Normandy: War-Torn Yet Full of Life
In this program we explore the half-timbered charm of Rouen, reflect on Monet's lily ponds in Giverny, 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.
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).
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
 Hi I'm Rick Steves, exploring more of the best of Europe. This time we're in the northwest of France, enjoying Normandy — friendly locals, crêpes, Camembert, waterlillies, and a very big abbey. Thanks for joining us.
While it's seen more than its share of war, today Normandy is a peaceful and welcoming corner of France. With its thought-provoking sights and memorials, delicious cuisine, and idyllic nature, it's no wonder this region is such a popular get-away for nearby Parisians.
After exploring the half-timbered charm of Rouen, we'll reflect on lilypads at Monet's garden, peek in on local craftspeople, set up an easle at Honfleur, stay in what was a convent, remember D-Day (and another invasion nine centuries earlier) and take a pilgrim's hike to an enchanted abbey.
Of France's many regions, Normandy is strategically located across from England and handy to Paris. From Rouen we side-trip to Giverny, travel to Bayeux, and see the dramatic D-Day Beaches before finishing at Mont St. Michel.
Normandy's history is filled with war. Viking Norsemen settled here in the ninth century giving Normandy its name. The 7th duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded England from this shore. Joan of Arc, who rallied France against the English, was burned at the stake here. And on these beaches a WWII battle changed the course of history. The stirring sights associated with each of these events turn many visitors into history buffs.
Nearly 1200 years ago, the Vikings made this town, Rouen, their capital. William the Conqueror called it home before moving to England. During the middle ages Rouen — with 40,000 residents — was France's second largest city. Only Paris was bigger.
In the 12th century, half of today's France was ruled by England. Caught in the middle, Rouen walked a political tightrope between England and France for centuries. And because this was an important English base during the Hundred Years' War, this was the place where Joan of Arc was burned.
Today Rouen mixes dazzling Gothic architecture and contemporary bustle beautifully. It's a thriving port with a pedestrian-friendly old town and a grand cathedral standing as a reminder of the town's historic importance.
This is classic Gothic with four stories of pointed arch arcades, the top one filled with windows to help light the interior. The spire was made of cast iron in the late 1800s — about the same time Eiffel was building his tower in Paris. At nearly 500 feet, it's the tallest in France. The small spire on the left is missing. A violent 1999 storm sent it crashing to the cathedral floor.
Throughout Europe you'll find black and white partially-cleaned facades. Much of this one's been cleaned with jets of water. But the most delicate of the limestone carving awaits a gentler but more expensive laser cleaning.
This finely carved tympanum — that's the area over the door — shows a graphic Last Judgment. Jesus stands between the saved and the damned. The hellish hot tub reminded all that even a bishop could find himself in eternally hot water.
Just down the street, Rouen's Plague Cemetery recalls the horrific plagues of the Middle Ages, when as many as two-thirds of local populations perished. This secluded courtyard was a mass grave and ossuary.
Just taking care of the corpses was an overwhelming task for the decimated community. Bodies would be dumped into a mass grave and covered with lime to speed decomposition.
Later the bones were exhumed and stacked, filling these alcoves. Ghoulish carvings show gravediggers' tools, skulls, crossbones, and other symbols of death. This dried black cat was buried five hundred years ago by a superstitious builder to ward off evil.
Rouen's ornate public clock has decorated the former city hall for 500 years. Back then, just having an hour hand offered ample precision. The lamb at the end of the hour hand is a reminder that wool was the source of Rouen's wealth. And the artistic highlight — stretch way back — fills the underside of the arch with the good shepherd.and lots of sheep.
The thriving wool trade stoked Rouen's medieval building boom.
Because the local stone — a chalky limestone from the cliffs of the nearby Seine River — was expensive and of poor quality (your thumbnail is stronger), and local oak was plentiful, half-timbered buildings became a Rouen forte.
The oak beams provide the structural skeleton of the building. The gaps were then filled in with a mix of clay, straw, and pebbles.and plastered over.
Wander the back lanes and peek into shops. This flowery and pastel hat shop is the last of its kind in Rouen — the hat maker is considered a treasure by her devoted clientelle.
