Rouen in renewal (also Amiens)

I visited Rouen as a teenager and hadn’t stopped there since (although I did change trains) – crazy, as it’s so close to England and is so attractive! And I do go to Caen and Bayeux in Lower Normandy most years. I remember it as very half-timbered, but really I had no idea, there are half-timbered buildings everywhere (not just in the centre but well into the suburbs, and in the heart of the modern hospital complex) – and not just black and white but a whole palette of colours. I also particularly remember the Danse Macabre, in the Aître Saint Maclou – which is just as well, as it’s being refurbished until 2020. It’s generally possible (Mon-Fri 09.00-17.00) to stand in the middle of the courtyard (yes, half-timbered), but there’s nothing to be seen as it’s all safely wrapped up. It was built in 1526-30 to expand the cemetery of the church of St Maclou, and was decorated with wooden sculptures of the dance of death, inspired by the plague epidemics that swept across Europe so often at the time; in turn they are said to inspired the rattling bones in Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre and also in the Fossils movement of his Carnival of the Animals.

The porch of the Saint-Maclou church, Rouen

Rouen has at least three fantastic churches, close together in the heart of the old town, but only the cathedral actually functions as a church, the others being decently maintained by the state and opened three to five days a week. In the case of St Maclou, open only Saturday to Monday, it’s not tragic, as the porch is a triumph of Flamboyant Gothic stonework, with carved wooden doors in Renaissance style, that can be enjoyed at any time. Just to the north, the Abbey of St-Ouen was founded in the eighth century, on the burial site of the saint, bishop of Rouen from 641 to 684, but most of it was demolished after the Revolution, except for the monks’ dormitory which was incorporated in the new Hôtel de Ville – there are now gardens to the east on the site of the abbey and a grand square to the west. The church (daily except Monday and Friday) was rebuilt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and is huge and bare, and houses the great organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll’s last masterpiece – it features in many recordings of organ music, but to be honest it didn’t exactly seem to fill the acoustic when I heard it. The seats in the nave are the wrong way round, facing the organ at the west end, although it makes no difference to the musical experience.

Rouen cathedral

Finally, the cathedral is one of the great Gothic masterpieces, mostly built in the thirteenth century, although the great western façade dates from the twelfth century. The metal spire (which briefly made it the world’s tallest building) was added in 1876 – this is now rusty, and is being restored between 2016 and 2023 (it took a year just to install the scaffolding and workers’ facilities etc). The cathedral was badly damaged in Word War II and didn’t reopen until 1956 – during the rebuilding the remains of the earlier church, dating from c.1000, were found; this is where St Olaf was baptised in 1014, a year before returning to become king of Norway and effectively create a new nation. You won’t need reminding that Normandy was created by Norsemen, and you can still see the odd Viking on the streets of Rouen and Caen. Several Dukes of Normandy are buried in the cathedral, most notably the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion (see this post for the rest of him), the great crusader who moonlighted as King of England from 1189, as well as his older brother (and perpetual adversary) Henry the Young King, who was crowned King of England in 1170 and ruled on behalf of his father but died six months before him.

There’s also a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc, who was burnt to death in Rouen by the English in 1431 – you’ll see other memories of here here, notably the Historial Jeanne d’Arc in the north side of the cathedral, where you can enjoy a multimedia ‘retrial’ of this supposed heretic. I also remember the striking modernist church of St Jeanne d’Arc in the Vieux Marché, which I saw as a teenager but didn’t get back to this time.

There’s a huge amount of urban renewal and beautification (€30 million’s worth) under way from 2016 to 2023, much of it linked to the construction of the new metro line T4 (due to open in 2019) and the refurbishment of the existing underground section of line T1 (1.7km long, opened in 1994, and totally closed for July and August of 2018). The metro connects with bus rapid transit lines which use tram-style articulated buses that have traffic-free routes through the centre marked with dotted white lines to allow the Optiguide system to bring them as close as possible to the platforms. Other projects, bringing greenery and pedestrianisation, are focussing on three areas, Seine-Cathédrale (south from the cathedral to the river), Quartier des Musées (towards the station, containing most of the city’s museums) and Vieux Marché (just west of the centre). Square Verdrel (laid out in 1862, with a cascade and statues), has already been refurbished, and there’s a huge Calder mobile presently sitting between it and the Musée des Beaux Arts, although I’m not sure if it’s a permanent fixture or not.

