A Foggy Road Emerges Into Sunny Rouen ...
This last Tuesday, we hugged Mickey goodbye and promised to return by nightfall. We felt relieved knowing that Jeff would arrive in the afternoon and wold keep him happy while he did his work, and we got on the road in our trusty Evie. We headed out along the river Seine. Our destination was Rouen, the capital of the northern region of Normandy, and we were looking forward to a day that promised sunny weather. However, to our dismay, from the moment we left the edge of Paris, we were ensconced in a thick fog that lasted throughout the trip across the farmlands and through the woods in the river valley. Rouen has always been a significant port on the river Seine -- although it is 75 km from the Atlantic coast -- all during the Roman era and the Middle Ages and through to the 19th century, when LeHavre took over as France’s most important Northern seaport, located at the mouth of the river on the ocean.
But to this day, Rouen is a true treasure with its Gothic churches, a cobblestoned pedestrian center, medieval half-timbered houses, and a skyline dominated by the spires of the grand Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, frequently the subject of paintings by the Impressionist Claude Monet. Rouen was known as the “city with a hundred bells chiming in the air” and on this day it seemed like we could hear them all around us throughout our visit!
Each time the bells would chime, I was reminded of our last visit for Ted's Birthday at the home of our dear friend Chiara in Venice, Italy.
Chiara's guest quarters were on the top of a four-story home located on one of the lesser canals very close to my favorite boutique.
The guest suite was equipped with a huge bedroom, a homey living area with a cooks kitchen, a farm-style dining table, a separate study, and best of all, an enormous terrace overlooking the city. We were aware of being encircled by nine churches whenever we heard the sound of beau bells!
As we exited the Autoroute and crossed the boundaries of the city, the heavy fog suddenly disappeared and as the light and color came into view, I was reminded of our first trip to Rouen.
It was so long ago that it seemed like a beautiful dream and all I remembered from that visit with our friend Richard were the colorful buildings from the middle ages -- most listing, some leaning, and each housing another cozy restaurant serving fabulous food, lovely shops both ancient and modern -- and yes, people who ancient and modern -- and yes, people who really live in this historical part of town, if their budget allows for it!
On this visit, we saw new shops that seemed to announce the successful invasion of American culture, even in this ancient city.
Foremost amongst the famous cathedrals and churches in Rouen, the first to capture the attention of any visitor is the imposing Cathedral Notre-Dame de Rouen. This church is the See of the Archbishop of Rouen and is famous for its three towers (see above), each one designed in its own style. The Cathedral, built and rebuilt over a period of more than eight hundred years, has features from Early Gothic to late Flamboyant and Renaissance architectures.
Another outstanding and somewhat unique feature of this place of worship is the side entrance, the huge and ornate gate of “the librarians,” attesting to the history of this church that has been an important educational center for centuries.
The Church of Saint Joan of Arc, a Catholic church of astounding contemporary architecture, was completed in 1979 in the center of the ancient market square known as the Place du Vieux-Marché, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431. I had no memory of ever having seen this marvel, although I knew that I must have done so. The roof of this modern church evokes the flames that took Joan's young life, and the sweeping curves symbolize an overturned longship.
Inside, the highlight is clearly the enormous, stained-glass windows, which had originally belonged to a nearby 16th-century church, presently in ruins. These windows are framed within the sweeping warmth of the wooden ceiling. This voluminous space, reminiscent of the Gothic churches with their attraction upward as if toward the heavens, is utterly simplistic in its sense of intimacy. In the centuries since the death of Joan of Arc, her story has become legendary and people all across the world have been attracted to the tale of a young peasant girl who would go on to win military battles and later
would be pronounced a saint. People admired and were even in awe of her bravery, as she stared down her opponents even as they set her on fire. There is also the mysticism surrounding her claims that she heard voices from God instructing her to help the rightful king of France in her battle with the English nobles. These days her story has been referred to by various political figures as it represents the heart and soul of French nationalist movements.
Another monumental landmark is The Gros-Horloge (the grand clock), which is the pride and joy of the people of Rouen. This astronomic clock sits on a Renaissance arch spanning the busy commercial street, rue du Gros-Horloge. This popular site in the old town is flanked by a Gothic belfry from the 14th century. The clock lies roughly equidistant between the Place du Vieux Marché and the Cathedral, perhaps intentionally representing the face-off between the religious and the secular lives of the people and the contrasting sense of time. The Gros-Horloge of today dates back to the 16th century and its movement from 1389. The two faces of the clock display 24 rays of sun against a starry blue sky. The dial’s diameter is 2.50 meters. A single hand ends with a depiction of a lamb showing the hour. The moon phases are indicated in the circular window above the clock face in a sphere of 30-centimeters in diameter that completes a full rotation in 29 days.
