Normandy: War-Torn Yet Full of Life
After exploring the half-timbered charm of Rouen, we reflect on Monet's lily ponds, peek in on local artisans, and set up an easel at Honfleur's harbor. We venture into composer Eric Satie's eccentric world and feast on the finest of Normandy cuisine. After pondering sacrifice and celebrating freedom on the D-Day beaches, we hike with pilgrims to the enchanted island abbey of Mont St. Michel.
- Read the script from the show.
This 2,000-year-old city of 100,000 people mixes dazzling Gothic architecture, charming half-timbered houses and contemporary bustle like no other in France. Busy Rouen (roo-ohn) is France's fifth-largest port and Europe's biggest food exporter (mostly wheat and grain). While its cobbled old town is a delight to wander, the city feels less welcoming at night. Rouen works best for me as a day trip.
Rouen is nothing new. It was a regional capital during Roman times and France's second largest city in medieval times (with 40,000 residents — only Paris had more). In the ninth century, the Normans made the town their capital. William the Conqueror called it home before moving to England. Rouen walked a political tightrope between England and France for centuries. An English base during the Hundred Years' War, it was the place where Joan of Arc was burned in 1431. Rouen's historic wealth was based on its wool industry and trade — for centuries, it was the last bridge across the Seine River before the Atlantic. In April 1944, as America and Britain weakened German control of Normandy before the D-Day landings, Allied bombers destroyed 50 percent of Rouen. While the industrial suburbs were devastated, most of the historic core survived, keeping Rouen a pedestrian's delight. And on summer evenings, a sound-and-light show transforms Notre-Dame cathedral's facade into the changing colors of Monet's Impressionist canvas.
Rouen's major sights include:
Notre-Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame) — This cathedral is a landmark of art history. You're seeing essentially what Claude Monet saw as he painted 30 different studies of this frilly Gothic facade at various times of the day. Using the physical building only as a rack upon which to hang light, mist, dusk, and shadows, Monet was capturing "impressions." One of the results is in Rouen's Museum of Fine Arts, and four others are at the Orsay Museum in Paris. Find the plaque showing two of these paintings (in the corner of the square, about 30 paces to your right as you exit the TI). (One of the paintings is in Rouen's Museum of Fine Arts and four others are at the Orsay Museum in Paris.
Fayencerie Augy — Monsieur Augy welcomes potential shoppers to browse his studio/gallery/shop and see Rouen's clay "china" being made the traditional way. (26 rue St. Romain, tel. 02 35 88 77 47).
St. Maclou Church — This church's unique bowed facade is textbook Flamboyant Gothic. Notice the flame-like tracery decorating its gable. Since this was built at the very end of the Gothic age — and construction took many years — the doors are from the next age: Renaissance (c. 1550). The interior is of no great importance.
Half-Timbered Buildings — Because the local stone, a chalky limestone from the cliffs of the Seine River, was of poor quality (your thumbnail is stronger) and because local oak was plentiful, half-timbered buildings from the 14th to the 19th centuries became a Rouen forte.
Plague Cemetery (Aître St. Maclou) — During the great plagues of the Middle Ages, as many as two-thirds of the people in this parish died. Just taking care of the corpses was an overwhelming task for the decimated community. This half-timbered courtyard (c. 1520) was a mass grave and ossuary where the bodies were "processed." Bodies would be dumped into the grave (where the well is now) and drenched in liquid lime to speed decomposition. Later, the bones would be stacked in alcoves above the colonnades that line this courtyard. Notice the ghoulish carvings (c. 1560s) — gravediggers' tools, skulls, crossbones and characters doing the "dance of death." In this danse macabre, Death, the great equalizer, grabs people of all social classes.
Big Clock (Gros Horloge) — The impressive Renaissance public clock (1528), le Gros Horloge (groh oar-lohzh), decorates the former city hall.
Place du Vieux Marché — The old market square, surrounded by fine, old half-timbered buildings and plenty of good eateries, has a covered produce market, a park commemorating Joan of Arc's burning and a modern church in her name.
Joan of Arc Church (Eglise Jeanne d'Arc) — The modern church is a tribute to Joan of Arc, who was canonized in 1920 and later became the patron saint of France. The church, completed in 1979, feels Scandinavian inside and out — reminding us again of Normandy's Nordic roots. Sumptuous 16th-century windows, salvaged from a church lost in World War II, have been worked into the soft architectural lines and with a ship's-hull vaulting, the church is a delightful place — reminiscent of the churches of Le Corbusier.
