Monday, August 4 - Up the Seine to Rouen

Although we weren’t conscious at the time, we weighed anchor at 6:30 a.m. and set sail from Vernon to Rouen.  Given the leisurely pace that our cruising will afford us this morning, our very considerate Tour Director extended breakfast from 7:30 to 10:00 so that we could take full advantage of the unstructured time.  I have to admit, it is nice to not be on a schedule so as to simply enjoy the changing landscape as we steam up the Seine.

As I write these words, we have just traversed a large lock after passing miles of lush greenery and the inimitable half-timbered houses that we have come to expect no matter where we are in France.  From my nook here in the Neptune’s tiny library I am able to eavesdrop on the lecture that Lionel is giving about the history of France’s Hundred Years’ War that led to the ascent of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc).  We will be taking a walking tour later today that will culminate with a visit to the city square in Rouen where this intrepid nineteen-year-old was burned at the stake as a witch in 1431.  

Much later (as in Tuesday, on the bus to the landing beaches on the coast of Normandy, and Wednesday, watching the rain as we cruise toward Les Andelys):

The walking tour of Rouen was split into 5 groups; we were in the “leisurely” group as a result of Gary’s ankle injury.   Our Belgian guide, Martin, was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about the history of this city that played such a pivotal role in the creation of the France we know today. 

Our first major stop was at the glorious cathedral (also named Notre Dame) at the crossroads of the old Roman roads that divided the subsequent Norse settlement, ruled by Rollo (or Rolf),  a Viking transplant.  He had made the unique decision to remain on the Continent after the end of the regular raiding season, and thus positioned himself to take control of the local populace.  He is interred in the Cathedral.  The edifice itself is the product of centuries of overlapping architectural styles, from the early Romanesque structure to the three differing versions of the Gothic.  As one’s eyes are drawn upward to the tops of the two major towers, it is very easy to discern the lines of demarcation that separate the efforts made by the builders in the successive time periods during which the construction progressed.  (Time out here to listen to Patrick, our tour guide for the D-Day expedition.

The large window on the left is the place Monet painted the famous images above.

After giving us time to absorb the treasures of Notre Dame, Martin shepherded his flock back to the streets of Rouen, where we set off in the direction of the Vieux Marché (Old Market), now the site of the striking St. Joan of Arc Church and a tall, slim cross marking the spot where Joan was martyred by burning at the stake.  One can also see in this large open space the outline of the former Church of St. Xavier.  Having been marched to her execution past the church, Joan asked for its procession cross to be held in front of her eyes as she perished in the flames.  After the spectacle of her death, the English who were responsible realized that they could not simply bury her ashes in a grave, as this might give rise to veneration of her remains by the French and result in a resurgence of the nationalistic spirit with which she had infused her countrymen.  So the decision was made to scatter her ashes in the Seine and thus deprive the enemy of a rallying place from which to regroup.  By so doing, they made her a part of not just Normandy, but of the entire heart of France.

Although many buildings were destroyed during WWII, this is typical of its beauty.

The modern and beautiful Church of St. Joan of Arc in Rouen.

The Church of St. Joan of Arc is an exceedingly anomalous sight in the midst of the ancient market square, as its 20th century designer had no intention of mirroring the surrounding 15th century buildings.  Instead, he presented to the citizens of Rouen a completely modern, arching representation of a huge wave sweeping across the marketplace; however, this architectural interloper comes with a twist of homage to the artistry of the ecclesiastical past. 

In the war-torn Europe of the 1940s, most of the irreplaceable stained glass windows of the ancient churches and cathedrals were dismantled and squirreled away in places of safety to protect them from being unintended victims of the conflict.  Because of the intense saturation bombing that was inflicted on Normandy pre- and post-D-Day, quite of few of the churches themselves did not survive.  So the determination was made to incorporate the windows from one of these devastated sanctuaries into the design of the new house of worship.  The result is an awe-inspiring and brilliant amalgam of the antique and the contemporary that suffuses the spare interior of the church with a kaleidoscope of the richest colors imaginable.

On the way to and from the market, our route took us past fascinating links to the city’s history, from a “leaning” half-timbered house (now home to a café on its ground floor) and a timeworn but beautifully restored hotel façade abloom with hundreds of crimson geraniums, to dozens of chic shops and intriguing narrow side alleys.  Above the stone arch of one of the original Roman walls is a magnificent example of one of the first clocks in Europe, one that tells the hours (but not the minutes), and indicates the days of the week with representations of appropriate Greek gods or goddesses along with the current lunar phase.  Not only is the clock functional to this day, but it is an exquisite example of ways in which France incorporated opulent Italian Renaissance decoration.  Beneath the 
clock arch itself is a large carved stone medallion depicting the Good Shepherd.

Pre-WWII wooden frame building in Rouen.

During the time after we had departed Notre Dame, Gary and I had become separated as he visited a “Pharmacie” across the street from the Cathedral in search of some analgesics and an ice bag to ease the ankle swelling that he was continuing to experience.  Apparently he encountered such a language gap that he spent quite a bit more time there than he had anticipated, and completely lost track of the direction of the tour.  So he waited for me at the Pharmacie for about 30 minutes, after which time he gave up and headed back to the Neptune to recoup and regroup.  All this time I had been anxiously awaiting his return to the tour group, to the point where I even relieved Martin of the “lollipop” that all the land guides use as a homing beacon to retrieve their lost sheep.  I kept this emblem hoisted high above my head in the hope that he would find his way back to us, but it wasn’t meant to be…  That being said, I was just a trifle snarky when I returned to the ship, footsore and alone, to find him nicely ensconced in our stateroom.  (But I got over it once I had my shoes off and a chance to take a catnap!)

We had been informed of a spectacular laser light show that is projected onto the façade of the Cathedral daily after dark, but the days exertions had taken their toll on both of us, so we crashed after dinner in anticipation of the early start we would be making for the pilgrimage to the landing beaches of D-Day.  Now, lest you think that retiring after dinner makes a couple of old fuddy-duddies, the final meal of the day on board ship starts at 7:00 p.m. at the earliest.  Add to that cosmopolitan hour the relaxed service and lots of interesting conversation with one’s shipmates, and you have the recipe for a 2½ hour dining experience!

So – apologies for the delay in posting this latest chapter.  Be assured that I will use the remainder of this precipitous day to catch up with the trek to Omaha Beach, and to do a little projecting of the (too) few days left to us on board the Neptune.

Till then – au revoir from the river Seine!

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