There is also a hand showing the week inside an opening at the base of the dial. The clock is decorated by allegorical characters: Diane as the moon (Monday), Mars (Tuesday), Mercury (Wednesday), Jupiter (Thursday), Venus (Friday), Saturn (Saturday), and Apollo (Sunday).
Although the mechanism of the clock is one of the oldest in Europe, the movement was still working efficiently when it was modernized and powered by electricity in the 1920s. The whole building was restored between 1997 to 2006, and the illumination of the clock at night makes it appear even more magical.
The Gros-Horloge, flanked by a Gothic belfry built between the 14th and the 15th centuries houses the bells linked to the clock’s movement. The clock indicates the breach between the concept of the Church’s eternal time that leads the souls to God and the physical, repetitive, secular but unpredictable time rooted in the developments of the 11th and 12th Centuries in the commercial transactions and the establishment of stock
exchanges. It also indicates the breach between the feudal economic concept of time as seasonally repetitive and unchanging, and the development of the concept of time in connection with commercial activities between merchants and their employees, with one bell signaling curfews and another to be rung in cases of alarm.
This was the fairytale town that I had always imagined as a child and the delicious Norman delicacies that I had recalled on our previous visit. This time we chose the Restaurant Les Nymphéas which had a Michelin Star and a mouth-watering menu. We made our way entering the half-timbered hallway to the courtyard that matched the front of the building, and we were warmly greeted by the Maître d’ who checked each of our health passes (which always leaves me feeling safe), while we took a good look at a table displaying a couple of dozen different brands of Calvados, the delicious apple liquor for which Normandy is so famous.
We were then ushered through a stately-yet-intimate dining room to our table, with more than enough social distance to put a smile of relief on my lips. Our table faced the lovely terrace, closed for the winter, with an impressive likeness of Flaubert painted on the back wall of the garden.
Our meal was so beautifully plated that we couldn’t resist taking photos, ending with Apple Souffés, with Calvados sorbet and apple relish (that had been soaked in the liquor) on the side.
The wine helped warm our bones from the chilly Northern air and we left feeling fulfilled but not stuffed.
After lunch, we visited the Church inspired by the history of Joan of Arc and reluctantly left and went on to explore the streets until we were in sight of the Église Catholique Saint-Maclou in the distance through the space between buildings. Next time we visit we’ll have this beautiful church on our agenda as well as the Musée Beaux-Arts.
But after the foggy experience we endured most of the way to Rouen, we decided to try to get on the road before dark. Happily, there was no fog and we had the lovely sight
of the full moon dramatically dancing through the clouds and, finally, the sight of the Tour Eiffel all dressed up in blue with a circle of sparkling white stars to celebrate the European Union.
We were sure we could not have had a nicer day, but even so, we were looking forward to Saturday when we would take Jeffrey and Michelle and our adorable little Geneviève to visit the aquarium in the Palais de Porte Dorée.
They met us at our apartment and we five walked through the Place Madeleine to pick up 'Evie' at the parking lot underneath the Church, where we've had her housed ever since the gas company took over our street making it impossible to walk, let alone to park on either side of the rue. Once we were all settled in the car, we took off throughout the rue Royale and the Place de Concorde and turned onto the Quai that took us all along the right bank of the Seine to the 12th Arrondissement. The building was constructed for the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931 to designs by French architect Albert Laprade, Léon Jaussely and Léon Bazin. It provides 16,000 m2 of exhibition and office space. External bas-reliefs (1200 m2) by sculptor Alfred Janniot portray ships, oceans, and wildlife including antelopes, elephants, zebras, and snakes. The building's bas-reliefs and the many interior murals present an idealized version of colonialism that ignores it's negative impacts.The building is considered a landmark of Art Deco architecture. This Cité Nationale de l'Histoire de l’Immigration houses a museum of immigration history that was conceived in 1989 by Algerian immigrant Zaïr Kedadouche and has endured many alterations. However, the colorful tropical fish, algaes, turtles, albino aligators and jellies that inhabit the aquarium somehow always managed to thrive within two floors of the basement.
The exterior of this last major work of Art Deco architecture built in the city is covered by bas relief of figures of peoples, animals,and various kinds of indigenous and colonial structures from the Americas, North, West, Equatorial and East Africa and the Indian Ocean, Asia, Oceania, and Antarctica. The majestic exhibit hall has floors adorned with mosaics and wood from every one of the former French territories, and huge Murals adorn the walls. I thought this would be a lovely place to share with the ‘kids’ since we all have immigration to this marvelous country in common.
After a simple lunch with ’the family’ at a cafe across the street, we piled in the car and drove to Gare St. Lazarre so that Jeffrey, Michelle, and Genevieve could catch the train to their apartment in the suburbs, and we returned to our cozy home and snuggled up with Mickey to watch a concert from Berlin. Little had we known at the start of the day that the sign I had photographed in the coffee shop when we first arrived in Rouen had predicted it all ...