We decided we needed a day trip more than sleep so on Monday we got up so early that when we stepped off our train in Rouen an hour and a half later, the sun still hadn’t risen.

Waiting for the train at Amiens

Nor had many cafés yet opened, so we wandered around trying to stay warm until we could get ourselves inside somewhere.

The first thing of interest we noticed was the castle keep of the 13th century Château Bouvreuil. It was in this castle that Joan of Arc was held during her trial in 1431. Today the single tower is all that remains of the castle, and you can see a brand new hotel being erected directly next to it. Even without the hotel, the tower itself has been turned into one of those escape game fads, and although the tower is open to the public very little of the information and pamphlets inside had anything to do with Joan of Arc.

We knew we wanted to see Rouen cathedral, but on our walk in its general direction we passed no less than three other impressive churches. In America it is commonly said there is a church on every corner, but the same could be said at least for this region of France, only each of them are centuries old.

First we passed Saint Ouen Abbey, not even an actual cathedral although the vaults in the nave are higher than those of Rouen cathedral:

Large portions of the exterior stones of the abbey were blackened as if by some previous fire. Signs around the building warned to stay back due to danger of falling masonry, much of the statuary was damaged, and broken panes in the stained glass had allowed pigeons inside. Although the abbey has not been used for religious services since the Revolution, signs inside indicate that maintenance and restoration work are still ongoing and I was glad to discover the building is certainly not abandoned or forgotten.

By now the cafés were open and after having sufficiently warmed ourselves with coffee and croissants we headed over to the Musée des Beaux-Arts where we found admission to be free. This was about the perfect size of museum, not so small that you are in and out, but not so large that you can’t see everything either. They had a sculpture garden with a dozen pieces but most of the rest was paintings, including by famous artists even such rubes as myself have heard of, like Renoir and Monet. However it sometimes seems the more famous a painting is the less I often care for it, whereas random pieces by artists I’ve never heard of can be more emotionally powerful.

Albert Auguste Fourié – Un mariage à Yport (1886)

Outside the museum we found this street sign which we found humorous even though we didn’t quite get the joke. It is rather an obscure joke, and requires you to have read Madame Bovary, which I have not. You can read the explanation here. The author Gustave Flaubert grew up in Rouen, and much of Emma Bovary’s fictional story takes place there as well.

We continued on our way to the cathedral passing down many scenic streets, wherealong we saw the 14th century astronomical Gros Horloge (Great Clock), and also the Palais de Justice (courthouse) with damage still visible from WWII.

Finally to Rouen Cathedral. As with every cathedral that I’ve read about, this one has quite the history, it is worth at least going through the Wikipedia page. Viking raids, fires, lightning strikes, hurricanes, Calvinists, Revolutionaries, bombs, all have taken their toll and shaped the structure that remains today, and it is often a wonder that anything does remain today.

Rouen cathedral

The tower to the right in the photo above, not very well shown in this picture, is called the “Butter Tower” since it was funded by the sale of indulgences to those who did not wish to forego butter during Lent – but also because the stones nearer the top of the tower came from a different quarry with yellow-tinted rock.

Looking at the photo of the nave above, if you think of the attached columns (the thin molded columns that surround the actual pillars) as branches, at Amiens the “branches” separate and multiply at different levels the higher you go up, as they would on an actual tree; but at Rouen every single “branch” essentially starts at the ground, making the lower pillars very busy-looking indeed. The overall effect looking down the nave is one of almost too-much-detail for eyes to take in, which the photo above illustrates well. It is beautiful in its own way, all these churches are. But I admit to preferring the cleaner aesthetic at Amiens.

And indeed in the picture below you can see that the style is different even within Rouen cathedral itself, here in the choir the gallery columns are more like Roman columns with capitals than Gothic pillars.

Somewhat uncommonly for French cathedrals of this time, Rouen has an actual tower at the crossing.

Of course, there was a very impressive Lady Chapel (chapel to the virgin Mary) behind the choir. All the ones I’ve seen so far have been very ornate but this one is huge, almost a small church-within-a-church.

