Joan of Arc to William the Conqueror
Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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My first evening I walk past the Cathedral and it was wonderful to see at night. The way the stone has been carved it looks like lacework, so light and delicate, yet it's a massive building, the largest Gothic Cathedral in France (I find out later it is generally considered the Gothic church most beautiful and pure in form). Much of the city was destoyed in WW2 but fortunately the Cathedral and the area nearby escaped serious damage. The small central core of the city is interlaced with a network of canals. I walk along these to the edge of the city and come across les hortillonages, which are market gardens built on islands in the waterways, where the soil is very fertile. On market days some of the farmers still take their produce to market in long black boats with high prows.
The main citizen of note from Amiens was Jules Verne, but unfortunately his house, which is now a museum, is not open when I go there.
I eat at a restaurant called T'chiot Zinc (t'chiot is the local word used instead of petite, so I guess the name means small zinc - very unusual and original, I think for a restaurant):
My menu is: Flamich Picardie (leek pie), Dos de Cabbilaude (cod in a creamy sauce), & La coupe Amienoise (macaroon, tuiles, sour cherry ice-cream, berries and chantilly cream), washed down with a pichet of Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine.
At an adjacent table there was a young woman digging in to a plate of marrow bones, the only place I have seen them on a menu apart from one restaurant where I ate them in Budapest.
After just one night in Amiens I followed the Somme down to its mouth at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, which is where William the Conqueror set off in 1066 to conquer England.
The mouth of the Somme is a vast area of salt meadows (basically grass growing on sand in sea-water) and at this time of year is chilly and wind-blown. I stop in at a restaurant called Les Pilotes where they have over 30 types of moules (mussels) dishes on the menu (including with ginger cream and tropical fruits - true!).
There have been any number of opportunities to eat moules in Belgium, France and Holland and I have avoided them until now, but I succumb today and have Moules Picardie, which is with shallots, champignons, cream and wine, and of course frites. Everywhere in the area there are signs that the Beaujolais Nouveau is here, so I have a glass of that to accompany (Beaujolais Nouveau is the year's new wine that has just been bottled - everybody goes a bit mad and there are races to see who can get it first).
A huge bowl of moules arrives - I don't know how many but somewhat more than 50 and less than 100, together with at least half a kilo of frites (served separately, thank goodness, not underneath the moules as I have usually seen them). The moules, again thankfully, are small and sweet, but I just don't see what cream and mushrooms does for them (nothing, in my opinion), let alone many of the other possible concoctions on the menu.
I have to go for a walk after this, so with a kilo or 2 of moules and frites in my stomach as ballast, I lean forward at a fairly acute angle into the cold Atlantic wind and tack my way along the riverside towards the sea.
I pass a number of colourful sailors houses, then climb up to Saint Martin's church. There are a couple of unusual features - it has 2 naves, and is made of a mixture of different types and colours of dressed stone and pebbles arranged in many different patterns (this is the first time I've seen it but I find out this is common in churches in Picardy and Normandy). Very near the church is an arched gate and the sign says that Jean d'Arc was taken through here when she was transported from her jail at the town of Le Crotoy (just across the Somme river estuary), to Rouen to be tried and condemned. Once again I feel the tingle of history, and follow up by travelling next to Rouen.
I arrive in Rouen on a freezing cold night.
First thing I do is head for the Place du Vieux-Marchè, the site where Jean d'Arc was burnt at the stake. A large cross and a colourful flower bed mark the site and an unusual-looking modern church dedicated to her dominates the site (it's said to resemble the shape of the pyre). Right next to the church, in fact virtually under the same roofline, is the daily market - it's one of those things so typical of Europe (and no doubt other places that have seen lots of history) - the sacred and profane are intermingled and people are laughing, eating, shopping, etc where momentous and tragic events have happened. Unfortunately the church is closed so I can't go in.
There's a huge number of restaurants in Rouen and my mind gets dizzy (and my body freezes) perusing the menus displayed outside, especially as the restaurants all offer many different "formules" (pre-packaged menus at different price levels which save you money over a la carte). I eventually settle on Le Toque d'Or and my formule is 6 snails in garlic butter (very good, not canned snails), skate wing in cream & cider sauce, a cheese platter of Camembert and Pont l'Eveque (both towns where the cheeses are made are nearby), a dessert of what's described as cottage cheese (nothing like what we get in Australia, it's a fresh slightly acidic cheese) with berry sauce & cream, and again I have Beaujolais Nouveau, and a Calvados to digest(it's a spirit of around 40% alcohol distilled from apples, and a very enjoyable drink).
After dinner, I walk along the Seine, which is quite wide here - across the river, strung out for a kilometer or so is a fun fair, with every sort of thrill-ride imaginable, all lit up in flashing neon lights. I consider going over there for a few rides, but my more rational side wins this time (yes it occasionally gets a word in) - it tells me it would not be wise to be dropped from a great height or whirled upside down after the amount of moules, frites, cheese, wine, etc I've consumed today.
Rouen is in Normandy, which is famous for dairy and apple-based products. The cheeses I eat have a lot of flavour and I would be sure they are made from raw milk, which is still not allowed in Australia. What else - I visit the Cathedral, another French Gothic masterpiece; the Musee de Beaux-Arts, where they have quite a reasonable collection including paintings by Caravaggio, Rubens, Modigliani, and many Impressionists; and the home of Gustave Flaubert, who was born and lived in Rouen.
I follow the river down to the sea and stop at the beautiful little town of Honfleur at the mouth of the Seine.
