Sunday, 10 March 2013


What a day.

I'm going to start off by saying that it was an incredibly long day and my head is all over the place. Thank you for sticking with me until the end.

So: I awoke this morning at 6, threw coffee at my coffeepot, threw the coffeepot at the stove, turned it on, and wrapped myself in a dressing gown. I had turned off the heat last night and going from warm duvet to cold room was proving a challenge. The smell of the coffee helped.

My coffee brewed, I stepped briefly into the shower to encourage my frozen blood to recirculate. Wrapped in a towel with that elixir of life clutched tightly in my hand, I must have looked quite the ridiculous sight - but no matter. I dressed casually - I wore a suit without a waistcoat or a tie, which barely counts as dressed - and made my way into the morning, guidebook, sudoko book and camera all crammed into my little bag. From my little flat it is a short bus ride to La Défense, and from La Défense a hop on and a hop off the RER to Auber. From Auber a walk (briefer still) to St Lazare and there, yawning and bleary-eyed in the crisp morning sunshine, I boarded my train.

And fell asleep.

I can almost hear my mother's horrified gasp. The rest are eagerly waiting to see in what new way I have made a fool of myself. In what new and exciting adventures did I partake, willing or not?

I am sorry to say no such story will follow. Having carefully planned every aspect of my travel, I knew that the terminus was Rouen and, as such, I would be gently ushered off the train at my destination. As it happened I woke in good time, and set out on my journey newly refreshed and eager to face the day. I had a short wait before my travelling companion arrived.
Mary, whose blog you may have seen gracing these pages had offered herself as one half of this two-man fellowship, and so I settled myself into the little bar at the station, took had a coffee, and bent my brain to sudokos. 

Before long the hour arrived, and Mary along with it. We exchanged kisses, because we're almost French, and discussed the weather, because some habits even months abroad cannot break. With gloom in the sky but joy in our hearts (and the hefty and glorious +Lonely Planet guide to France as our comfort) we stepped forward into Rouen and into one of the most picturesque, one of the friendliest, one of the nicest towns I've ever had the privilege of entering.

We started down the hill and turned at the sight of the Palais de Justice, a building that seemed like a cathedral but was in fact the law courts. Looking up we spotted gargoyles and grotesques, and though I wanted to capture them all this cheeky chappy was the most photogenic:

It is at this point that I must confess a flaw of mine. I like teaching, and what poor Mary did not know is that I am consequently a hideous companion. I rambled at length on every subject of which I have some little knowledge and, being the philomath/polymath/sponge that I am, those subjects are numerous. She bore my badgering with patience and had the good manners to seem interested in what I am sure were uninteresting trivia, and so for that (and for many other things) I am indebted to her.

Past the Palais we turned right and were strolling down Rue des Carmes when we exclaimed at the same time. I had just seen the sky-scraping turrets of Cathédrale Notre Dame while Mary, facing the other direction, had caught sight of the Gros Horloge, the gorgeous clock set in a bridge over a street that was only just coming alive. 

We examined it in detail and Mary informed me that the orb at the top represented the phase of the moon. "Waning gibbous." she said, by means of explanation, and I nodded sagely. We passed the door to go in but it was resolutely closed. The sign posted beside it said that visitors could tour from 10 and yet the portal remained obstinately unopened. We strolled under the bridge, stopping to examine the figure of Christ the Shepard carved over our heads, and roamed around the town for a little bit before making our way back to Notre Dame.

I love churches. I love cathedrals. I love that there are monuments to the glory of men, monuments to the ability of an idea to drive us to greater and greater heights. There is no more solid reminder that we are small creatures whose dreams are bigger than they have any right to be. There is no more beautiful souvenir of the truth that we are greatest when we work together.

Hand carved statues. Hand carved.

There is nothing like an electric light to bring ugliness to anything.
On the other hand, the crucifix that forms the centre of this and all churches is an explicit and violent reminder of the centre of the faith; of the sacrifice that a bloodthirsty god demanded as the wages of sin and that a perfect being gave for love. As I have said before, the story is a fascinating one, and if buildings like this were its only output then I could not love it more. 

