Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Normans!

We recently spent a couple of days in Normandy, that big north-western region of France, with a beautiful coastline--chalky and rugged in places--wide smooth beaches, and miles and miles of lush farm lands. Home of Camembert and Calvados, Deauville and Rouen. And home to the Normans -- those fierce, warrior "Norsemen" who came from Denmark and Norway in the 10th century. Our destination, it turned out, had a connection to those early settlers.

Courtesy of our lovely neighbors downstairs, we received a gift certificate for one night at a Relais & Chateaux hotel of our choice. Browsing through the catalogue, we came across the Chateau d'Audrieu, near Caen in Normandy. It looked beautiful, and as we had been meaning to visit Caen for a long time, we promptly booked our room, and our train tickets.

We've always been super impressed with the French train system, always easy, always smooth. So, we were somewhat surprised when -- just outside the small town of La Bonneville sur Iton -- our train came to a dead stop, and didn't move again!

The PA system crackled -- "un problème electrique".  We sat tight for about thirty minutes, with a few more messages saying that they were working on the electrical problem. Finally, we (all 300 passengers) were instructed to gather our belongings and make our way to the front of the train.

By some stroke of good fortune, the engineers had coaxed the train to this tiny station and just managed to get the engine and the first carriage into the station itself. Which meant we could all descend from the first car onto the platform, instead of the train tracks...

...then climb up the stairs to cross over to the other side of the tracks.

Our ailing train stretched forlornly on the right into the distance. Stationary and silent. But there was another train going in the opposite direction, that was ready and raring to go. So, all 300 of us crammed into that train and started heading back to Paris!

After about twenty minutes, this train pulled into the town of Evereux. We were all instructed to disembark (again!) and wait on the platform for the next train going once more to Caen and Cherbourg! Amazingly, only one amongst the 300 passengers freaked out at all the delays. Everyone else stayed calm, and even the sun peaked out a bit as we waited.

In fact, by the time the new train arrived and we all piled in (most of us finding seats), the atmosphere was positively jolly, and we were soon on our way again, finally arriving at Caen a mere two hours late!

We picked up our rental car and quickly headed out of town toward the tiny hamlet of Audrieu with the spire of its lovely Gothic 12th century Église Notre-Dame d'Audrieu, rising up above the surrounding farm fields. The village itself dates back to classical antiquity when it was known as Alderium. A few traces of Gallo-Roman dwellings still exist, along with a feudal motte.

Our destination, though, was the stunning 18th century Chateau d'Audrieu, just outside the village, with its imposing gates and elegant driveway leading to what is now a many-starred hotel.

The chateau did not always look like this. Back in the 11th century, this most famous of Normans, the Norman King William II (known to all English children as "he of Conqueror fame" and "1066 and all that"), had a cook who owned this land and built a dwelling on it. The cook's name was William de Percy, and according to legend, he participated in the Battle of Hastings alongside The Conqueror William!

Perhaps William de Percy is on one of these boats, heading for Hastings, where some stories say he felled several Saxons with a metal colander! Be that as it may, he apparently distinguished himself on the battlefield, was dubbed a Baron, and founded what became the illustrious family of the Percys, Dukes of Northumberland, who still exist today in England. Back in the 11th century, though, he contented himself with building a modest half-timbered residence in Audrieu that became home to the Percys for the next 300 years.

Following the Hundred Years' War, which devastated Normandy, those Percys who remained in the region replaced the feudal motte with a proper castle. Today, an outbuilding remains, as well as the two existing wings of the chateau which were refurbished when the central wing was put up in the 18th century.

The chateau passed from the Percys to the Séran family in the 16th century, the head of which was a gentleman of the King's Bedchamber. It was sold during the Revolution but then returned back to the Séran family during the Bourbon Revolution. It remained in the hands of descendants of this family until almost the present day!

Like much of the area, Audrieu suffered during WWII. The 12th Reconnaisance Batallion of the German Army established its headquarters in the Chateau. Following the Normandy landings, intense bombing almost destroyed the buildings. For weeks it was a no man's land between enemy lines, hit by British and Canadians from one side and by German Panzer divisions from the other.