I see a little sign offering rooms in a restaurant window in the prime position overlooking the boat harbour, and go in to enquire. It's early in the evening and the staff are sitting at a table eating their meal before the customers come. I am taken up a narrow wooden spiral staircase (and nearly knock my head on the stairs above as it's so narrow and steep) and shown this fantastic room. It's like the captain's room in an old sailing ship (or at least a romanticised version of such) - wood-panelling, brass everywhere, marine instruments, dining alcove & kitchen, and it looks directly over the boat harbour. It's more than I should pay but bugger it, I take it anyway.
Dinner is very good - a formule comprising 9 oysters, grilled dorade (bream?) with olive oil and lemon (thankfully no cream), local cheeses, & berry & apple crumble.
At the table next to me a family is dining and the daughter, about 14-15 years old, is tucking into a large crab, expertly cracking the legs, pulling out all the orangey bits in the body, etc - I enjoyed watching her eat every last morsel, finishing well after the rest of the family.
The town is really pretty - a feature of this area is that the outside walls of many buildings are covered in slate tiles, yet the Church of St Catherine and the associated belfry are made of wood, and again the interior of the church has 2 naves.
On Sunday morning I go to the 9.30 service, and unlike some other church services I've been to in other places, it's very well attended. A teenage boy comes in swinging the censer expertly and leading the altar boys (and 2 girls), all dressed in white and carrying large candles and singing, and finally the priest in his white & gold robe. The priest has a beautiful soft voice and it's lovely sitting there listening to him leading the singing and chanting.
Then I brave the wind and cold again and visit the local museum (Musée Eugene Boudin), and the Erik Satie Museum. Satie was born in Honfleur and many of his music and painting friends visited him here (he knew Picasso, Braque, Cocteau, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky). The museum is extremely well done - you are given an infra-red headset when you go in and this triggers a multi-media presentation as you go through the various rooms. Just to give you an idea of the fantasies in store, as you enter there is a large flying pear (apparently an idea dreamed up by his friends the day he died), a pedalling machine which opens up as a carousel with a bizarre flying violin (with a boot attached), harp, accordion (best to see the pictures, which were very hard to take as I was pedalling furiously while taking pictures as these items whizzed by over my head - the things I do to get pictures!). The whole experience was backed up by Satie's music, and for the final part you sit in a stark white room with a white piano and listen to several of his pieces, which was extremely soothing.
So after all this fantasising I dropped in at Le Cidrerie (the Cider House) and had some of their specialties:
Aperitif of Pommeau - cider mixed with Calvados
Le galichot - made of farine de seigle et froment, a type of pancake of a thickness between a blini and a crepe, topped with potted goose, cooked onions and gherkins, and for dessert a crepe with cider and cream (rich and slightly acid).
To warm myself before venturing outside I also had a Pommeau Episcopal - hot Pommeau with spices.
After this I decide to cut across inland and drive through the beautiful green rolling countryside (along narrow and confusing country roads through low dark clouds and rain) to the cathedral city of Lisieux, whose claim to fame is Saint Therese, who is second only to Saint Jean d'Arc in the saintly pantheon of France. Her parents had just been beatified in October, so there were still lots of signs around for the event. I haven't fully worked out why Therese was made a saint, but she is called a Doctor of the Church, which is given for "holiness of their lives, the distinction and orthodoxy of their teaching, and their theological and spiritual learning".
That night I made it to Falaise, where William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard, as apparently he is called by some people (he was an illegitimate child) was born and lived much of his life. It's a fair-sized town but it seems few people visit as there are only 2 hotels, and one is closed, so I have to stay at the ever-present Ibis.
The site of the castle where William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquérant) was born is in a commanding position on the edge of a cliff. There's only a small amount of the original castle left, as it was later enlarged, then partially destroyed, etc and renovations have now been going on for some years. Nevertheless it's very impressive and the audio-visual tour gives a real feeling for his life and times - I am enjoying immensely being able to follow the trail of all these characters of European history.
There were very limited options for dining in Falaise and I ended up going to a rather up-market, very chintzy and rather formal restaurant.
The décor was over the top - the restaurant was painted bright orange, with deep pink curtains, ribbons on the candelabras, and other trimmings, blond wood chairs with pink seats, white tablecloths, etc. There were huge numbers of wine glasses, knives, forks, spoons, plates, etc on my table and I hardly knew where to begin - the (what can I call her, certainly not a waitress - she was too, well, not haughty, but she was certainly several classes above me) came to my assistance several times when she saw me trying to work out what to use for what from the maze on my table.
In the background all night there was piano music, played by someone that sounded like they had taken lessons from Liberace - it went from Love Me Tender to Come Back to Sorrento, to New York, New York and even La Cumparsita - with about 3 times as many notes being played on the piano as I think the original music used.
Before I left Falaise I popped into the War Museum and learned the tragic fact it was directly in the path of the Allies as they pushed inland after they landed in Normandy in 1944 and was heavily bombed, with over 350 civilians killed.
My next stop after Falaise was Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, the tiny religious island off the coast of Brittany (which will be the stqrt of my next post).
On the way, however, I went through the intriguingly named town of Villedieu-les-Poêles (if taken literally I think it means something like house of God of the frying-pans). The reason frypans is in the name became clear very quickly - it's the main centre in France for making copper cooking pots. I stopped at the display area of one of the workshops and it was all I could do to stop myself from buying several pots and frying pans. They were made from copper several millimetres thick and were so heavy that it needed a lot of muscle to lift them - they wouldn't last a lifetime, more like a thousand years. I was very sorely tempted to buy at least one frypan, but decided in the end it was just too impractical (as well as costly) - I still think about them though (I have one copper cooking pot but it's like a toy compared to these).
Less than an hour later I have my first view of Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, a speck on the horizon ... (to be continued)