But they're not.

It was here that I took a picture of which I am immensely proud, and which I am sharing with you without any form of touching up . I would very much like to know your thoughts.

How can it be improved? Nothing is perfect, least of all this, and so I'd really appreciate input from anyone with an opinion on this.

From the Cathedral we made our way to l'Eglise Jeanne d'Arc, although admittedly by a circuitous route which took us halfway across the bridge into Rouen Central, a nice enough place, I daresay, but hardly what we'd come to see. An abrupt about turn and a check over the map in the Guide (p.195, for those keeping score at home) found us at the church. 

L'Eglise Jeanne d'Arc
We nosed around it and then, as the sun broke gloriously through, basked like lizards and allowed our conversation to flow like the Seine we'd so recently crossed and recrossed. People passed around us like a time-lapse film and out of the corner of my eye I saw someone lock up the church. Even vergers need a two hour lunch in France.We decided to follow her good example and stopped at Les Maraîchers, another excellent tip from the Guide, where we were served by attentive and friendly staff who smilingly coaxed French from our uncertain lips. Mary had scallops and I turbot, both exquisite. Alongside these fish dishes - the region being famous for these fruits of the sea - we had a bottle of Riesling (2009). I had a dessert on top; sliced apples in a calvados sauce - exquisite. We finished the rest of the bottle and, having paid and waved goodbye, made our way to the church.It would be hard to find two Catholic churches in such physical proximity whose design was so far apart. From the inside it seemed that we were inside an upturned boat, the ribs stretching high above us to form the keel. The stained glass on the north wall faced windows shaped like abstract fishes on the south and the congregation were to be seated in a wide arc around the sanctuary, rather than the standard cruciform layout. It was beautiful again, but in a vibrant, colourful way. Notre Dame fixated on the sacrifice; here, at least, was the message of hope and new life.Making our way back past the Gros Horloge we saw the door open but a sign advising us that the tours were full. Disheartened, we inquired as to when we should come back, and were told that we would need wait only a few minutes. This we did and when the tower was less clogged with people the gentleman behind the counter - having sussed our accents - asked if we would like the guide in English or in French.We glanced at each other. This was a test, and I suspect neither of us would have admitted to trepidation in the face of explanations only in French. "Français," we said, and he handed us the guides and sent us on our way up the tower.The tower has hundreds of steps and five floors. At various points you are invited to punch a number into your audioguide and press it to your ear whereupon a charming Frenchman talks you through what you can see in front of you. The material is presented clearly and is utterly engrossing, allowing you to almost (almost!) forget the steepness of the staircases and the tightness of the helix.(Staircases that wind upwards in a column are helical, not spiral. A spiral staircase would be a gigantic waste of energy and money. To understand why for yourself, draw a spiral on a piece of paper. Starting at the centre, cut around the line, and then pull the shape you've cut downwards. You now have a spiral staircase and understand why supporting it would be an architectural nightmare.)Mounting stair upon stair and with my legs turning to jelly, we were introduced to the original mechanism, the internal cogs and finally the bells at the very top of the tower. Like Notre Dame, the solid mass of stuff seemed to bend my reality around it, and I was almost grateful to step out onto the parapet for some air.I say almost because heights give me a giddy feeling in the back of my brain. I am not scared of being high up, you know. I am simply terrified of suddenly being high up and falling, and even that's not as terrifying as stopping suddenly. Neither heights nor falling will kill you. It's the sudden deceleration caused by your body going from speedy to zero in fractions of a second that will splatter your brains across the pavement.In any case, the view was gorgeous:

Though admittedly easily distracted by birds.
And the company offered a charming counterpoint to the unchanging buildings.
From there - well, there's an awful lot more to say, but this is a very heavy post already, so perhaps I'll tell what happened next tomorrow.

Oh, and in the UK it's past midnight, so happy Mother's Day to any and all mothers reading this, and especially my own.