Happy New Year.
This was not my resolution, but it might as well have been: to get out and explore more of France. I’ve spent days avoiding bike crashes in Copenhagen and failing to find major monuments in Munich, but the number of cities I have visited in France is embarrassingly small. Perhaps this is because there is so much in Paris, but honestly, I really have no excuse.
So, I got a carte jeune, got on a train at Gare Saint-Lazare, and headed to Normandy — the home of my ancestors (I think).
Rouen is a small city in northern France and the capital of the Haute-Normandie region. It sits on both sides of the Seine, just like Paris, and I was told to go because of one thing: it’s medieval.
I got off my train and followed a pack of suitcase-draggers toward the city center. Before I knew it, I was winding through a network of narrow walking streets bordered by medieval half-timbered buildings in all colors. Church spires peaked up over the rooftops in every direction, each one looking ancient and enticing.
But first thing was first: get a sandwich.
Here in provincial France, the safety blanket of having so many English speakers in Paris was lifted. I bought a chicken sandwich from a boulangerie. No hesitation from the cashier after hearing my accent. I walked through the streets, and only heard French. Let’s just not count the travellers I passed leaving the rail station.
I came to Rouen without a map and without a list of things to do. I just walked. My sandwich-searching journey took me through the medieval market streets. Then I decided to go up.
But before I could get there, I slipped on dog poop. Sandwich in hand and head set on not looking out of place, I did not see the small brown ball in the middle of the sidewalk. Catching it with the heel of my boot, I slid a good few inches. It was my first time doing this in a country where dogs take the metro with their owners, follow them into shops, and leave their feces on the sidewalk. Maybe it was a right of passage.
Scraping my boot on the pavement, I headed out of the city center and took the first road that slanted upwards.
On Rouen’s two river banks, the city rose up into bluffs. As I climbed the right one (« rive droite »), shops became scarce and houses appeared close together with gardens and brick walls all around. There were few people outside. Two boys waited on a desolate main street for a bus. A teen in a red jacket rode a motorbike, leaning into every turn through the quiet lanes.
At the top, I looked over the city, the sun finally starting to escape from the clouds. The handful of ancient church spires pinpointed the center, while the opposite hillside of quaint houses showed how big this city really was.
I headed down a very steep street, and another slippery substance threatened to make me slip. Between the blue-doored houses and garden walls, a thin green layer of moss covered the slanted pavement. I traversed it like I was hiking, shifting my boots to the side, knees bent, careful where I put my weight as I found less-slippery spots. I thought of cross-country skiing.
As I picked through the moss, a woman re-potted some plants in her garden. Far from ski country, the plants still manage to be green here. It feels like the middle of autumn and the beginning of spring at all times, but never quite like winter. The lack of seasons is stranger to me than the turds on the sidewalk.
I wound through parked cars on a narrow road. I read the little signs residents had pasted on their mailboxes: « pas de pubs dans ma boite des lettres ! » — no ads in my mailbox!
Take me to church
Now that I had seen residential Rouen from on high, I took to exploring the many churches scattered throughout downtown. The first was a public library. Full of light from white and green stained glass windows, the converted church was a lovely place to page through Kafka and French books on American history.
Going a bit farther downtown, I walked the grounds of the giant Church of St. Ouen before going in and tiptoeing through its cavernous interior. Photographers caught the late-day light falling from the windows onto age-darkaened paintings in little pockets of the church.
Down a particularly medieval street, the outside of the Church of Saint-Maclou was covered in white stone statues that had dark shadows all over them. It looked almost as if they had been burnt. I walked up to a striking statue of Mary and Jesus, her face covered in sooty strokes, making her features more powerful.
I ducked into Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen next. Visitors shuffled down the long center aisle and lit candles. A display honoring the victims of the Nov. 13 attacks sat near the entrance. In the center of the church was a square area with a golden statue of stalks of wheat. I wrapped around that and read from a display about Joan of Arc, who was burned alive in the 1400s in a square just a few streets away.
Other walkers stepped quietly past statues of saints and prophets at the back of the church. Little rooms for sitting and praying opened off on all sides. There was a certain warmth in this old stone building because of all the candles, and its decoration in red and gold.
Outside of the cathedral was a Christmas market. I walked through groups of people drinking mulled wine and peeling roasted chestnuts, knowing that with the new year, this was likely the last of these markets I would see for awhile. The people of Rouen knew that too, so here they were. They ate those sugary crepes and gaufres — waffles covered in sugar and whipped crème — from food stands identical to the ones in Paris.
The shopping streets were alight with twinkle lights, and people were still all over the stores as it got dark out. I crossed the river to the rive gauche and found myself on a different walking street. Not as classic and charming as the right bank, the left one had newer buildings and wider roadways. Bakers were pulling the shutters down over their stalls after pawning off their day’s final pavés and cookies.
I did not stay long on the left bank. Crossing back over the Seine, the right bank’s church spires rose up over all the other buildings. From this angle, with the blue light from the bridge over the river, the city looked lovely but cold. I felt lonely. Walking around a city with nothing in particular to do other than slip on dog poop and moss is freeing and but also emptying.
I took a final detour through the medieval streets and felt better. There were people everywhere. I exchanged a « pardon » with members of a family that was taking up the whole walkway. I watched middle school-aged kids line up to buy paninis and saw cheese and fish vendors talk warmly with customers. There was a Ferris wheel and music. The sounds slowly faded away with a walk up a dark, windy street. Then I saw the clock tower from the station and knew it was time to take the train home.
Other shots from Rouen and the new year