Joan of Arc (1412–1431)
The cross-dressing teenager who rallied French soldiers to drive out English invaders was born the illiterate daughter of a humble farmer. One summer day, in her dad's garden, 13-year-old Joan heard a heavenly voice accompanied by bright light. It was the first of several saints (including Michael, Margaret and Catherine) to talk to her during her short life.
In 1429, the young girl was instructed by the voices to save France from the English. Dressed in men's clothing, she traveled to see the king and predicted that the French armies would be defeated near Orleans — they were. King Charles VII equipped her with an ancient sword and a banner saying "Jesus, Maria," and sent her to rally the troops. Soon, "the Maid" (la Pucelle) was bivouacking amid rough soldiers, riding with them into battle and suffering an arrow to the chest, while liberating the town of Orleans. On July 17, 1429, she held her banner high in the cathedral of Reims as Charles was officially proclaimed king of a resurgent France.
Joan and company next tried to re-take Paris (1429), but the English held on. She suffered a crossbow wound through the thigh and her reputation of invincibility was tarnished. During a battle at Compiegne (1430), she was captured and turned over to the English for 10,000 pounds. In Rouen, they chained her by the neck inside an iron cage while the local French authorities (allied with the English) plotted against her. The Inquisition — insisting that Joan's voices were "false and diabolical" — tried and sentenced her as a witch and heretic.
On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was tied to a stake on Rouen's old market square (Place du Vieux Marché). She yelled, "Rouen! Rouen! Must I die here?" Then they lit the fire; she fixed her eyes on a crucifix and died chanting "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus."
After her death, her place in history was slowly rehabilitated. French authorities proclaimed her trial illegal (1455), prominent writers and artists were inspired by her and the Catholic Church finally beatified (1909) and canonized her (1920) as St. Joan of Arc.
Claude Monet spent 43 of his most creative years here (1883–1926). His gardens and home, a s sight, are unfortunately split by a busy road and packed with tourists. Buy your ticket, explore the gardens and take the underpass into the Monet's famous lily-pad land. The path leads over the Japanese Bridge, under weeping willows and past countless scenes that leave artists aching for an easel. Back on the other side, visit his more robust, structured garden and mildly interesting home. The jammed gift shop at the exit is Monet's actual skylit studio.
Nearby Sights: The American Art Museum (Musée d'Art Américain, turn left when leaving Monet's place and walk 100 yards) is devoted to American artists who followed Claude to Giverny (same price and hours as Monet's home). Monet and his garden had a great influence on American artists of his day. This bright, modern gallery — with a good but small Mary Cassatt section — is well-explained in English, though its most appealing feature might be its garden café (see below).
Getting There: Big tour companies do a Giverny day trip from Paris; ask at your hotel.
By Car: From Paris's Périphérique ring road, follow A-13 toward Rouen, get off at Vernon, follow Centre-Ville signs, then signs to Giverny.
By Train: Take the Rouen-bound train from Paris' Gare St. Lazare station to Vernon (4 miles from Giverny, no baggage check). From the Vernon train station to Monet's garden, you have four good options: by bus, taxi, bike, or on foot. The Vernon–Giverny bus meets arriving trains for the 15-minute run to Giverny (no buses on Mon) and takes you back to meet the return train to Paris. If you miss the last bus, find others to share a taxi (see below). The stop to Giverny is in front of Vernon's train station, facing Café du Chemin de Fer (don't dally, the bus leaves soon after your train arrives). The ticket office at Monet's home in Giverny has bus schedules for the return trip. The bus stop for the return trip is in the bus parking lot on the opposite side of the main road, by the roundabout. The stop is the first one on your right. Look for the white #18 bus marked Vernon–Giverny Car.
If you take a taxi, call 06 77 49 32 90 or 02 32 21 31 31. With buses meeting every train, taxis are unnecessary (unless you miss the bus). Taxis wait in front of the station in Vernon.
You can rent a bike at L'Arrivée de Giverny, the café opposite the train station (tel. 02 32 21 16 01), and follow a paved bike path (piste cyclable) that runs from near Vernon along an abandoned railroad right-of-way (figure about 30 min to Giverny). Hikers can go on foot to Giverny, following the bike route, and take a bus or taxi back.