Rouen Lady Chapel

Rouen cathedral is the burial place of several famous people. If you have enjoyed watching the History channel TV show Vikings then you will definitely remember Rollo, who is buried here. The historical Rollo is probably an even more interesting character than Ragnar who is the primary focus of the show in the early seasons. Rollo and his viking companions took Rouen in 876 and nearly destroyed the entire town in the process. He later expanded his raids and besieged Paris itself. The Franks being unable to best him, King Charles III ultimately settled a treaty whereby the lands Rollo had seized would be officially recognized as his own (as the newly created Duchy of Normandy), in exchange for his baptism and marriage to Charles’ daughter Gisela. Much of this is portrayed in the TV show with of course various dubious but exciting embellishments. Rollo’s descendants became known as the Normans and you can spend a lifetime studying their subsequent influence on European culture, and consequently, on the person writing this and the people reading it.

We had also heard that Richard the Lionheart was buried here. We finally found his tomb, not greatly adorned or any different from the ones around it. On closer inspection we see that it is only his heart which is buried here, his body lies at the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud.

The heart of Richard the Lionheart

I suppose I was expecting something a bit more grand, but even so I was not disappointed to have made the visit. Sitting here now I am unable to think of another historical figure who has thrilled as many young boys over the last 8 centuries as they read about his exploits in the story books. King Arthur and Robin Hood come to mind but they were not literally historical.

Afterwards we went to find the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, but this is getting quite long already so perhaps I will do another post about her later.

Rouen is a beautiful city nestled in between hills, and especially to see la vieille ville (the old town) with its medieval era half-timbered homes and narrow cobblestone streets is an otherworldly experience for someone from America. We didn’t see half of what we might have, and it’s a place where a car would come in very handy to visit the nearby Jumièges Abbey and the basilique Notre-Dame de Bonsecours.

In closing, here is a picture taken from the Pont Pierre Corneille, looking to the east along the Seine river at the abandoned Église Saint Paul at the foot of Colline Sainte-Catherine.

Le Visiteur – Day 1

My next closest sibling decided my trip here was just the excuse he needed to visit France again. My brother was mentioned (and shown with slightly more hair) in an earlier post. He has been to France multiple times as an adult and speaks far better French than I do. I was looking forward to having someone to share my experiences with but also to letting someone else do the speaking parts for a few days.

He was scheduled to leave the US on a Friday afternoon and arrive in Paris on Saturday morning. However Mother Nature decided this would be a good time to dump a bunch of snow on Chicago and disrupt air transport for all of North America. He actually made it onto a plane in Kansas City and they even taxied away from the gate, but after sitting immobile for three hours the plane taxied back and that was that. Chicago was not accepting any incoming flights.

As usual the airline was of no help and scheduled him for two more days out, but since his entire trip was for less than a week to begin with that wasn’t going to leave much relaxing time. Instead he arranged his own new itinerary, getting up on Saturday morning before dawn and driving for hours through blizzard conditions to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he finally managed to get a connection to Chicago, after only about 6 more hours of delays. He arrived in Paris on Sunday morning after a full measure of the kind of peaceful rest you can only get from travelling internationally.

Meanwhile I was busily occupied getting ready, cleaning the apartment, getting groceries, and doing laundry. While ironing a shirt my iron briefly fell off my tipsy Carrefour ironing board and touched my comforter. This is when I discovered my comforter is actually made of plastic.

Couette de feu

And it is also not actually “my” comforter, it belongs to the apartment. So I can see that we will need to be learning some new creative vocabulary to explain that one.

Anyway, I know travel delays and burnt blankets are relatively minor setbacks in the course of life. I mention them only because we had no other actual disasters occur during the entire week, which I think is a family record going back for several generations. Good for us, but I apologize in advance if the rest of these posts are consequently boring. Nothing is more exciting than the suffering of others, but that is all the suffering I have to share for the moment.