Just around the corner, Monsieur Augy welcomes shoppers to browse through his studio and see Rouen's Faience [fi-ance] china — being made the traditional way. First the clay is molded and carefully shaped by hand. After being fired, dipped in enamel, and dried, it's lovingly hand-painted. A second firing gives it its characteristic glaze. In the 1700s, Rouen had 18 factories churning out the popular product. Today, the Augy family carries on the Fiaence tradition.
On the market square a cross marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in the 15th century.
As the demoralized French were reeling under English occupation, this teenager of supreme faith, after hearing divine voices, won the confidence of the French people. Dressed as a man, she was given an army, and rallied her countrymen against their English invaders.
In 1431, 19-year-old Joan of Arc was taken by the English, convicted of heresy and burned right here. As the flames engulfed her, an English soldier said, "Oh, my God, we've killed a saint." Nearly 500 years later, Joan was made a saint.and he was proven correct.
Rouen's modern church is a tribute to Joan of Arc, who eventually became the patron saint of all France. It has a Scandinavian feel, reminding us of Normandy's Nordic roots. Its medieval stained glass — salvaged from a church destroyed in WWII — is worked into the swoopy architectural lines and ship's hull vaulting.
Mid-way between Rouen and Paris — about an hour's drive away — is Giverny. Claude Monet, the father of the Impressionist movement, spent his last 40 years here finding inspiration in these gardens.
The colors of his cottage garden are like his brushstrokes — they seem untamed and slap-dash, but are part of a carefully composed mosaic. He diverted a stream, made a pond, filled it with water lilies and built a footbridge which eventually became overgrown with wisteria.
Museums in Paris bloom with Monet's garden paintings. Impressionism was a revolutionary movement in European art — the rage in the 1870s. Many artists abandoned realism in favor of this innovative style which captured light, glimmers and reflections.
Impressionist art evokes the subtlties of nature. The artist — using short brushstrokes of different colors placed side by side — suggests shimmering light. The true subject is not really the lilies, but the changing reflections on the surface of the pond. As he grew older, Monet cropped the scene ever closer, until there was no shoreline, no horizon, no sense of what's up or down.
For dinner, I'm joining my friend and fellow tour guide Sabine Leteinturier back in Rouen. For what you'd expect to spend in a modest American restaurant, we're enjoying the full, fun-loving ritual of fine dining in France.
Our next stop is just down the road.
Honfleur escaped the bombs of World War II and feels as picturesque as it looks. Gazing at its snug harbor, it's easy to overlook the historic importance of this port.
This is where the Seine River meets the English Channel. For over a thousand years, sailors have enjoyed Honfleur's ideal location. While busy conquering England, William received supplies shipped from here. And Canadians know Honfleur for Samuel de Champlain who sailed from here in 1608, discovering the St. Lawrence Seaway and founding Quebec City.
The harbor, once fortified with a wall and two gates, is now an easy-going marina. Today's Honfleur, long eclipsed by the gargantuan port of Le Havre [luh ah-vrah] just across the Seine, happily uses its past as a bar stool and sits on it.
Honfleur's Church of St. Catherine is worth a visit. It seems if you flipped it, it would float. That's because it was built by a community with plenty of boat builders and no cathedral architects. When the first nave was built in the mid-1400s, it was immediately apparent they needed more space — so they built another.
Many consider Honfleur the birthplace of Impressionism. Just as Monet once did, artists still come here catch the light playing on the harborfront and reflecting in the water. It was in places like this that the battle cry of the Impressionists — "Out of the studio and into the light!" — was born.
The Boudin Museum shows off the ground breaking work of local artists — like Eugene Boudin — who influenced the Parisian Impressionists.
And the museum's collection of local traditional costumes is also interesting.
Just down the street, visitors don headsets to explore the boyhood home of composer Erik Satie which presents his music in a whimsical way. Wandering from room to room, you enjoy fragments of Satie's music along with his life story. Surreal images complement the music, reflecting how radical cutting edge Paris was in the 1920s. And for a musical finale, you get some exercise.
For lunch, we're harborfront at a créperie. A fun specialty both here in Normandy and in neighboring Brittany is crépes. Savory crépes are made with buckwheat and called galettes. While plain-looking, they come filled with what you'd expect on a pizza or in an omelet. Traditionally, crépes are washed down with hard and tasty cidre. You can get it sweet or dry.
We're staying in a Chambre d'Hote — a French Bed & Breakfast. Settling into a French home rather than a hotel, saves you money while getting you closer to the culture. The home of gregarious Madame Giaglis is just the kind of place I seek out and recommend in my guidebooks.