Urban renewal, Rouen
Fine Arts in Rouen

The Musée des Beaux Arts is very good, with a large and reasonably varied collection but minimal captions with no dates (but with a few errors, eg a painting of the first modern investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911 is dated 1891/2) – there’s far more information on the frames than the art. It starts with some anonymous fourteenth-century Florentine paintings, as well as Giampetrino, Perugino and a terracotta by (Luca, presumably) Della Robbia. There’s a nice anonymous portrait of Henri III of France, looking just like an Elizabethan dandy, with designer stubble and a huge pearl in his ear, and a lovely Roman marble statue of Omphale, Then there’s plenty of Flemish art, including Jan Claesz, Jan Massys, Gerard David (a lovely The Virgin among the Virgins), Gerard Ter Borch, Thomas de Keyser, Jan Steen, van Dyck, Nicolas Berchem, and four pieces by Jan van Goyen. Later Italian art includes Palma Il Giovane and Lavinia Fontana, and then upstairs a couple by Guercino, Luca Giordano (a Good Samaritan with the victim of robbery looking like a dead Christ), Veronese’s Saint Barnabas and another by Veronese and his  studio, and Caravaggio’s superb Flagellation of Christ flanked by a great Rubens (The Adoration of the Shepherds). From Spain there’s a de Ribera and Velasquez’s Democritus (a very Spanish-looking chap with a globe).

French art is dominated, naturally, by locally born painters, such as Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717), Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824), Jean Restout (1692-1768), Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine (1751-1824), who all painted dull academic works, and Joseph-Desiré Court (1796-1865), a rather more interesting portrait painter. Every one of them was born here, moved to Paris and died there, but that’s normal in France. There are also three paintings by Nicolas Poussin (born in Les Andelys in 1594), but the greatest of the Rouen-born painters, without a doubt, is Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) – there’s a roomful of his paintings plus a sculpture of a nymph and a satyr with his hand where it definitely shouldn’t be. You’ll also see an Érard fortepiano and harp, commemorating François-Adrien Boieldieu, an opera composer known as ‘the French Mozart’, who was born in Rouen in 1775.

The impressionist galleries are what most people come for, with several paintings by Monet, including one of his famous thirty versions of the west façade of the cathedral (1892-3), two by Pissarro, nine by Sisley (always my mother’s favourite, and one of mine too), two by Renoir (probably my least favourite artist), and also Guillaumin, Jongkind, Caillebotte and Gustave Moreau. There were half a dozen decent Rouen-born Impressionists too, but oddly, later painters tended to be born in Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine, rather than in Rouen – above all Raoul Dufy (born 1877), as well as Othon Friesz (1879) and Jean Dubuffet (1901).

Finally, back near the entrance hall, there are two fine paintings by Modigliani (not female nudes but portraits of men with their clothes on) plus various works by the Duchamp/Villon brothers, born nearby in Blainville-Crevon in the 1870s and 1880s – the oldest was the Cubist painter Jacques Villon, the next was Raymond Duchamp-Villon, a sculptor who was like a big clumsy version of Henri Gaudier-Brezska (whose work is well represented in Kettle’s Yard back home in Cambridge) and the third was Marcel Duchamp, founder of Dadaism. Why they used both surnames I don’t know; but they also had a younger sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, also a painter, about whom I know nothing.

More tramways and trains – Caen and Amiens

I came to Rouen from Caen where, oddly enough, the city centre is also in disarray due to construction of a modern rapid transit system (mentioned here). From Rouen I went to Amiens, which has one of the biggest and very best Gothic cathedrals – but of course you knew that already. But you probably didn’t know that the Musée de Picardie is closed for refurbishment until the autumn of 2019. Instead I was very happy to visit the house of Jules Verne. Some urban improvements are happening here too, with segregated bus-only routes being created.

The house of Jules Verne, Amiens

I mentioned in my previous post on Normandy that the region was taking charge of its rail services and that there’s now a fairly intensive Paris-Caen intercity service with regional connections from Caen to Cherbourg, rather than regular Paris-Cherbourg trains; the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre service has evolved slightly differently, with semi-fast trains from Paris to Rouen, stopping at all kinds of places you’ve never heard of, and intercity trains that run non-stop to Rouen and then on to Yvetôt and Le Havre. I came from Caen to Rouen on a non-stop train – nice for me, but it seems bizarre not to stop at Lisieux at least.

