For some reason, the Christmas season has taken over our lives for the past month, much to the detriment of my blog. I should have put together a post about great places to travel in the United States during December and January, (and there are many) but that will have to wait for another time. Now that the New Year has arrived, it is time for some serious writing.
In chilly January, the Ramblers look back to last summer’s warm August in Normandy and the fascinating city of Rouen. Above all, Rouen is a city of two churches, the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame and the modern church of St. Joan of Arc. Both, as I found out, are monuments to the storied history of Rouen. Although our first day docked at the Rouen quay was spent on the beaches of Normandy, On the second, we would spend the day in the historic center of the city and it would not disappoint.
The senior Rambler was particularly happy to reach Rouen because at last he could visit an oral surgeon to have his tooth repaired . Unfortunately he had to wait until our second day in Rouen, because we traveled to the Normandy beaches the first day. However the Normandy trip more than made up for this. Fortunately, the dentist’s office was only a few blocks away from the quay, in easy walking distance. One of the lovely young women on the staff accompanied him to his appointment, as both guide and translator as the dentist had little English. His office was in a 19th century building with an equally 19th century elevator that barely held one person.
The senior Rambler said the antique surroundings worried him a little bit, but fortunately the dentist had modern equipment and was very skilled and as they say,” a good time was had by all!”
In the early afternoon, we set out on a tour of Rouen’s historic center, fortunately only a short distance from the Baroness. Our first stop was the Cathedral of Notre Dame; I had seen the light show on the facade of the magnificent building, today we would see it in the daytime.
A Christian church existed on this site during the waning days of the Roman empire (the end of the 4th century) when Christianity was the official religion of Rome. However, although the Christian community continued to build churches there. Unfortunately they had to be rebuilt and repaired through the ages as they suffered from Viking raids, fires and lightning, a cyclone, war and more lightning damage. The cathedral was almost done in for good during WWII when it was bombed by the USAF before the Normandy Landings in June, 1944. The North Tower burned and its bells melted in the intense heat, dropping their molten remains on the floor of the church. The final disaster to befall the Cathedral happened during a cyclone in 1999 when a wooden turret weighing 26 tons fell into the building. Truly, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a survivor.
Construction on the building that we entered dates to the 12th century. Rollo, the founder of the Duchy of Normandy was buried in an earlier church standing here, in 932 AD, and Richard I, the Lion-heart enlarged the same building in 950 AD; unfortunately it was struck by lightning in 1110 AD.
Thus the determined citizens of Rouen had to start over again. As you might expect by now, this new building was also struck by lightning and burned in 1200 AD, however the current edifice dates to this time.
Although the Cathedral would continue to be the victim of a series of disasters to the end of the twentieth century, in 1200 AD enough of the building remained so that it could be repaired rather than rebuilt. You might wonder why a church building would burn so quickly. There are several reasons; there was much wood in the early structures and a total lack of fire fighting equipment beyond buckets and wells. The church spire or tower was always the tallest structure around and attracted lightning strikes which the people believed attacks by the devil. The medieval Gothic cathedrals gradually utilized more stone as the master masons learned to build higher towers but even so, much of the interior decoration was made of wood.
After learning the history of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Ramblers were amazed that so much of its medieval past is still present.
A few of the windows hold stained glass from the 13th century, distinguished by their special cobalt blue color called Chartres blue which can no longer be duplicated by modern craftsmen. Although we didn’t hear it, the cathedral boasts a magnificent organ dating to the late middle ages which is not surprising because of the strong musical traditions that have exited here since medieval times.
One of the elements that set Notre Dame apart in my estimation was a series of statues that stood in row along a side aisle. Our guide,Lise, told us that originally they were part of the exterior facade or set in niches high on the interior walls, but when the cathedral was last restored, it was decided to place them where visitors could see them close up. Indeed binoculars are necessary if you want to fully appreciate the detailed exterior and interior of Notre Dame.
The medieval stone carvers had modeled these saintly statues on people they knew and thus they provide an unusual eyewitness glimpse into the medieval world. The nave also holds a series of effigy tombs including that of Rollo the Viking founder of Normandy, as well as another which holds the heart of his descendant, Richard I of England. Although the rest of Richard’s remains were buried at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon, France, his Rouen tomb still bears his effigy on top and his name inscribed below. Many other members of Rollo’s family are buried here including William I (the Conqueror) and William’s mother, mother, Poppa.
