Saturday, July 23, 2016

Abbe Prevost, Pt.2 and Finale

The last two of the spots near Louvier where my new favorite author served during the early part of his career (end of the 17th century) are the Abbey St-Ouen (pronounced San-twahn, approximately) in Rouen, and Evreux, south of Louviers.

Perhaps you've seen St-Ouen and never realized it.  I showed you a picture of Notre Dame in Rouen a couple of days ago.  With a slightly wider-angle look, here's what you can see from the bell tower:

Just put your hand over the right side, and be impressed by that one over on the left.  Here's a closer look:

It's a fine example of Gothic architecture, even though it is technically "defunct" and is used mainly as an exhibition center and organ concert center.  We had no opportunity to hear the organ this time; maybe next.

And finally, Evreux.  The church and abbey stand in the center of town--when you ask the GPS to take you to Evreux, the arrival point is the cathedral.  Here's the north transept, where the nearest parking gives you immediate access to the church:

The Iton, a tributary of the Eure that runs through Louviers, runs right in front of the cathedral, and just across the bridge you can see both the cathedral and the old abbey, now a museum.

I was slightly disappointed but not terribly surprised that the museum receptionist had no idea who Abbe Prévost was and couldn't help me with information about his service there.

For us this trip was about impressionism, and we ended our trip with a little glimpse of post-impressionism.  Just a few miles north of Louviers is a little village called Poses (don't pronounce the last 's'), where Michèle Ratel follows Monet's model of the gardener-artist.  In 1990, when others were seeing this,

she imagined this...

...and has spent the last 25 years making it a reality.

Across the street from Mme. Ratel's studio is the Seine in its most romantic form, not affected by the upstream flooding that frightened Paris this spring. Here, the river hosts swans, cormorants, and vibrant seasonal colors, as well as another garden created by the artist, with water lilies planted at the river's edge and flowers galore on the embankment. 

She was a delight to chat with and we enjoyed our visit to her gallery and gardens. 

We're glad you chose to join us, and hope to have you come along next time.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fontainebleau and Chartres

If you're following along and wonder what happened to yesterday's blog, keep reading.  I thought about apologizing, but in case you haven't noticed, we're all about spontaneity, and we had it in spades yesterday.

Our first stop was at Fontainebleau, one of the major historical chateaus of French royalty, including Napoleon I.  The first view of it is directly into the very recognizable curved perron, the steps that lead up to the traditional grand entrance.  Maybe this gives a hint as to the origin of the architectural term "welcoming arms."

Like many historical royal dwellings, it has a rich history, dating back to Louis VII, 1137.  Its last use as a royal dwelling was with Emperor Napoleon III in the 1860s.  Touring the building you get a glimpse into most of those eras.  For example, Napoleon I's throne room:

And you may live in a home or know someone whose home has a gallery of family portraits.  So does Fontainebleau.  Here's one:

I would like to have the library.  It was originally a corridor, but Napoleon wanted a library, so he had the corridor converted:

Every home needs its own chapel, don't you think?

One could be forgiven for thinking the chateau is all about Napoleon I, but one of its earliest inhabitants was James I.  This room is dedicated to him:

One can only absorb so much sumptuousness at one time.  As an aperitif, so to speak, we decided to avoid the traffic jam that is the outer beltway around Paris, where our GPS wanted to take us, and instead swing to the southwest and have a quick look at the cathedral of Chartres.  Ha!  You can tell by that concept that we had never been there.  To start with, the lay of the land is such that as you approach Chartres from the direction of Paris, you see it from 12 km (about 7 miles) away:

You know from that moment that this is not going to be a normal Gothic cathedral.  After parking at the nearest parking garage and hiking a few block to the hilltop, you are greeted with this look:

From the outside it's dominating.  From the inside it's breathtaking.  The choir and apse have been cleaned recently, so they give an idea of what they must have looked like new.

Chartres is famous for its magnificent labyrinth, with eleven rings in a 13 meter diameter circle.  Sadly, the nave was prepared for an organ concert, so the labyrinth wasn't fully exposed, but here's a glimpse of the center aisle portion of it:

In case you don't want to do the math yourself, a full walk through the labyrinth runs a length of about 2 1/2 football fields.  The cathedral is on the St. James of Compostela pilgrimage, so I think if I ever decided to make that pilgrimage (unlikely) I'd start here, do the labyrinth and then head out for the 1625 km to Compostela Spain.  And if the indoor labyrinth were covered like it was yesterday, I'd go out to the bishop's back yard and try the one there (not exactly a labyrinth, but could be used like one.)