She and her husband Antoine offer a welcoming lounge and six rooms.each as inviting as the owners.
Distances in Normandy are short and, as long as you stick to the autoroute — well worth the tolls — you'll make very good time. Our next stop is Bayeux.
Its Saturday morning and this normally sleepy square has erupted into a busy farmers' market. The long tradition of those who grow it selling directly to those who eat it thrives throughout France. And local specialties aways abound.
Bayeux's claim to fame is the Bayeux Tapestry which hung in this cathedral. It's actually a 900-year old embroidery which tells the story of arguably the most memorable event of the Middle Ages — the pivitol Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Your tapestry visit starts with a preview explaining the basic story of the battle and the impact the invading Normans ultimately had on England.
Then you see the real thing. Headsets narrate the 230-foot long cartoon telling the story of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. Don't worry.if you lose your place, you'll find supertitles in Latin.
England's King Edward was about to die without an heir. The big question: Who would succeed him. Harold, his English brother-in-law, or William, his French cousin? King Edward chose William. But when Edward died, Harold grabbed the throne. William, then known as William the Bastard, thought the throne was rightfully his. So he prepared his army — gathering weapons and coats of mail and sailing from Normandy across the English channel to the south coast of England. He met Harold at the town of Hastings, where they fought a fierce 14-hour battle. The Normans had an advantage with horses with stirrups. Extra details of the battle show up below — here dead soldiers are being stripped of their valuable armor. Harold was killed — arrow in the eye.yeow — and his Saxon forces were routed.
The end of the tapestry is lost but the end of the story is well known: William — now "William the Conqueror" — marched into London and claimed his throne. Now he was both Duke of Normandy and King of England.
Bayeux, with a pleasant town center and only six miles from the D-Day beaches, makes a great home base for visiting the area's WWII sights.
Along the 75 miles of Atlantic coast nearby you'll find countless memories of 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.
During the D-Day invasion, American troops and their allied partners courageously assaulted the German-occupied cliffs using grappling hooks and ladders. While ultimately victorious, they suffered horrendous losses. Smashed German bunkers and bomb craters remain, only hinting at the unimagineable carnage and chaos of that momentous day.
The small town of Arromanches [ah-roh-mahnsh] was ground zero for the D-Day invasion. Almost overnight, the allies erected an immense pre-fab port enabling them to begin their victorious push to Berlin.
Imagine the building of this port. Seventeen old ships, which crossed the English Channel under their own steam, were sunk bow to stern forming the a four mile long protective breakwater. Then massive contrete platforms and roads nearly a mile long floating on pontoons completed the harbor. Within six days over 300,000 troops with all their equipment had established a beachhead here in France. And in less than a year.the war was over.
Today, sixty years later, remnants of that heroic undertaking still seem to protect Arromanches. The town, with its beach combers, holiday trinkets, and families at play, still seems to celebrate the allied victory.
This peace came at a huge price. The invasion cost many allied lives. The American Cemetery at St. Laurent crowns a bluff just above Omaha Beach and the eye of the D-Day storm. Nearly 10,000 marble tombstones glow in memory of Americans who gave their lives here to help free Europe. The bluff overlooks the piece of Normandy beach called "the portal of freedom." While tranquil now, for those of us who weren't there, the horror of that day is impossible to imagine.
From the memorial — with a bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American's youth flanked by giant reliefs of the Battle for Normandy and the Battle for Europe — a peaceful sea of crosses invites those visiting to wander and ponder the sacrifice so many brave men made in the cause of freedom.
Immediately after the war, the dead were buried in temporary graves. In the 1950s, this cemetary was established and the families of the soldiers had to decide if the bodies should remain with their comrades or be brought home. Officers are disproportionately represented. Their families knew they'd want to be buried next to the men they commanded and with whom they fought and died.
Nearby, another military cemetery is the resting place of 21,000 German soldiers. The centerpiece features statues symbolizing German mothers and fathers who lost their children. The site — glum, with two graves per simple marker and dark crosses that huddle together in groups of five — is a somber reminder that many young Germans were victims of Hitler as well.
The best WWII museum in France is in Caen (pron. kehn) — the first big city freed by the allies. Officially named the Memorial for Peace, it puts the Battle for Normandy in a broader context.
You start 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.
