When I was planning my trip across France, I knew I wanted to get up to Brittany or Normandy for a day or two. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done; train routes and schedules (and prices!) made it quite difficult to get to Brittany from anywhere, or to Normandy unless you passed through Paris to do so. So though I had planned to end my time entirely in Paris, it became clear that it might be easier to arrive in Paris a day or two earlier and then make a day trip up to somewhere in Normandy - after all, it was only an hour or two on the train. Once we had decided to spend a day in Normandy, it was tough to decide where to go. In many cases, the towns' biggest attractions were the memorials for the second world war (remember D-Day?); in other cases, the towns sounded like seaside tourist havens rather than real cities. In the end, we opted for Rouen, the historic capital of the region.
After missing our train to Rouen the day before, we got moving a little more quickly in the morning to ensure our plans wouldn't be thwarted again. This time around we had no trouble making a 10:20 train, which arrived in Rouen just before noon. I think it all worked out for the best; while the day before had been grey and drizzly and perfect for shopping and sipping kirs, the weather while we were in Rouen was sunny and pleasant.
The architecture in Rouen was again unlike anywhere else I'd been in France so far. The streets were a panoply of different styles, with half-timbered houses next to classical brick and stone facades, intermingled with modern structures.
Considering that nearly half of the city was destroyed during WWII, I suppose the juxtaposition of so many styles reflects the interests of those who rebuilt the city. Some structures, however, have remained for hundreds of years. In particular, the city is the (proud?) home to the execution of Joan of Arc, and a sign marks this tower as the keep of the castle (fun fact: the word for keep is "donjon;" sound like "dungeon" much?) where she was imprisoned during her trial.
There would be more time for dungeons and executions later; but for now, we were hungry. Normally, when I would arrive in a new city, I would spend a fair amount of time looking in restaurant windows, reading menus and weighing my options, before I would choose a spot to eat. In this case, however, since we arrived around lunchtime, I went the simple route and chose a restaurant that had been well recommended by a few guide books.
I'm not sure I would have chosen it on my own; it boasted laminated menus and, of all things in France, a salad bar (what???), but the meal was nice and the cider was excellent, so I can't complain. I say cider, of course, because Normandy is apple (and therefore cider [read: hard cider]) country. In fact, while other regions, like Alsace, have a wine route, Normandy has a cider route.
To go with my cider, I chose the mijoté de canard aux abricots et ses carottes fondantes:
The long name of this dish translates as "simmered duck with apricots and its melted carrots." I was served a small cast iron pot steaming with chunks of duck, apricots, and carrots in a still-bubbling broth, which I doled out to myself in a bowl at the table. The sweetness of the apricots really permeated throughout, making the dish one of the sweetest main courses I've ever tasted in France. My only complaint would be that the duck was quite difficult to cut in the bowl, making it difficult to eat; the flavors, however, were warming and just what you would want on a chilly fall evening.
After lunch, we made our way to the heart of the city, passing the Palais de Justice on our way. With its intricate Gothic facade, it looks more impressive than the average civic building.
What you can't see in this photo, however, are the huge pockmarks in the stone, a solemn reminder of the war that ravaged the city seventy years ago. You're never too far from such a reminder in Rouen; even Monet's beloved cathedral, though still soaring and impossibly intricate, shows serious signs of damage.
Though the facade is fairly well maintained, the interior lacks the mystical, jewel-toned light that is the result of stained glass windows in other cathedrals in France; Allied bombs dropped in 1944 on the German occupation damaged a number of the windows in the cathedral. The remnants of the war, still so omnipresent after so many decades, are sobering - and this wasn't even one of the Norman cities whose sole touristic attraction is the war memorials! Really, one day in Normandy was enough.
But enough solemn, sobering history; let's get back out to the sunshine and celebrate le Gros Horloge:
The creatively named "large clock" appears on just about every postcard you can buy in Rouen. On the underside of the arch, we find another hidden treasure:
After having spent some time exploring, we paused for un café, and then we needed something sweet. Luckily, Hautot was there to help us out.
In addition to its famous apple orchards, Normandy is also home to quite a population of Norman cattle, who provide over half of all of the dairy products in France. (Take a look at any specialty French butter that may appear in your grocery store, like Président - chances are, it comes from Normandy.) Traditional Norman desserts are thus often based on apples and cream, and those were the requirements for the pastry I would choose. Luckily, my tarte Normande chiboust fit the bill:
I think the shopkeeper recognized I wasn't French, and intentionally gave me the tarte that had fallen in on itself, thinking I wouldn't know the difference. I wouldn't, either, except for the fact that it had been sitting next to all of the other perfectly lovely and un-messy tartes. In any case, I don't suppose the fallen meringue affected the flavor. This is a small apple tart topped with a mound of bruléed crème chiboust, which is standard crème pâtissière mixed with an Italian meringue. I would have liked a little more apple, but it was a nice, simple pastry that hit the spot.
We didn't eat the pastry in the shop; instead, we walked to the nearby Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Plaza), since it thoughtfully provided bench-height stone remnants of what must have been an important building hundreds of years ago.
I say it must have been important because when we were done eating, I noticed the sign that indicated that it was on this spot in May, 1431 that Joan of Arc was executed. What an incredible thing to just stumble across!
But perhaps you are uninterested in the events of centuries past; perhaps the unusual structure behind the stone wall remnants has captured your interest, instead?
It is the church of Ste Jeanne d'Arc, and it is unlike any other church I have seen in France.
I'm sure the walls of windows must be thoroughly impressive from the inside; unfortunately, there was a somewhat creepy man standing and begging in the entrance and harassing anyone who went inside, so we'll just have to imagine.
The church isn't the only piece of interesting architecture, though: just to its left rises another soaring, pointed roof.
Here on the other side of the church is the Old Market which lends its name to the Plaza. It was a pleasant market, covered yet open to the air, and host to a few vendors with standard market fare: cheeses, fish, meat, fresh produce.
We got some apples for the train, and then stopped in a nearby Paul bakery for a couple of flûtes to take on our way before gradually making our way back to the train station. On the ride back to Paris, we laughed until we cried about my mom's future employment in the art world. I don't want to give too much away, but I am confident that someday hers will be a household name.
By the time we were back to the hotel, Paris was dark and rainy. My mom started to pack, since she was headed back home the next day; I had a few more days left in Paris before I would fly back to the states.
Coming soon: time to get down and dirty in the (not-so-)seedy Parisian banlieux.