The Chateau itself survived, but many Canadian and British soldiers died in the clearings, forests and orchards surrounding the castle.  And many of the ancient trees were destroyed. Those that survived still display big bulges, some are riddled with shell splinters.

Today, the scene is peaceful and bucolic: quiet fields, apple orchards, small communes. Listed as an historical monument in 1967, the Chateau became a 5-star hotel in the late 70s, joining the prestigious Relais et Chateaux Association. Since then, it has welcomed guests from around the globe, offering a truly lovely escape from the outside world.

For those who want a room really "away from it all", there is a luxurious tree house, complete with a winding stairway, although I did not see a drawbridge at the bottom!

Our lovely room in the Chateau's west wing looked onto green lawns, and away at the end of a gravel path, a spa welcomed us with soothing treatments!

The hotel had just opened its doors for the 2018 season the week before, and we found we were the only guests in the West Wing, and there was just one other couple in the East Wing! The staff outnumbered us by at least twenty to one!  Not quite a Stephen King novel, but the hallways were very silent...

That being said, we had a wonderful dinner, met  and  congratulated the chef (a Norman himself!), had a peaceful and comfortable night's sleep, a lovely solo breakfast in the morning, and left with a bottle of their delicious apple juice, made from their own apple orchards.

But we were not finished with Audrieu's surrounding villages. On our way back to Caen, we detoured to visit this magnificent Abbaye Saint-Martin de Mondaye, seen today in its 18th Century splendor, but originally built by none other than the Percy Family in 1202.

The monks belong to the Order of Prémontré, founded by St. Norbert in the 1100s, who follow the teachings of St. Augustine.

Every day, the monks file into this lofty space to pray and lift their voices in plain chant. I would love to have heard them!

A very beautiful side Chapel of the Holy Sacrament is dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

Reluctantly, we steered ourselves away from this quiet rural backwater and got onto the busy N13 highway for Caen, where we had one more stop before we took the train back to Paris.

We had always heard that the Memorial Peace Museum in Caen was the most important museum devoted to the history of WWII, and with help from Ms. Waze, we successfully navigated our way there through the outskirts of the city. Built on the site of an old bunker, the Memorial was inaugurated on June 6, 1988 (the 44th anniversary of D-Day) by President François Mitterrand. You enter through a small door in a long flat facade, which symbolizes the Allies' breach of the "impregnable" Nazi Atlantic Wall. Inscribed in French across the facade are these words:

La douleur m'a brisée
La fraternité m'a relevée 
De ma blessure a jailli un fleuve de liberté

A rough English translation: "The pain broke me, Brotherhood lifted me up, From my wounds Liberty burst forth like a torrent ".

From the narrow entrance you enter into a spacious lobby, dominated by a 1941 Hawker Typhoon used by the RAF.

Leaving the lobby, the museum itself is entered via a descending spiral staircase - symbolizing the descent into the hell of war. The English artist, Christopher Nevinsson, made this striking dry point etching,  titled "Return to the Trenches" in 1916, no doubt based on his experiences as an ambulance driver in France.

There are maps showing the newly drawn borders of Europe after WWI, so many new countries, Germany greatly reduced...

...familiar photographs appear, signalling the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s (where it seems, today, to be happening all over again)...

...and the rise of Nazi power during the same time frame, signalling the dangers that lay ahead...

...marches took place in London by members of the Communist Party, warning where fascism would lead...

...there is even a Neville Chamberlain commemorative plate, billing him as "the peacemaker".  All too familiar a slogan to those of us who have seen the movie, "Darkest Hours".

Once at the bottom of the ramp, the space opens up with a huge array of artifacts...
...lots of propaganda posters, spectacular video clips of the D-Day allied landings on a split screen alongside footage of the German perspective, models of bunkers, battleships and battlefields, uniforms from all sides of the conflict, etc. etc. A vast panoply brutally revealing all the lessons not learned from WWI.