It then gives a thorough look at how World War II was fought — from the two-ton V-I — the unmanned predecessor of today's smart bombs — to the D-Day landings.
The Cold War wing gives an overview of the bipolar world that followed WWII. It gives insights into the battle waged by the USSR and the USA for the hearts and minds of their people until the collapse of Communism in 1989.
The memorial then takes you beyond war. The Gallery of Nobel Peace Prizes celebrates the irrepressible human spirit. It honors the courageous and too-often-inconspicuous work of people like Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and many lesser known champions of justice who understand that true peace is more than just an absence of war.
The contemplative finale is a walk through the U.S. Armed Forces Memorial Garden. Plaques honor the sacrifice young American soldiers made for Europe. The sight of children enjoying this memeorial as a playground captures the spirit of the quote etched in the pavement: "From the heart of our land flows the blood of our youth, given to you in the name of freedom."
Our next stop — an hour's drive away — is Mont St. Michel. For over a thousand years, the silhouette of this island abbey has sent pilgrim's weary spirits soaring. Today it does the same for tourists. Mont St. Michel, [moh sah mee-shell] which through the ages has been among the top pilgrimage sites in Christendom, floats like a mirage on the horizon.
The vast Bay of Mont St. Michel, which turns into a mudflat at low tide, has long played a key role here. Since the sixth century, hermit monks came here in search of solitude.
The word "hermit" comes from an ancient Greek word meaning "desert." The closest thing to a desert in this part of Europe was the sea. Imagine the "desert" this bay provided as the first monk climbed that rock to get nearer to God.
The rock, capped by an abbey, was even more isolated by its mythic tides. Pilgrims crossed the mudflat quickly and carefully knowing that the sea swept in "at the speed of a galloping horse."
In the late 1800s, a road was built, connecting the island to the mainland and letting pilgrims come and go without hip boots.
The town of Mont St. Michel — with only 30 residents — entertains over 2 million tourists a year. Its main street — lined with shops and hotels leading up to the abbey — is grotesquely commercial. It's some consolation to remember that, even back in the Middle Ages, this was a retail gauntlet, with stalls selling souvenir medallions, candles, and fast food.like omelets.
An island specialty is quick, tasty, and extremely fluffy omelets. They were popular for eat-and-run pilgrims who needed to beat the tide and they remain a hit with visitors today. Enjoy the show as cooks make sure the traditional beat goes on.
You can skirt the main street crowds and enjoy Mont St. Michel's fine 15th-century fortifications by following the ramparts up to the abbey. They were built to defend against a new weapon — the cannon. Rather than tall, they were low — to make a smaller target.
While the English took all the rest of Normandy, they never took this well-fortified island. Because of its stubborn success against the English through all those years, Mont St. Michel became a symbol of French national identity.
As you climb the stairs to the abbey, imagine the pilgrims and monks who for centuries have climbed these same stone steps.
Mont St. Michel has been a holy site since the year 708, when a local bishop had a vision in which the Archangel Michael convinced him to build here.
This was an immense building project evolving over many centuries. It was a marvel — a medieval skyscraper, built upon a rock.crowned by a gilded statue of Saint Michael.
The bay stretches from Normandy to Brittany. The river marks the historic border between the two lands.
Brittany and Normandy have long vied for Mont St. Michel. In fact, the river used to pass on the other side, making the abbey part of Brittany. Today Mont St. Michel is just barely — but thoroughly — part of Normandy.
The centerpiece of this extraordinary construction is its church. While it's mostly 11th century Romanesque (with round arches and small windows), the apse behind the altar was built later. It's Gothic with pointed arches and bigger windows.
The monks built as close to heaven as possible, on the tip of this rock. The downside: there just wasn't enough level ground to support such a big abbey and church.
The solution: immense crypts were built under the church to create a platform supporting each of its wings.
Sitting atop all this heavy construction — like a delicate flower — is the abbey's cloister. In this peaceful zone, which connected various rooms, monks would grow vegetables and medicinal herbs. They'd meditate and read the Bible. The more secluded a monk could be, the closer he was to God. And, for thoughtful travelers today, this abbey still inspires.
So much of France's rich heritage survives, and here in Normandy perhaps better than any other part of the country, it inspires us all. Thanks for joining us. And vive la France! I'm Rick Steves.until next time.keep on travelin'. Au revoir.