Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard, Abbaye de Fontenay is the oldest and one of the most beautifully preserved Cistercian abbeys in Europe.
Occupying over 1,200 hectares of land in a wooded valley, it enjoyed a peaceful existence for most of its first seven hundred years—interrupted only by English looting in 1359 during the Hundred Years War.
(Published September 2013, last updated February 2022)
The abbey was confiscated in 1789 during the French Revolution and the last remaining monks left the following year.
In 1791, the new owner transformed the buildings into a paper mill. Thirty years later, the site was bought by Elie de Montgolfier, a descendent of the inventor of the hot air balloon, and developed into a paper factory.
Montgolfier’s son-in-law later acquired Fontenay and, in 1906, dismantled the industrial buildings and began restoration works to bring the site back to its original state.
A small museum near the entrance displays photos of the buildings and grounds prior to the restoration, highlighting the incredible work that has been done.
Fontenay was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981 and is still preserved and maintained by the Montgolfier family today.
Several movies have been filmed here at the abbey—the best known perhaps being the 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac with Gérard Depardieu.
From mid-April until mid-November, guided tours are held throughout the day. However, if you prefer to explore on your own, a guided map (available in many languages) provides insight into the history of each of the buildings including the refectory, the monks’ room, the chapel, the cloister and the forge.
Each September, mass is held here to commemorate the consecration of the church on 21 September, 1147.
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Which long-distance walk visits Abbaye de Fontenay?
The Burgundy Canal
Where is Abbaye de Fontenay, France? Find it on Google maps
Abbaye de Fontenay is six kilometres (3.8 miles) from Montbard which is located 102 kilometres (64 miles) along the Burgundy Canal. It can be easily accessed from Montbard by taking the shuttle bus or renting a bicycle from the Tourist Office (details below).
If you prefer to travel by foot, follow the GR 213 walking path from the canal. After passing through Montbard, you’ll meander through the fields and reach the abbey a little over an hour later.
If you are following my suggested itinerary (which you’ll find here), you’ll arrive in Montbard after five days of walking and cycling from the starting point of Migennes.
This relaxed pace includes rest days at Tonnerre and Montbard, allowing plenty of time to visit the nearby attractions of Château de Maulnes, Château de Tanlay and Château d’Ancy-le-Franc and the ‘most beautiful villages’ of Noyers and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.
If you prefer to set your own agenda, I share the steps I take to plan my itinerary on any long-distance walk (using the Chemin de Stevenson as a case study).
Bicycle hire is available at several Tourist Offices along the Burgundy Canal from VéliBourgogne. Bikes can be returned to any of the offices, so cycling some, or all, of the stages is very easy to arrange. In addition to Montbard, bikes can be picked up or returned at Migennes, Saint-Florentin, Tonnerre, Ancy-le-Franc, Pouilly-en-Auxois and Dijon.
Bus and train services connect Montbard with several other towns along the Burgundy Canal, including Migennes, Saint-Florentin, Tonnerre, Nuits-sous-Ravières, Alésia, La Racquette, Pouilly-en-Auxois and Dijon.
A shuttle bus—la Première Navette de l’Auxois—runs three times a day in summer, connecting Montbard with Abbaye de Fontenay, Forge de Buffon, Venarey-les-Laumes, MuséoParc Alésia, Château de Bussy-Rabutin and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.
Tourist Office in Montbard
You’ll find the Tourist Office in Montbard at Place Henri Vincenot near the train station (on the right side of the canal as you walk from Migennes) where the friendly staff will help organise your visit to the abbey. Opening hours are listed here.
Abbaye de Fontenay is open to the public every day but closes for lunch during the winter months. Check the Abbaye de Fontenay website for opening hours and details of special events.
Accommodation in Montbard
Campground Municipal les Treilles
Where to eat in Montbard
Please note that there is no café at the abbey where you can enjoy lunch but there is a full range snack bars and restaurants in Montbard. You’ll also find a bakery and a supermarket at the canal where you can purchase supplies for your walk.
On Friday mornings, a fresh food market provides the perfect opportunity to pack a picnic for the day ahead.