Honfleur (ohn-flur) escaped the bombs of World War II, and feels as picturesque as it looks. Gazing at its cozy harbor lined with skinny, soaring houses, it's easy to overlook the historic importance of this port. For over a thousand years, sailors have enjoyed Honfleur's ideal location, where the Seine River meets the English Channel. William the Conqueror received supplies shipped from Honfleur. And Samuel de Champlain sailed from here in 1608 to North America, where he discovered the St. Lawrence River and founded Quebec City. The town was also a favorite of 19th-century Impressionists: Eugène Boudin (boo-dan) lived and painted here, attracting Monet and others from Paris. In some ways, modern art was born in the fine light of idyllic Honfleur.
Today's Honfleur, long eclipsed by the gargantuan port of Le Havre just across the Seine, happily uses its past as a bar stool and sits on it.
Major sights in Honfleur include:
St. Catherine Church (Eglise Ste. Catherine) — It seems that if you could turn this church over, it would float. That's because it was built by a community of sailors and fishermen in a region with plenty of boatbuilders and no cathedral architects. When the first nave was built in 1466, it was immediately apparent that more space was needed — so the second was built in 1497. Because it felt too much like a market hall, side aisles were added. Notice the oak pillars. Since each had to be the same thickness, and trees come in different sizes, some are full length and others are supported by stone bases. In the last months of World War II, a bomb fell through the roof — but didn't explode. The pipe organ is popular for concerts, and the modern pews are designed to flip so that you can face the music. Take a close look at the many medieval instruments carved into the railing below the organ — a 16th-century combo band in wood.
The church's bell tower was built not atop the church, but across the square — to lighten the load of the wooden church's roof, and to minimize fire hazards. The church is free; the tower — a tiny museum with a few church artifacts — is not worth the admission price.
Eugène Boudin Museum — This pleasant, airy museum houses three interesting floors of exhibits: first floor — Norman folk costumes; second floor — the Boudin collection; and third floor — the Hambourg and Rachet collection. Pick up a map at the ticket counter.
Maisons Satie — This peaceful museum, housed in composer Erik Satie's birthplace, presents his music in a creative and enjoyable way. As you wander from room to room with your included audioguide, infrared signals transmit bits of Satie's music, along with a first-person story (in English). As if you're living as an artist in 1920s Paris, you'll drift past winged pears, strangers in the window, and small girls with green eyes. (If you like what you hear...don't move; the infrared transmission is sensitive, and the soundtrack switches every few feet.) The finale — performed by you — is the Laboratory of Emotions pedal-go-round. For a relaxing sit, enjoy the 12-minute movie (4/hr, time of next showing marked on door) showing modern dance springing from Satie's collaboration with Picasso types (67 boulevard Charles V, tel. 02 31 89 11 11).
Museums of Old Honfleur — Two side-by-side museums combine to paint a picture of daily life in Honfleur since the Middle Ages. The curator creatively supports the artifacts with paintings, making the cultural context clearer. The Museum of the Navy (Musée de la Marine) fills a small 15th-century church (facing Vieux Bassin) with an interesting collection of ship models and marine paraphernalia. The Museum of Ethnographie and Norman Popular Art (Musée d'Ethnographie et d'Art Populaire), located in the old prison and courthouse on a very quaint old lane, re-creates typical rooms from various eras and crams them with objects of daily life.
La Cour Ste. Catherine (Madame Giaglis bed & breakfast)
74 rue du Puit
Tel. 02 31 89 42 40
Actually made of wool embroidered onto linen cloth, this document — precious to historians — is a 70-yard cartoon. The tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror's rise from duke of Normandy to king of England and shows his victory over Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Long and skinny, it was designed to hang in the nave of Bayeux cathedral.
Your visit consists of separate parts, explaining the basic story of the battle three times — which was about right for me: First (after noting the time of the next movie showing at the top of the steps), you'll walk through a room full of mood-setting images into a room that contains a reproduction of the tapestry, with extensive explanations. Then you'll continue to a room showing Norman culture and the impact it ultimately had on England. Next, a 15-minute AV show in the cinema (up one flight) gives a relaxing dramatization of the battle. Finally, you'll see the real McCoy: the tapestry itself. Before entering, pick up the headphones (worth the wait and included in the entry ticket), which give a top-notch, fast-moving, 20-minute scene-by-scene narration complete with period music. If you lose your place, you'll find subtitles in Latin.
Remember, this is Norman propaganda — the English (the bad guys, referred to as les goddamns, after a phrase the French kept hearing them say) are shown with mustaches and long hair; the French (les good guys) are clean-cut and clean shaven — with even the backs of their heads shaved for a better helmet fit.