Meanwhile, the SNCF has almost stopped printing timetable leaflets and there are no timetable posters in the stations – apparently everyone has to be digital now, which sounds much like the banks closing branches in Cornwall (see here) ‘due to changing public demand’. People seem to be coping, but I suspect it’s putting some occasional travellers off (or maybe they’re wasting their lives away holding on the phone).

In addition Rouen airport is expanding its activities (with new services to Lyon and Bastia), Flixbus coach services come here, and an increasing number of cruise ships are making their way up the Seine (not the huge ones, thankfully, but still bringing 20,000 passengers in 2017). There’s a cycle route from Rouen downstream to Le Havre and in 2020 this will be extended to Paris – I was already thinking of a trip linking the many Impressionist sights along the Seine (not just Monet’s garden at Giverny), so maybe I’ll wait till this is open.

Normandy and Brittany

Just a few notes from my recent trip to western Normandy and eastern Brittany – a well-worn trail for me, with its highlights at Mont St Michel and Carnac. In particular, we were immensely privileged to be taken up through one of the flying buttresses to the roof level of the Abbey of Mont St Michel – something that’s only possible with a private guide that you’ve been working with for some years! So I’m afraid I can’t tell you who to contact.

The Mémorial de Caen now includes galleries on the weapons of the Cold War and Berlin in the Cold War – you might expect it just to deal with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, but it now covers everything from the causes of Word War II in the Versailles Treaties of 1918-19 up to its consequences in the 1950s and 1960s. Also new in 2017 is a Résistance & Collaboration gallery and a new film on the Battle of Normandy (in French and English versions). There are lots of small private museums in the villages near in D-Day beaches, which have their own quirky individual charm, with lots of recovered artefacts, but none offers anything like the detail and context of the Mémorial de Caen. It’s not cheap though, at almost €20 (€51 for a family pass). Over to the west, the Utah Beach Museum reopened in 2011; originally in a German bunker, it now has a state-of-the-art building for its displays, including a B-26 Marauder bomber in a custom-built hangar. But the landings on Utah Beach (and Gold, Sword and Juno) were relatively straightforward – Omaha will always be the main focus of attention.

It’s worth mentioning that the city of Caen is planning to change from its unique and unreliable guided trolleybus system to a standard LRT tramway – the single central rail will be replaced by two running rails, so there will be construction chaos for quite a while once they get started.

It opened in 2006, but I hadn’t come across the Mémorial des Reporters in Bayeux before – in a lovely park-like setting near the British Cemetery (rue de Verdun, off Bd Fabien Ware), it remembers the more than 2000 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1944 with a gravestone for each year. It’s getting more dangerous to be a war reporter – in 2015 110 were killed, at least 67 of them deliberately targeted because of their work, according to Reporters sans Frontieres. Across the road from the British Cemetery is the Bayeux Memorial, a classical portico bearing the names of 1,808 men of the Commonwealth and Empire who died in the Battle of Normandy and who have no known grave. Above is a Latin inscription that translates as ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land’.

Also in Bayeux, the new Villa Lara is a great hotel, with large stylish roosm and great service – although the first wi-fi log-in is unnecessarily complicated (and it’s not very fast); and every time you leave your bedroom it seems someone comes in and puts a sticker on the loose end of the loo roll – a bizarre obsession! But it’s great that they were able to get permission for a new building right in the centre of town (hidden away just off the main Rue St-Jean), and that they did such a good job. It’s not at all cheap, though. L’Angle St Laurent at 4 rue des Bouchers seems to still be the best restaurant in town – always fabulous. Down towards the Baie du Mont St Michel, the Auberge de Carolles is also much improved under its new management (though well out of the way for most tourists). I also have a new favourite crêperie in Dinan, Art-Bilig at 8 rue Ste-Claire – small, friendly and efficient, serving up excellent savoury brown galettes and white dessert crêpes, with local cider, of course.

Speaking of restaurants – I don’t know whether this was coincidence, but in many places where I’d asked for a set menu for our group I was given a choice of cabillaud ou canard (cod or duck) – last year (2016) every menu in Britain seemed to offer arancini as starters (or they appeared as amuses-bouches while we were studying the menus), this year wild mushroom is everywhere – but that’s the UK, and I don’t expect that kind of faddiness in France, where chefs have the confidence to just do what they feel they do best, and the public expect that. But I can’t help wondering just what ‘wild’ mushrooms really are – I’m sure they’re not all authentically foraged from the fields.