So to complete the foreshadowing from the first paragraph, I must explain the spontaneity remark.  When we entered the cathedral, I spotted a flyer for an organ recital to be held at 9:00 pm.  "Do the math, Daryl", I told myself.  An hour or so for a recital, followed by an hour and a half back to Louviers, are you sure you want to do that?  And then I saw this:

Decision made, we finished ogling the cathedral, had dinner, came back for a fantastic hour of music from this grand instrument (played by their 24-year old assistant organist), and headed back to Louviers with an ETA of about midnight.  But our GPS didn't know about a certain construction project that blocked one of the major roads we needed to get home.  And we lost track of the "detour" signs at one of the roundabouts.  We had quite a time of it, coaxing a new route out of our GPS and finally getting in bed only an hour later than expected.  And that's why you didn't get a blog yesterday.  Maybe we'll have better luck tomorrow, when I'll be wrapping up the Abbe Prévost tour as well as our current blog.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


I need to start with a bit of an apology.  This trip was (and is) about the impressionists, and I expected to include a lot of photographs of impressionist art.  But the museums seem to (almost) all have "no cameras" signage, and I can attest that they take that seriously.  So we're doing our best instead to go where the impressionists went to "do their thing."  And one such place is Rouen (pronounced Roo-Awn).  If you've read Madame Bovary, the name should sound familiar.  It's the second most populous city in Normandy, just behind the major port city Le Havre.  And it's where Monet set up shop for two years to study light, about which more below.

For this visit, we set aside our deeply ingrained sense of individualism, ripped the Rouen pages out of the Rick Steves guidebook, and followed his walking trail.  The first stop is a remarkable structure built in 1979 to honor Ste. Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc).  To refresh your memory, Joan was burned at the stake in 1431 at the age of 19 for trumped-up charges of heresy, but really for her efforts to run the English out of France during the 100 Years War.  Her case was later re-opened and she was made a saint in 1920.  Whatever your position on that topic might be, you should appreciate a quote on the walkway approaching the entry to the church, attributed to André Malraux, an early 20th century novelist: "O Joan, without a grave and without a portrait, you who know that the tomb of the hero is in the heart of the living." (my translation).

Here's the church from the outside.  It was received with great dispute when it was built,

but the complaints were somewhat reduced by the integration of 12th century windows from a church destroyed during World War 2.

The location of the church was carefully chosen.  Just outside is a garden marking the spot where Joan met her end.  She wasn't alone, exactly.  During the reign of terror of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, over 800 people met their end here.  I think its current use is better.

Our walk from this church took us past the Palace of Justice, seen here from a few blocks away (like a lot of large buildings in France, getting a good view is a challenge):

But it's seeing it up close that gives one a sense of history.  These are wounds from World War 2, that are probably being left as an intentional act of preserving a memory of what can happen when nations stop cooperating.

Continuing down the street we reach one of the landmarks of Rouen, the Great Clock.

The movement was completed in the 14th century, and was a remarkable feat of engineering.  The timing mechanism is on the level one story above the clock, with a system of pullies that drove the actual display.  Besides the hours (and not minutes--notice there's only one hand) the phases of the moon are shown above the clock and the day of the week below the VI at the bottom.

The clock tower as connected to the bell tower, which rises another several meters above the street:

We climbed (that's WE BOTH climbed--Anita usually passes on these opportunities!) the 100 steps up through the clock and the bells up to the viewing deck at the top.  And this is why:

The Cathedral of Notre Dame, Rouen, is the tallest church in France.  If you look at it and think "giant lightning rod", you wouldn't be far wrong.  If you want details, check out Wikipedia, but for an overview, just understand that between lightning, hurricanes, wars, and high winds, this cathedral is just a great work in progress.  One of the historical figures who figures into the spirit of the cathedral is Richard Lionheart, and his lion heart is here.

The facade of the cathedral is a marvel of delicacy.  In fact, the name for this style of architecture is Flamboyant Gothic.

If you think about it for a few seconds, you realize that as the sun is shifting throughout the day, the play of light across this facade offers an incredible opportunity for the artist.  Oddly enough, Claude Monet had a similar idea.  In 1892 and 1893, he stored a few dozen canvases and ten easels in the second floor on the left side of the current information center (below), and every day he brought down ten canvases, lined them up side by side, and as the day progressed, he moved from one canvas to the next capturing the current moment's light on the facade.  Finally, he boxed up the whole set of 30 or so, took them back to Giverny, and finished them up.  To see a collection of them, click here.

Monet's temporary workshop, second floor left:

I hope you enjoyed your visit to Rouen.  I know we did.  Tomorrow we expect to see Fontainbleau, one of the most sumptuous chateaus in France.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Miscellaneous Observations

Today I want to share some random observations from our first eight days in Louviers.

