Sunday, May 17, 2009

Becoming North-men

Sorry about the hiatus. My brother and I were wandering Italy for the last two weeks. I was so close to being caught up, then I went and did some more exploring. I'm not complaining, but I'm sorry to leave my readership (i.e. my mother) waiting. So the catch-up continues...

The Photo Album with more of France illustrating this post.

The next morning we were up and moving towards the train station to catch a ride to Rouen. We knew they had one train every hour and we planned to arrive at the station with some time to get breakfast. Unfortunately, they rearranged the schedule and we had a lot more time to kill than we expected. Loaded with all of our luggage, we went into the quiet streets in search of something to eat. Tiny cafés were plentiful, but they wouldn’t fit our bags, so for our final meal in Paris was eaten at Quick, a sterile fast food chain that seemed to be McDonald’s French cousin.

Our time to head out towards Rouen was imminent so we walked back to the station where I had to wrestle with the validation machine before we could board. I’m gaining an increasing appreciation for the ease of German transport and the inefficiency of other national high-speed systems.

Rouen is an industrial town with a rich history that goes back to the Hundred Years War (War of the Roses) as France and England raged back and forth over who could claim the crown and Northern France. As we rolled through the city in a cab, we glimpsed a half-dozen towers of churches in different styles that spoke to the antiquity of our new surroundings. We arrived at the car rental place while they were on lunch break. One of the more annoying aspects of traveling through Europe is the unpredictability of lunch time. In France people seem particularly dedicated to their two-hour break in the day.

So we had some time to kill. We dropped our luggage in an accommodating hotel and went to see the Rouen Cathedral, made famous by Monet’s brush as he painted the façade at different times of day, setting up multiple canvases so he could move to the next one as the light changed. The interior was high-flying gothic constructed of light stone that made the whole worship space brighter than most Gothic churches I’ve visited.

We wandered through the quaint shopping district where you could buy fine cheese, wine, chocolate, and duck pate. In case you forgot, we were in France. Joan of Arc was burned in Rouen, and now the city center features a very modern church dedicated to the patron of France. The warped beams of the interior evoke the Viking longboats that gave the region its name (Normandy = North Men) and frame medieval stained glass windows that survived World War II. The church they once decorated did not.

With lunchtime over we grabbed our car, resurrected Brigitte and started North to Bayeux. Our destination was a Norman manor house in the middle of the French countryside. The place was owned and operated by two British sisters and their husbands who decided to quit their jobs in England and open a rustic bed and breakfast in France. Really, who wouldn’t.

The manor and farm houses were reminiscent of a Jane Austen setting with dignified shutters lining every window, and stately chickens wandering the grounds. Our room was a massive piece of the attic with skylights flooding the interior with light. As we were given the tour of our temporary residence, one of the proprietors mentioned the beams over our heads were four hundred years old. At some point I may not find such a statement shocking, but that time hasn’t arrived quite yet.

There was a large common area around a fireplace and bookshelves stuffed with paperbacks and classic novels. A cozy home that we quickly left so we could check off another place we should see before we die: Mont St. Michel.

At some point in the 12th century, a group of monks decided they needed to move to the coast. They built their abbey on a spit of land that was cut off from the mainland every day at high tide. As the abbey expanded, they moved further upslope until they had constructed an entire town ringing their secluded outcrop, crowning the town with a Gothic spire and a gigantic figure of St. Michael getting ready to lop Satan’s head from his shoulders.

Mont St. Michel first becomes visible on the horizon as you drive in on the highway. The flat coastline is suddenly punctured by the fantastical walled castle, the inspiration for hundreds of fantasy pop artists. The peninsula/island has been a destination for pilgrims for centuries. These proto-tourists forged the way for the modern restaurants and antique shops that line the road to the Mont. Finally we arrived on the coast, parked the car and took in the view of the walled city from the mainland (along with dozens of Japanese tourists). Breathtaking.

We stopped for dinner at one of the many restaurants that billed themselves as classic Norman establishments. The place was cavernous with dining area after dining area. Dozens of waiters and waitresses shot from the kitchen hauling oysters and fish fillets. The interior was reminiscent of Bill Knaps or Red Lobster and it was incredibly entertaining to watch the efficient marshaling of the staff by supervisors and managers, a distinctly American practice.

We finally arrived back at the manor house. Dad was exhausted from a day of driving, but stayed up long enough to sit by the fire and chat with one of the husbands who maintained the grounds. He wore a green vest and a jovial expression, and I knew I was in the cozy company of hobbits. Really, Tolkien's hobbits are idealized Brits, and the owners of our bed and breakfast were pretty close to ideal. Then it was time for bed before we made our assault on the beaches of Normandy.

The photos again.

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