When buying your ticket, find out the English film times. To minimize congestion in the actual tapestry hall, try to see the 15-minute film first, exit the way you entered, and backtrack to see the reproduction before the original tapestry (cinema-goers pile into the original tapestry room after each film). Because of the exhibit's generous English descriptions, the English guide booklet is worthwhile only as a souvenir.
Along the 75 miles of Atlantic coast north of Bayeux, stretching from Ste. Marie-du-Mont to Ouistreham, you'll find WWII museums, monuments, cemeteries, and battle remains left in tribute to the courage of the British, Canadian, and American armies who successfully carried out the largest military operation in history. It was on these beautiful beaches, at the crack of dawn, June 6, 1944, that the Allies finally gained a foothold in France and Nazi Europe began to crumble.
Arromanches/Port Winston and the D-Day Landing Museum (Musée du Débarquement) — The first-ever prefab harbor was created by the British in Arromanches. Since it was Churchill's brainchild, it was named Port Winston. Walk along the seaside promenade and imagine the building of this port. At this makeshift harbor, the Allies arrived in the largest amphibian attack ever, launching the liberation of Western Europe. On June 7, 1944, 17 old ships crossed the English Channel under their own steam. The crews sunk them so that the bow faced the next ship's stern, forming the first sea barrier. Then, 115 football-field-size cement blocks (called "Mulberries") were towed across the channel and sunk, creating a four-mile-long breakwater located a mile and a half offshore. Finally, engineers set up seven floating steel "pierheads" with extendable legs; they were linked to shore by four mile-long floating roads made of concrete pontoons. Soldiers then placed anti-aircraft guns on the pontoons, protecting a port the size of Dover, England. Within just six days of operation, 54,000 vehicles, 326,000 troops, and 110,000 tons of goods had crossed the English Channel. An Allied toehold on Normandy was secure. Eleven months later, Hitler was dead and the war was over.
The D-Day Landing Museum, which faces the surprisingly visible remains of what was intended to be a temporary harbor, provides an instructive hour-long visit. Take a good look at models and images illustrating the construction and use of the prefabricated harbor. Then gaze out the windows that look directly onto the harbor's remains, allowing you to mentally reconstruct this amazing accomplishment. Ponder the remarkable undertaking that resulted in this harbor being built in just 12 days, while battles raged (tel. 02 31 22 34 31). Hike 10 minutes to the top of the bluff behind the museum for the view from the Arromanches 360º theater. The Price of Freedom offers D-Day footage in a noisy montage of videos on its 360-degree screen (tel. 02 31 22 30 30).
But the most thought-provoking experience in town is simply to wander the beach among the concrete and rusted litter of the battle, and be thankful that all you hear are birds and surf.
WWII Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at St. Laurent — Crowning a bluff just above Omaha Beach and the eye of the D-Day storm, nearly 10,000 brilliant white-marble crosses and Stars of David glow in memory of Americans who gave their lives to free Europe on the beaches below.
First, stop by the Visitors' Office to pick up an English information sheet. Read the 1956 letter from the French president (on the wall above the fireplace), which eloquently expresses the feeling of gratitude the French still have for the United States. The attendant at the computer terminal has a database that can provide ready access to the story of any serviceman who died in Normandy.
Walk past the memorial and cemetery to the bluff that overlooks the piece of Normandy beach called "that embattled shore — portal of freedom." It's quiet and peaceful today, but imagine the horrific carnage of June 6, 1944.
Walk back to the memorial, where you'll see giant reliefs of the Battle for Normandy and the Battle for Europe etched on the walls. Behind that is the semicircular Garden of the Missing, with the names of 1,557 soldiers who were never found.
Finally, wander among the peaceful and poignant sea of crosses. Notice the names, home states, and dates of death inscribed on each. Immediately after the war, all the dead were buried in temporary cemeteries. In the mid-1950s, the families of the soldiers decided whether their loved ones should remain with their comrades or be brought home. Officers were disproportionately left here. Their families knew they'd want to be buried with the men they fought and died with.
France has given the United States permanent free use of this 172-acre site. It is immaculately maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (tel. 02 31 51 62 00).
German Military Cemetery — To ponder German losses, drop by this somber, thought-provoking resting place of 21,000 German soldiers. While the American Cemetery is the focus of American visitors, visitors here speak in hushed German. The site is glum, with two graves per simple marker and dark crosses that huddle together in groups of five. It's just south of Pointe du Hoc (right off N-13 in village of La Cambe, 3.5 miles west of Bayeux; follow signs to Cimetière Allemand, tel. 02 31 22 70 76).
