A few weeks ago, I announced the date for this year’s Cracker Fair Christmas market at the Abbaye de Valmagne near Villeveyrac. As luck would have it, I entered a prize draw and I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to the Cracker Fair. I don’t often win anything, so you can imagine how thrilled I was!
The Cracker Fair is a two day event, which takes its name from the traditional British Christmas cracker. If you are unfamiliar with the tradition, you’ll find the Wikipedia article here. Many years ago, when the fair first came into being, it was aimed at the British expat community, whose Christmas celebrations would not be complete without Christmas crackers! In the years since, the fair has caught on with locals and expats alike, and it is now one of the highlights of the area during the run-up to Christmas, for vendors and shoppers alike!
I went to visit last Saturday, on a gloriously sunny day. It had rained (and stormed) the previous night, and many of the stallholders had not known whether the weather would be good enough for them to set up their stalls. As it turned out, the day was perfect, almost too nice for a Christmas market!
The path from the entrance gates to the former abbey buildings was lined with colourful booths on one side.
Along the path on the opposite side to the booths was a stall selling garden ornaments. No garden gnomes here!! I was very taken by the guinea hens and the chickens!
A food court had been set outside the entrance to the cloister. All kinds of foods were on offer: fish and chips, burgers, roasted chestnuts, pumpkin soup, fresh oysters, onion bhajis, crepes, tapas, grilled sausages, pastries, and more.
The ‘prize’ for the most original looking stall went to the one selling fish and chips, which was in the shape of a boat. I treated myself to a lunch of fish and chips, accompanied by mushy peas, another British tradition. If you don’t know what mushy peas are, you can find a recipe here. In my excitement, I completely forgot to take a photograph of my lunch, but I can tell you that the fish was perfectly cooked, the batter was wonderfully crisp, and both the chips and mushy peas were delicious!
Before my lunch, I had visited the stalls inside the cloisters and the former abbey church. Here are some of the stalls in the cloister:
There were many more stalls in the former abbey church:
Valmagne abbey was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in Languedoc, and its church has almost cathedral-like proportions: 83 metres long and 24 metres high! During the French Revolution, the abbey was dissolved and the buildings sold. The church survived because it was used as a wine cellar! Huge barrels were installed in the chapels.
The chapter house was off the cloister – it had the most amazing vaulted ceiling with a sawtooth pattern along the ribs of the vault.
In the cloister garden, opposite the door to the refectory, was a lavabo, a fountain where the monks would wash their hands. Around the fountain was an octagonal structure which supported an ancient grape vine – lovely and shady in the summer!
Only two of these lavabos have survived in France, one of them at Valmagne!
Here is a picture of the fountain:
The abbey might have been rich, but life for the monks must have been fairly harsh – no central heating, washing outdoors summer and winter, no thermal underwear or fleecy sweaters…
Here is a view from the cloister garden towards the church.
I’ll be going back to visit Valmagne next summer, when I’ll be able to visit the mediaeval herb garden, and discover the buildings with fewer other visitors there. I’ll report back, promise!!