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“Restoration work yields beautiful art in historic abbey”

Abbaye de Saint Hilaire
Certificate of Excellence
Reviewed 28 January 2014

Just a 15 minute drive from our lodging near Carcassone, we found the beautiful and historic Abbey of Saint Hilaire, the site where the first sparkling wine was produced.

The abbey is first mentioned in writing in 825 CE. The monks in the abbey of St. Hilaire are the ones that actually discovered the original technique to produce sparkling wine in 1531 CE.

Monks no longer live in the abbey but the caretakers were exceptionally friendly as they showed us the beautiful cloister added to the abbey in the 14th century. Our guide was especially eager to show us the east gallery where restoration work on the intricate 16th century paintings on the ceiling and rafters of the apartment were underway. I also spotted and photographed the remains of a lovely painting of an angel in the hallway.

The caretakers also invited us to photograph the lovely chapel that now serves as the village church. The altar is sculpted marble from the 12th century and depicts the life and martyrdom of St. Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse in the 3rd century CE. St. Sernin was tied to a bull then the bull was goaded into a frenzy. When I first saw it I thought it was a converted Roman sarcophagus as it looks very similar to those I have seen from the third century but it is too small for an adult human body. The curator speculates in the brochure that it must have been produced as an altar. There are several other explanations, though. After the martyrdom described, I doubt if St. Sernin's body was intact so what was left could have fit in the sarcophagus. The other possibility is that St. Sernin, like many Romans, could have been cremated or reduced to bone because of the destruction of his body. His remains obviously must have been kept in some other container then later placed in the sarcophagus after it's completion in the 12th century. These are my speculations, though, not the official position.

The sarcophagus was carved by a sculptor known only as the Master of Cebestany. This artist is thought to have produced other works in Spain, Italy and at other sites in France. His style is noted for triangular faces, low foreheads, high ears, hands with long fingers and very detailed clothing.

The abbey has a tumultuous history. It had much of its lands confiscated by the Cathars and was ransacked by the heretics during the Albigensian Crusade in the 12th century and the monks had to defend the abbey again from the ravages of the 100 Years War. The surrounding village was burned by Protestant forces in 1574 CE. So it is almost a miracle in itself that much of the structure still remains standing. Ongoing restoration has revealed additional paintings covered over by whitewash in subsequent years. It will be fascinating to see what is revealed when the restorations are completed.

Thank mharrsch
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
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36 - 40 of 120 reviews

Reviewed 5 November 2013

I wouldn't say it's worth a detour (not as monumental as Fontfroide, for example), but if you happen to stay around Limoux, the abbaye is a very nice place to visit, only 15 mn away by car.
Ver well maintained, they've recently modernized and renovated the access and opened a few more rooms. The lady at the entrance was extremely welcoming, giving lots of explanations.
Entrance fee is currently 4 euros.

Thank cocovlc
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Reviewed 25 October 2013

1531, first ever sparkling wine is documented being made here in St. Hilaire!
The abbaye itself is a huge church which have recently being restored. It's a tranquil and serene place to ponder upon life..

Thank Morten_Flagstad
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Reviewed 12 October 2013

Some historic attractions in France are owned by the state or by the department and they often suffer from the dead hand of French bureaucracy.

The abbey complex of Saint-Hilaire is the property of the commune and the locals are rightly proud of it. The member of staff we talked to was passionate about his work, answered all our questions extensively and spoke good English.

The cloisters are less magnificent than those of Fontfroide, but the delicate pairs of decorated columns with crisply carved capitals were really more to my taste.

The abbey church is not that remarkable, but the 12th century tomb of Saint-Sernin is. The intricate and lively carving by the "Master of Cabestany" tells the story of the saint's life. Spend some time trying to work out what is actually going on.

In the abbot's lodging there is a magnificent 16th century painted ceiling to the dining room. Look closely and one or two of the pictures on the beams will surprise! What is the naked lady doing in the boat (or is it a bath) and what is the man (or is it a monk) doing to her?

Our visit to the village of Saint-Hilaire was relaxed and really enjoyable. While in the abbey take in the cellars and then visit the winery where the pre-cursor of champagne is still made.

Thank Minackman
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Reviewed 27 September 2013

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Abbaye. The staff is most knowledgeable and gives tips on what to look for on the self-guided visit. The ceiling paintings in the bishop's quarters are beautifully displayed, as is the altar illustrating the martyrdom of the saint. The cloisters are properly atmospheric and visitors help each other by pointing out the most interesting or curious sights. It is also a lovely drive out to the monastery from the Carcassonne area.

1  Thank Virginiatravelerstwo
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC

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