in the Middle Ages, this abbey owned more than 200 monasteries and convents between Uzès and Forcalquier. After a period of decline, it was rebuilt in the 16th century according to the plans of the architect Pierre Mignard, who also designed the gardens.

The 16th-century gardens disappeared a long time ago. Redone in the 18th century, they were restored at the beginning of the 20th century when, in 1914, Gustave Fayet, patron to Paul Gauguin and an important art collector, bought the Fontfroide Abbey south-west of Narbonne and the Saint-André Abbey.

Vaulted Rooms under the Saint-André Garden Terrace

The abbey gardens are nicely maintained and contain numerous statues, fountains and other ornaments.

Vaulted passageway

The gardens provide a vast view over the surrounding countryside and Rhône valley.

View from the abbey garden with Philippe Le Bel tower in the distance

Remains of the abbey

Another vaulted passageway

The Saint Casarie Chapel was constructed during the 11th century on Mount Andaon near where St. Casarie is said to have died in a cave in 587. Casarie was married to Valens, who later became a bishop. Casarie became a hermit and lived on Mount Andaon where the monastery was founded in recognition of her sanctity.

The Saint Casarie Chapel

Cypress trees in abbey garden

Remains of the abbey

At the base of a beautiful large terrace is a pergola with stone pillars holding wisteria and roses, creating a shady corridor that is covered with flowers of all kinds.

The Pergola in the Saint-André Abbey Garden

Elsa Koeberlé who was a friend of Gustave Fayet became committed to restoring the Abbey’s garden. While remaining faithful to the old plans, she created two pools separated by beds of roses edged with santolina and oleanders. She redesigned the flowerbeds favoring Mediterranean plant varieties. The cypress tree alley, the olive trees, the arbors and pergolas, the big terrace, all help give the appearance of a Florentine garden to the place.

Cousin Andre pauses at the Saint-André Abbey garden

The Masques Tower takes its name from the Provençal "masco", meaning witch or magician, reputed to attract the wicked spells so that the rest of the battlements were protected. The Masques Tower has a single high room because of the unevenness of the site.

The Masques tower

The entrance fortress, called the Royal Château or the twin towers, was built in several stages. It ensured the defense and command of the fort and afforded an uninterrupted view of Mont Ventoux. It still has a crown of machicolations, openings through which stones, or other objects, could be dropped on attackers from the top of the curtain wall. It housed the working quarters of the châtelain, the commander of the castle, and the administrative and judicial officer.

Twin towers guard the main entrance to Fort Saint-André

After leaving Fort Saint-André, we walked down the street to Chartreuse du Val de Benediction Monastery which I will tell you about in my next post.

Bonne journée et à bientôt.


  1. Beautiful photos . . . thank you for letting me tag along on your adventure :)
    Your blogging sister, Connie :)

  2. What an interesting post especially about you relatives and the cycle ride. I used to be able to 100km on my bike at the drop of a hat but not any more!! Lovely photos and interesting history, there is just so much great history attached to France every where you go and I love old ruins. Great post Diane

  3. Connie - Thanks for stopping in to check out my blog. Thanks especially for leaving a comment. I hope you will be a frequent visitor.

    Diane - That's impressive to know you used to ride 100 kms at the drop of a hat. No doubt, there is wonderful history to read about and see throughout France. Just gotta find the time to get everywhere worth going.