I was in Burgundy last weekend with a friend of mine, preparing a trip combining rambling and medieval art, specifically the imagery and significance of tympani (the semi-circular portion above the door to a church). During this trip we visited the abbey at Fontenay and I was, to say the least, impressed. The abbey has been on the UNESCO list of World Heritage since 1981, and it is well worth the inclusion on that list. It is beautifully restored and maintained. The abbey was founded by Saint Bernard in a small marshy valley a few kilometres from Montbard (Burgundy) and moved to the current site in 1130.
I suppose for me the most impressive thing about this site was the forge. The 52m long building dates from the 12th Century and inside was a plaque bearing the emblem of the ASM (American Society for Metals) which attested to the fact that this forge was (one of) the earliest metallurgical factories in Europe and that the monks actually carried out significant development work in iron-working metallurgy.
Not all of the abbey buildings date back to the 12th Century though and you can see the difference between the functional austerity in the more contemporary structures (like the abbot's house and the refectory) and the complexity and beauty of the original structures; a particularly fine example of which is the cloister that, quite rightly, is world famous. On a beautiful, warm, sunny day it is both shaded and cool and imparts serenity compatible with deep contemplation. The intricacy of the designs of the columns is quite breathtaking.After the visit to the abbey there is a figure-of-eight walk in the region around the abbey. We only did one half (the part not going to the mines) and whilst it was a pleasant walk and worth the effort, I did feel there was almost too much walking along the road. Thankfully, there was not much traffic on the road; in fact, we noted that there was not much traffic anywhere in the region, which we found odd for such a beautiful area as Burgundy in the middle of summer.
All in all, a visit to the abbey is well worth the trip, especially if you're in the area. Although at €9 entrance fee per adult, it is a tad on the expensive side and that doesn't include being allowed to sit/walk or even breathe on the perfectly manicured lawns. You can have a picnic outside though by a pretty little stream and you're not even obliged to visit the (presumably also expensive) café.