Going crackers

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 old refectory was turned into a living room during the 19th century.  And of cours, there were more stalls in there too!  The monumental fireplace was particularly impressive!!

The chapter house was off the cloister – it had the most amazing vaulted ceiling with a sawtooth pattern along the ribs of the vault.

Placed in the arcade that separated the chapter house from the cloister were some very ornately carved stone vases.  The face reminds me of someone. 🙂

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.

And this is what the buildings of the abbey look like from the road:

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!!

A new cracker

This past weekend, I went to the annual Cracker Fair.  I wrote about this Christmas market in December 2013, when it took place at the Chateau Abbaye de Cassan (you can find the article here).  This year, the cracker fair was hosted for the first time by the Abbaye de Valmagne, located between Montagnac and Villeveyrac.  This market was established ten years ago, and in the early days it was very much aimed at the British expat community in the area, who felt deprived of their Christmas crackers.  If you don’t know what Christmas crackers are have a look here.

Valmange was founded in 1138, and at one point in its history, it was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in France!  During the French revolution, the last monks fled the abbey in 1789, and it was sold by the French state in 1791.  The abbey church, which dates from 1257 and which is 83 metres long and 24 metres high, was converted into a wine cellar.  It is probably for that reason that the church has survived.  Enormous wooden barrels were installed in the side chapels, and several are still in place today!   I was watching a number people enter by the door at the end of the church, and most of them had a kind of “wow” look on their faces!

The church is impressive at the best of times, but the fact that it was filled with stalls, people and noises added another dimension!

Around 100 stalls had been set up in the church, offering a large variety of goods, from soaps to syrups, marbles to mushrooms (dried) – you name it!

The church was built in the classic gothic style, and true to the Cistercian rules, it is without much in the way of decoration.

From the side of the church, a door led to the cloister, where there were more stalls!!

The cloister consists of four arcaded galleries around a garden.  There is a fountain, which would have been used by the monks for ritual ablutions.

The chapter house is off the cloister, and it too was occupied by stalls!

A barrel-vaulted passage housed an exhibition of paintings.

In the former refectory there were more stalls and a cafe.

Valmagne was bought by the Comte de Tourraine in 1838, and he and his descendants have taken very good care of the former abbey over the years.  Today the estate is run as a winery, and the visit would not have been complete without a stop in the shop.  The tasting room is right next door to the shop, and there was a lovely fire burning in the fireplace!

Since 1999, the wines at Valmagne have been produced as organic wines!

Outside, there were more stalls and – most importantly – a selection of food trucks!!

Saturday was a very cold day, and I’m sure that the stallholders outside must have been freezing, but they all remained cheerful!

Despite the cold, this was a wonderful Christmas market to visit – one you should add to your diary if you are in the area in early December.  The Cracker Fair is organised by Languedoc Living. You can find details on their website.

The Abbaye de Valmagne is open to visitors throughout the year – you can find details of opening hours here.

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