Caen Memorial Museum (Le Mémorial de Caen) — Caen (kehn), the modern capital of lower Normandy, has the best WWII museum in France. Officially named the "The Caen Memorial, A Museum for Peace" (Le Mémorial de Caen, un musée pour la paix), it effectively puts the Battle of Normandy in a broader context. Your visit has numerous parts: the lead-up to World War II, the actual Battle of Normandy, two video presentations, the Cold War, and the ongoing fight for peace (Nobel Prize Gallery and Peace Gardens). In addition, anl exhibition called "D-Day Words" presents the daily life of troops during the campaign by drawing on rough letters and diaries written during the summer of 1944 (tel. 02 31 06 06 44 — as in June 6, 1944, fax 02 31 06 06 70).
The museum is brilliant. Begin with a downward spiral stroll, tracing (almost psychoanalyzing) the path Europe followed from the end of World War I to the rise of fascism to World War II.
The lower level gives a thorough look at how World War II was fought — from General Charles de Gaulle's London radio broadcasts to Hitler's early missiles to wartime fashion to the D-Day landings.
You then see two powerful movies. Jour J (D-Day) is a 30-minute film that shows the build-up to D-Day itself, and the successful campaign from there to Berlin (works in any language, pick up schedule as you enter). While snippets come from the movie The Longest Day, most of the film consists of footage from actual battle scenes. The second movie, Espérance (Hope), is a thrilling sweep through the pains and triumphs of the 20th century (also good in all languages).
The Cold War wing sets the scene with audio testimonies and photos of European cities destroyed during World War II. It continues with a helpful overview of the bipolar world that followed the war, with fascinating insights into the psychological battle waged by the Soviet Union and the United States for the hearts and minds of their people until the fall of communism.
The next wing, titled "Worlds for Peace," has a white, spaceage design to encourage contemplation of a different future. The museum is the only place outside of the United States that displays remains from the 9/11 attacks (you can see them at the end of the building, through the glass windows). The British Gardens, inaugurated June 5, 2004 by Prince Charles, are located east of the Hall for Peace Building.
The next section of the museum celebrates the irrepressible human spirit in the Gallery of Nobel Peace Prizewinners. It honors the courageous and too-often-inconspicuous work of people such as Andrei Sakharov, Elie Wiesel, and Desmond Tutu, who understand that peace is more than an absence of war.
The finale is a walk through the U.S. Armed Forces Memorial Garden. I was bothered by the mindless laughing of lighthearted children unable to appreciate their blessings. Then I read on the pavement: "From the heart of our land flows the blood of our youth, given to you in the name of freedom." Then their laughter made me happy.
Mont St. Michel
For more than a thousand years, the distant silhouette of this island abbey sent pilgrims' spirits soaring. Today, it does the same for tourists. Mont St. Michel, among the top four pilgrimage sites in Christendom through the ages, floats like a mirage on the horizon — though it does show up on film. Today, 3.5 million visitors — far more tourists than pilgrims — flood the single street of the tiny island each year.
Mont St. Michel is connected by a two-mile causeway to the mainland and surrounded by a vast mudflat. Your visit features a one-street village that winds up to the fortified abbey. Between 10:00 and 16:00, tourists trample the dreamscape (as earnest pilgrims did 800 years ago). A ramble on the ramparts offers mudflat views and an escape from the tourist zone. While four tacky history-in-wax museums tempt visitors, the only worthwhile sight is the abbey itself, at the summit of the island.
Daytime Mont St. Michel is a touristy gauntlet — worth a stop, but a short one will do. The tourist tide recedes late each afternoon. On nights from autumn through spring, the island stands serene, its floodlit abbey towering above a sleepy village.
Arrive late and depart early if you can.
Tourist Information: The overwhelmed TI (and WC) is to your left as you enter Mont St. Michel's gates. They have listings of chambres d'hôte (B&Bs on the nearby mainland), English tour times for the abbey, bus schedules, and the tide table (Horaires des Marées), which is essential if you plan to explore the mudflats outside Mont St. Michel (tel. 02 33 60 14 30). A post office (PTT) and ATM are 50 yards beyond the TI.
Tides: The tides here rise over 50 feet — the largest and most dangerous in Europe. High tides (grandes marées) lap against the tourist-office door (where you'll find tide hours posted).