It was soon overwhelming, and I found myself focussing in on items that I (as a very young child) remember: like gas masks. Every member of the family had one. In our house, they were kept on a table in the front hall.
Everyone had ration books, both in France and in England. These allotted you basic food needs and clothing. If, like my mother, you gave up your egg ration and had chickens in the back garden, then you would be given coupons for chicken feed!

Aaahh, tapioca!

Then there were supplies that were "dropped" to the French Resistance...

...a radio set disguised in an attache case...

...and everything you would need to make up false ID papers.

One large section of the museum is devoted to the Holocaust, by far the most sobering and painful to walk through...

...followed by the pain and torment of the Siege of Stalingrad, as depicted in this monumental painting by the Austrian Hans Sontheimer. Rendered in 1944, it depicts the fighting in the Stalingrad suburbs in 1942, described as an "allegory of German military defeat".

After almost three hours, we couldn't really "see" any more. We did dip into the section that covers the Normandy landings. We visited these beaches a few years ago, but had never fully understood how the city of Caen was in a direct line from them.

By the time the  city was liberated in early July 1944 by British and Canadian troops, there was little left to it. The population of 60,000 had dropped to around 17,000 as people fled the fighting.

It took many years after the war, but today, Caen is a bustling, modern University city with a population of over 100,000. It stands as a symbol of recovery.  In fact, the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit returned to Caen during the rebuilding to produce a film, aptly titled You Can't Kill a City. No wonder, the Memorial Peace Museum is situated there. It represents a deeply thoughtful meditation on the evils of war, and the importance of keeping up the struggle for peace.

As we rode back to Paris on (thank goodness) an uneventful train journey, I really had to admire the resilience of these Normans, who throughout their long history from the 10th century through the Hundred Years War, all the way down to those brutal months in 1944, have managed to survive and flourish. William the Conqueror, who is buried in the Cathedral in Caen, must be impressed.

À bientôt!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Looking Up!

Like a lot of people, when I go out I tend to find myself scurrying along, eager to get to where I am going and not particularly paying much attention to what I am passing. I'm more concerned with where I'm putting my feet, avoiding junk on the "trottoir", and trying not to bump into anyone! The other day though, as I was waiting for the light to change on rue Reaumur, I found myself gazing at the building next to ours, 97, rue Reaumur, built by the architects Jolival et Devillard in 1900. It includes not just offices, appartments, a cafe -- Le Sentier -- but also the entrance to the Sentier Metro station. Such an elegant building, and part of a new wave of architecture that was prevalent at the time, especially on the rue Reaumur, where the strict building rules of the Haussman era were being set aside to allow for highly decorative facades, a mixture of cast iron and stone materials, bulging roofs and oriel windows.

I was particularly struck that in 1900 the building was able to integrate the line 3 Metro station into its facade. And I had never looked up and appreciated the decorative heads pointing down to the entrance.

Curious to find more, and determined to "look up", I took a lovely stroll this quiet, sunny (!), Sunday morning to see what I've been missing. In the next block to us, at 116, rue Reaumur I found one of several buildings on the street designed by Albert Walwein (1851-1916) who was considered a master architect. Here, the entrance to the building is flanked by two big "telamon" figures, sculpted in the likeness of Hercules, holding up the plinth above, standing on lion heads and glowing in the unexpected sunshine.

Across the street, another Walwein building has two "carytides" (sculpted female figures) gazing back at the "telamons"!

Back on the even side of the street, no. 118 rue Reaumur built in 1900 by Joseph-Charles de Montarnal (1867-1947), shows the extent to which the Haussman rules were being abandoned. A mix of stone and cast iron with huge metal-encased windows that rise through three floors and run the entire width of the building, show a distinct Art Nouveau influence.

Moving off the busy rue Reaumur and wandering through the quiet back streets of the Sentier neighborhood. I found myself by the entrance to the Passage du Caire, with its three sphinx heads above and a frieze of Egyptian motifs above them.
I had seen the sphinx heads before, but what I had never noticed (didn't look high enough!), was another frieze, tucked immediately below the roof line with a row of animal and human images. (Click on the photograph and you'll see the detail.)