As we left Notre Dame, Lisa pointed out the famous Butter Tower, built in the early 1500’s from the sale of Lenten Indulgences which allowed parishioners to consume butter during Lent.. This was normally forbidden under the strict Lenten Fast which was part of medieval life. Those who couldn’t go without and had the money paid a fee to the Church which allowed them to butter their bread without a guilty conscience. Unfortunately, the Butter Tower somewhat unbalanced Notre Dame’s facade and required some further reconstruction. The cathedral interior also suffered during the anti-Catholic phase of the French Revolution; the building was nationalized and some of its interior furnishings were sold to raise money for the Republic.
After leaving the Place de Cathedrale, we headed towards the Gros Horloge, and the street that bears its name. This would lead us to the our second stop, the Cathedral of Joan of Arc. No two churches could be more different, the first strikingly high Gothic and the second very modern.
The Church of Joan of Arc sits on the Rouen Market Square, Place du Vieux-Marche, near the spot where she was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 AD. She was tied to a high pillar in the marketplace still holding a wooden cross given her by an English soldier. Joan, only 19 at her death, had been responsible for a French resurgence in the war between France and England for control of France. For more information about her amazing life and death go here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_of_Arc A small garden close to the church marks the exact location of her death.
Unlike its medieval neighbors, the Church of Joan of Arc was consecrated in 1979 despite some criticism of its modern design. The Ramblers liked the church. It has its own beauty in its simplicity and to this Rambler, the roof line had the look of a helmet in the style that Joan wore as she led the French troops into battle. I know it is supposed to be a boat but that’s not what it looks like to me. The interior design is an interesting combination of old and new stained glass and a simple mostly polished wood interior
. The old stained glass comes from the 16th century Church of St. Vincent which was bombed into rubble in 1944. Some of its stones are still visible in the plaza. The windows, like many others during WWII had been removed and stored in a safe place early in the war, and it seems appropriate that they were reborn in St. Joan’s Church.
Our final stop in Rouen was at the restaurant that Julia Child credits with awakening her interest in French cooking, La Couronne. Fortunately for our tired feet, the restaurant was in the same Place du Vieux Marche, only a short distance from the Church of Joan of Arc. Uniworld had arranged that we would enjoy coffee or tea and their specialty, tarte tatin, one of Julia’s favorites at La Couronne before we headed back to the Baroness at our leisure.
La Couronne was founded in 1345, only 4 years after Joan’s death, which is hard to believe. However, when you enter the old building, with its narrow halls and very steep stairways, it feels like you are walking into the past. Since it started as an inn, La Couronne is quite large and has many small and a few large dining rooms which can serve numerous guests. While we enjoyed the apple tarte, and a cup of good coffee,
I would have loved to have tried all the dishes Julia enjoyed in 1948 when she dined there for the first time with Paul Child. The senior Rambler who is not fond of French food but is a fan of Julia, couldn’t be talked into it, so I didn’t even try. However, the Menu Julia Child is still available at 95 Euros plus wine. It features oysters, sole, white cheese with fruit and the ubiquitous green salad. I will admit that I haven’t mastered eating raw oysters, so its probably just as well that we only had apple tart and coffee. LOL
On our leisurely way back to the ship, we had a chance to pick up a change of clothes for the senior Rambler who still hadn’t been reunited with his carry-on bag. Emmanuelle, our on point cruise director and mentor on all things French pointed out several stores that would have reasonable prices. As we had already learned, there are more designer shops than regular clothing stores in most historic areas and we only wanted to get the senior Rambler a change of clothes until the errant suitcase arrived (we hoped).
. We were about to go into one store when Emmanuelle dashed up and steered us into a place called C&A, where, she assured us, we would be able to find what was needed. She was right. They were having a sale and for 60 Euros, we were able to get a pair of shorts ,3 t-shirts, socks and undies to tide him over. Evidently C&A is well know in Europe though not in the US as several of our British friends said they missed shopping at C&A as it was no longer open in Britain.
This was an entirely successful day, tooth repaired, clothes purchased, great guided tours…we were looking forward to what the next day would bring!