Brittany

In Brittany, Léhon, 2km south of Dinan, reminded me a bit of Todmorden, with Incredible Edible-style plantings (which I also saw in Liège) – but rather than being a community-based free food scheme, these are educational (and very decorative) displays of the sorts of medicinal and edible plants that would have been grown by medieval monks. There’s always been a beautiful display in the cloister of the simple largely twelfth-century abbey, but now it’s expanded out onto the streets; the abbey garden is also open now, with newly planted apple trees (rare local varieties, I imagine) and bug hotels. It leads down to the river and the simple bridge, blown up by the Germans in 1944 (the blast also shattered the abbey’s stained glass) and rebuilt. Léhon is an older crossing point of the Rance, superseded by Dinan, just downstream, from the eleventh century, and now it’s just a quiet little village, overlooked by the remains of its castle – the towpath between Léhon and Dinan, closed by rockfall for at least half a dozen years, has now reopened and makes for a lovely walk or cycle ride.

This interest in recreating monastic herb gardens is not new in France, and in fact I saw similar gardens at Fort La Latte and Poul-Fétan (where the whole village has been restored to its pre-industrial form). A little further west near Planguenoual, Herbarius is a garden of medicinal and edible plants that runs educational activities and grows plants to sell, aiming to preserve the biodiversity of the medieval ecosystem.

Rennes and the railways

Rennes is a large, unattractive and basically un-Breton sort of city now – although there are some lovely half-timbered buildings, and the modern Musée de Bretagne is excellent. When the new high-speed line from La Mans to Rennes opens in July 2017, with 20 trains a day bringing passengers from Paris in as little as 1hr 25min, they will be greeted by a building site. Work began in 2015 to build a second metro line and to create the shiney new EuroRennes interchange – both the main Place de la Gare, to the north, and the Parvis Sud, the convenient and less well-known southern entry, will be a mess until 2020, and the redevelopment of the area won’t be fully completed until 2027. But more importantly (it seems) the new shops in the station will open in 2018.

In the west of Brittany, Brest and Quimper will each have 9 TGVs a day reaching Paris in 3hr 15min; Lorient has an entirely new station, which opened in May 2017 (also part of a local regeneration scheme). It’s all being promoted as Bretagne Grande-Vitesse, aiming to provide faster, more frequent and better integrated rail transport across the region. It’s worth mentioning that the Sud-Europe-Atlantique high-speed line from Tours to Bordeaux will also open on July 2, bringing Paris-Bordeaux journeys down by 75 minutes to just over two hours (London to Bordeaux will take under six hours, with a change of train in Lille or Paris). And France’s TGV services will all then be branded as inOui (a pun on inouï, meaning unheard of or amazing).

Meanwhile, in 2020 Normandy will introduce its fleet of new double-deck trains (les Trains Normands) – paid for by the central government as part of the process of transferring unprofitable long-distance services from the SNCF to the regions (which already run local train and bus services under the TER (Transport Express Régional) brand. Normandy will now take responsibility for services from Paris to Caen/Cherbourg, Rouen/Le Havre, Trouville-Deauville, Granville and Serquigny, and from Caen to Le Mans and Tours, with the usual objective of boosting frequencies, speeds and connections.

If that all sounds like good news, I found I was unable to collect my ticket (booked online) as usual from the ticket machines at Rennes station – I was told the system had changed and now I was expected to print it myself, or have it on a phone. Luckily I was able to find wifi (the usual SNCF station wifi was down, perhaps because of the construction works) and download the ticket. Still, this seems unnecessarily obstructive.

I took the Brittany Ferries ship from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (15km north of Caen) and back – an excellent service,  and there’s usually a direct bus connection from the port to Caen station. However on Sundays the service is poor – arriving late in the evening there’s no connection (and the one taxi loaded up and left, so I hitched into town just as it got dark), and returning on a public holiday (ie the Sunday timetable) the last bus to Ouistreham (not to the ferry terminal, but near enough) is at 1814 – the ferry leaves at 2300, so there’s plenty of time for dinner, and plenty of decent places to eat just south of the ferry terminal.