An expert now at the Paris train system, and having bought tickets in advance, I met my brother at the airport and had him back to Amiens in hardly more than 2 hours. Rested as he was after his leisurely voyage across the globe, we decided to take the tower tour at the Amiens cathedral. I had already tried to take this tour several times before but for reasons that escaped my French comprehension I was always turned away, on one occasion right after the lady at the billetterie sold tickets to several people directly in front of me (including a couple who pulled the old French trick of cutting in line right when it was finally my turn at the counter). I started to wonder if the woman at the ticket office just didn’t like me, but with my brother’s language skills we waltzed right into the tour group without problem.

The tour was unguided and barely even chaperoned. I was surprised at the liberty they gave us, but they opened a locked door on the southern tower and said “go up, wander around, spend as much time as you want, and come back down the north tower when you’re done.” Can’t beat that.

Back down

Sadly the tour did not include any of the upper areas on the inside of the cathedral, such as the walkway along the triforium, or the attic above the mysterious trapdoor in the ceiling:


But you can see some of these other fascinating areas in YouTube videos such as this one:

So ended day one. Being Sunday there was not much open and we were too tired to go out anyway so we opted to have Pizza Hut for dinner, delivered by a guy on a bicycle. And yes I know, eating American food in France is cheating, but I have decided that French Pizza Hut is not technically cheating: not when it comes with fromage à raclette, lardon, crème fraîche légère; is baked in a fondue pot; and is named something like Le Montagnarde. Try getting that in America!

And yes, it is delicious.

More About Town

Other than my trip to Paris I have mostly been working a lot so haven’t had the opportunity to get myself into many misadventures; I have however amassed a quantity of photos from around town which I will now inflict on you.

First of course is the cathedral itself which I visit frequently, or rather, nearly every day. The appearance changes throughout the day and if we have the occasion of some sun the interior can be quite beautiful (in fact it’s always beautiful, but in different ways).

A place of many colors (some days)

Also I will add here a photo of yet another church also near the city center, as part of my attempt to photograph as many churches in this town as possible, and there are a lot of them. This is Saint-Rémi and I have not been able to get inside, I believe it has been closed for some years due to structural issues. It was built in the late 19th century on the site of an even older Franciscan convent, but like Beauvais only the choir and transept were completed.

Église Saint-Rémi d’Amiens

Even “regular” buildings display a lot of architectural interest:

Caisse d’Epargne (a bank)
Some dude with a lion hat holding up a balcony

There is an apparently terrific museum here in Amiens, unfortunately it is closed for renovations and is scheduled to open the day after I leave!

Musée de Picardie, taken from a crack in the gates

There is also a cemetery a ways out of town that is famous for being the burial site of Jules Verne who lived in Amiens for many years. This is another place I would not have thought to visit other than I read about it in the blog that I mentioned before. Unfortunately the gravesite of Jules Verne himself was covered over for restoration, but you can see a photo of his unique tombstone in Kaitlyn’s blog.

I read 20,000 Leagues when I was a kid but I don’t remember much about it now. Anyway Jules Verne is not my personal literary hero or anything, as wonderful as he was, and I was happy to see the rest of la Cimetière de la Madeleine all the same. I went on an foggy and drizzly Sunday afternoon when very few people were out, and the half hour walk there was one of the more agreeable strolls I have ever taken.

The national train worker’s strike has been going on for over 40 days now, and every now and then the unions will call for a “national day of action” in which demonstrators take to the streets. January 9th was such a day and I was startled from my computer that afternoon by the sounds of explosions outside. Looking out the window I saw a cloud of smoke rising from the street, lit from within by an ominous red light. I walked out to see a large group of demonstrators making their way down the street and I followed them for a ways. Some had roadside flares, and some set off fireworks (of a magnitude I have never heard before even on the 4th of July in America), and they sang chants, and blared music, and some wore yellow vests, traffic was inconvenienced, and many employees of cafés and shops were standing outside looking on.

Although the procession did at first look intimidating, I will say that at least here in Amiens the protesters were peaceful and even I would say in a good mood. They were not knocking over trash cans or burning cars or causing any problems, in fact they seemed to be having a good time. What happens elsewhere, or on other days, I have no idea!

Grève du 9 janvier, Amiens

I will end with a photo taken about 2 minutes after midnight on New Year’s Eve. As you can see the streets were dead, but I heard lots of parties going on indoors…

From the cathedral looking back to the belfry