First, there are a few things I want to find out. For instance, you're tooling along through a little village at the posted speed of about 45 mph, and you encounter this:

I know what to do, but at a very deep level, although I love the idea of putting a pot of flowers in the street, I'm not quite sure why it's this way.  Is it to slow down traffic? Sometimes there are a couple of parking places nestled in beyond the pylons, but in this case there are none.

On the other end of the speed spectrum is the open road.  You're enchanted by the wheat fields "ripe unto harvest" and bam! this, and you're going 60 mph.  In case you don't quite grasp the scale, let me simplify it for you--there's not room for all four of your tires to stay on the road.

And in daily life in town, since the roads were designed for carts about 600 years ago, occasionally you get behind a truck delivering furniture to a local shop.  Patience, please.  In case you can't quite see that far into the distance, that's eleven cars waiting on this guy.  But that's the way things are; I didn't hear a single beep of horn or shout of anger.

Here are a few architectural items that didn't quite make the cut earlier.

The old entrance to the Bec-Hellouin abbey is what I think of as the Pen and Pencil set:

At the ruins of Jumiéges was this remarkable set of new chimes.  There are 24 tapered carbon fiber  rods, about 15 feet high with a matching set suspended above them, each marked with a blue dot.  They are played to mark the canonical hours according to Benedictine tradition.

Keeping to the geometric theme, here is the vault of the private chapel at Chantilly:

and the bridge over the Seine between Honfleur and Le Havre.  We have a funny story about this bridge.  When we did our road trip two years ago, on our first excursion from Honfleur we wanted to go west, but I miscounted exits on the roundabout and we crossed this bridge, paying a Euro 7.50 toll (about $8).  We didn't want to go to Le Havre, so I made the first U-Turn possible and crossed the bridge again, for another Euro 7.50.  So counting is an economically valuable skill when driving in France.

Much less geometric, and in a way an indicator of the French way of putting an artistic touch into as much of their lives as possible, these are chimney pots in Honfleur.

Since we don't have 900-year-old stone walls in the US, we generally think of them as long-lasting, but in the rest of the world, the sight of crumbling stone walls is commonplace, and here's a glimpse of how it happens.  This little 3-inch hole appeared as a result of temperature extremes, and soon this plant started putting down roots.  Left alone, the roots grow, extend the crack in the wall and, a few generations of neglect later, down it comes.

Back at "home", we are not tired of our neighbor, the church of Our Lady (Eglise Notre Dame) of Louviers, seen here with the setting sun reflecting off the window across from our front yard.

Tomorrow we're off to Rouen, where the featured attraction is the tallest church in all of France.  There are other points of interest as well, so we'll just spend the day there.

Monday, July 18, 2016


A must-see site for any lover of art in general and impressionism in particular is Monet's garden in Giverny, a village just a half-hour drive from Louviers, where we have pitched our tent for these two weeks.  But first a little detour for a step somewhat farther back in history.

Even closer to Louviers is the town of Les Andelys, most famous for Chateau Gaillard.  One result of the conquest of England in 1066 (one of the most important dates in European history) is that a few years later, Richard Lion-Heart was simultaneously King of England and Duke of Normandy.  He built this castle, and it was almost immediately the focus of much attention by whatever kings ruled France and England at the moment, for about three hundred years, when it finally became permanently French.  It was built in a then-modern three-ring design, visible here.

You can see from its command of a bend in the Seine river its strategic value, leading to its frequent changing of hands for the first three hundred years of its life.

On to Giverny.  Monet lived in the house and cared for the gardens here from 1883 until his death in 1926.  It was the ideal place for his style, and the pond inspired his 250 or so paintings of water lilies.  The pond is the first focus in the tour of the grounds, and for good reason.  You can walk around it, sit in the shade and let it absorb you, photograph it, and sketch it.

Or photograph people photographing sketchers...

The water lilies are, of course, the centerpiece, but like framed art in a gallery, sometimes the frame grabs your attention for a while.

Moving on from the pond to the garden itself, if you like flowers or you like natural color, this is the place for you.  Here's an overview of the place:

But for me, it's all about the closeups.  Without further commercial interruption...

After the pond and the garden, you end the tour with the house (no photographs, again) and then you're back in the village of Giverny.  Just up the road from Giverny is Vernon, a thriving metropolis by comparison, straddling the Seine.  On the old bridge across the Seine sits the city's icon: the mill on the bridge.

Both the mill and the bridge have seen better days, but the mill has such a strong identification with Vernon that the city keeps it in presentable shape.  While we were there, a local artist was working on his version of it.  That's the way icons are, I suppose.

Tomorrow's post will be a mixed bag of little discoveries that didn't make the cut earlier; we're giving our feet a break, and enjoying our little town of Louviers.