Nor had I ever noticed this sweet tiled mosaic of pyramids and camels on the very corner of the Place and the rue du Caire.

Coming back on the rue Clery, I was happy to see the "scissors building" still has its giant pair of metal scissors suspended on the outside. Founded in 1818, Hamon has been the principal supplier of scissors to the rag trade and the fashion world, although the shutters were closed on this Sunday morning, so the endless displays were not visible.

So instead, I took some time to study the ceramic "coins" attached to the walls, almost all of them images of Emperor Napoleon III, to whom Hamon apparently supplied his favorite Zéolithe razors!  (What in England would be called "by appointment....)

At the corner of rue Clery and rue du Poissonniere, up on a little ledge, stands a figure that has intrigued me for a long time. Is she an angel, or a goddess, is she to be worshipped or feared?

A side angle shows what might be wings, so an angel, or maybe it's a shield, perhaps a warrior goddess. Either way, I like her a lot, and hope she protects all who pass below, even if they don't look up!

One thing I do always look up at is the living wall on rue d'Aboukir, which since its planting about four years ago has become a veritable forest of greenery.

When you "look up" going down the rue des Petits-Carreaux leading into the rue Montorgeuil, you'll usually notice what I call "things that were". Today there's a popular Franco-Indian restaurant and take-out service at number 12, but at some earlier time there was a specialist "Gibier Volailles" (Game and Poultry) business.

Which is to say that as well as chicken, turkey, capons, duck and other more usual poultry products, they would also have offered pheasant, snipe, woodcock, etc...

...as well as wild boar and venison...

...and, of course hare and rabbit!! Our local butcher had hare in his shop over the holidays, and you can buy rabbit meat at the supermarket, but in the days of a speciality "gibier" shop, they probably would have been hung in rows, in full fur!

A couple of doors down from the former Game and Poultry shop, you can look up and see one of the most puzzling signs on the street. Some kind of reference to France's colonial plantation days perhaps, it shows a Planter in classic colonial dress being served coffee, as he sits on bags of coffee beans.

In all the years we've been in this neighborhood this mural has been kept clean and fresh looking, and yet we still have no idea what its origin is, what kind of business it might have been attached to. Today, it straddles a perfumerie and a photo shop!

Major PS!!  Since posting the above, I have discovered some real information about this sign. Made of ceramic tiles, it was installed in 1890 between the two windows on the first floor of the building for an establishment owned by coffee merchants.  They called their business "Au Planteur", and they offered all kinds of exotic provisions, including coffee. The "Aucune Succursale" means it was a one-of-a-kind shop, with no branch locations elsewhere. (No Starbucks chains in 1890!) In 1984, the sign was declared a National Historical Monument, which explains why it is always in such good condition. No further information as to how long it remained in business, but I'm so happy to know at least its origin and its purpose!

Further down the rue Montorgeuil is one of my favorite signs that hangs above what used to be our favorite pharmacy until it became part of a chain and is all garish and full of sales signs. But whoever the new owners are, they have had the goodness to keep this lovely wrought-iron image of the hippocratic oath symbol, above which stands an "alchemist" from earlier times, with his book of recipes and his mortar and pestle for whatever potions he was concocting!

Some images above the eye level clearly indicate the "specialité de la maison", as does this lovely snail atop the entrance to l'Escargot restaurant...

...but what about this one on the next corner? Is it some theatre mask figure indicating there might once have been a theatre here? Another mystery to unravel.

Finally at the bottom of the street, where the Sunday market was doing its usual weekly business in the shadow of Ste. Eustache, I looked up and noticed for the first time ever...

...what seems to be some kind of weather report that would let people know what to expect. It's missing several pieces, but #74 tells you that there's going to be "beaucoup de pluie" (lots of rain), #76 indicates variable weather, #77 says "beau temps" (beautiful weather, like today!) and #78 says that the beautiful weather is going to stay that way for the time being "beau temps fixé"!

All I can say is that I hope the latter one proves to be correct, at least for a few more days. We've been hibernating under such grey skies for so long, we've almost forgotten what sunshine is! Things would then definitely be "looking up"!

À bientôt!