Saint Hilaire Abbey
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Saint Hilaire is a little village - population 719 - situated between Carcassonne and Limoux in the department of Aude.
The place was inhabited since roman times but its major religious edifice, the abbey, was formed starting from the 8th century when a community of Benedictine monks settled here. The first monastic community was dedicated to Saint Sernin, the martyr saint that preached the Christian religion in the Toulouse region in the first centuries after Christ.
The saint patron of the monastery changed after only one century since in 825 the documents describe already the abbey as dedicated Saint Hilaire, the first bishop of Carcassone and housing the relics of the saint - in 978 the relics were moved to Poitiers.
Some historians believe that the Count of Carcassonne Roger I, who oversaw the transfer of the relics of Saint Hilaire, and he himself died in 1012, is buried in the abbey's church but no excavations were ever done to find the Count's remains and confirm this hypothesis.
During the Crusade against the Cathars the monks - along with their protectors, the Counts of Carcassonne - were accused of heretic sympathy and were even taken away some of the monastery's lands. The lands were eventually returned to the abbey after the Crusade on the order of French King Louis IX known in the history as Saint Louis.
While the 14th and 15th centuries were marked by, on one hand financial difficulties, and on the other hand by the construction of the cloister and the fortifications, the 16th century and more precisely 1531 is by tradition the year when the first sparkling wine in the world - the "Blanquette" - is elaborated by the monks of Saint Hilaire.
The Blanquette is a white wine, low in alcohol content - it has only 7° - and its name comes from the French word "blanc" that means white. It is a wine is made from grapes of the variety Mauzac, that grow locally in the Limoux region, and undergoes only one natural alcoholic fermentation. The wine is placed in bottles on the eve of the new Moon in March. It is in the bottles that the wine goes through the second fermentation.
There are legends saying that Dom Perignon the famous Champagne "father" visited Saint Hilaire and brought with him the initial recipe for the sparkling wine. Unfortunately there is no documented proof that he even came to Saint Hilaire
The monastic life of the abbey ended in 1748 when the last 6 monks left the place. In 1758 the abbey became a parish church.
In 1840 its church was declared a historic monument, followed in 1846 by the cloister and in 1914 the painted ceiling of the abbot's room.
Besides the beautiful, reflection and melancholy triggering cloister the two most interesting œuvres of the abbey are the sarcophagus dedicated to Saint Sernin and the French Renaissance painted ceiling of the abbot's room.
The sarcophagus, located in southern side of the apse of the church's transept, dates from the 12th century. It is attributed, due to its artistic characteristics such as the long palms and the slanted eyes of the figures, to the anonymous sculptor known under the name of Master of Cabestany. It is a white marble sculpture, only called sarcophagus because of its shape, that depicts the life of Saint Sernin.
The abbot's room ceiling was painted in the 15th century (and restored in the 19th century). The colorful images between the supporting beams depict scenes of daily life and medieval characters.
April to June and September and October: 10am-12pm / 2pm-6pm
July and August: 10am-7pm