The Day I Lost Gothic.


Somedays, (well actually normally at 3am when I wake in a cold sweat stressing about the impending tour on my calendar) I wonder who on earth set me up for this Tour Guiding malarkey! In the glow of the early dawn, the minutes ticking down to my second ever tour were gathering speed, whilst I lay in bed unable to mentally talk my way through, or indeed remember any detail about one of the principle monuments of the city! With the lightening of the sky came the terrifying realisation that I had only myself to blame for the terror I was inflicting on myself. Why oh why had I signed myself up for a career that involves public speaking in front of 30 strong crowds when I was the kid in class that skulked in the back of the classroom hoping not to be asked the question. For the first two tours I had the overwhelming urge to flee, much as had done the French soldiers on the fortified Pont de l’Arche on te Seine when faced with a fleet of ships containing 1200 marauding Vikings.

Suprisingly, the tours actually went quite well, and though my brain fumbled occasionally on the odd date whist trying to recall them at speed, the general ambiance of the group seemed to erase the fear after the first  ten minutes or so. The few minutes needed to walk from one monument to the next was enough to mentally recompose and  prepare the brain for how to present the next historical story and describe the architecture. Sometimes this was knocked a little off kilter by a ‘out of the box’ question from the group, but generally things had begun to fall into place.

Nothing could have prepared me for last Monday, when just as my general confidence and nonchalance was building, I turned to face the cathedral, and realised, in a moment of utter horror that the most important word in the architectural arsenal had ‘hopped it’, fled, ‘disparued’, leaving me with a vocabulary void in its place.

The first three monuments in the tour of Rouen are Gothic, and Gothic had gone awol. It wasn’t just that having learnt the whole tour at the outset in the French language, I had lost its translation – oh no! Gothic and Gothique are very much the same word. Quite simply, I had fallen victim to a very unwelcome verbal dyslexia.

The tour continued, as it should, and since my brain was no longer capable of annotating the windows, archways or delicate stone tracery with their historical references of primitive gothic or gothic rayonnant and gothic flamboyant, the lucky tourists were assailed with a veritable overload of dates as I struggled to get the details across. Fear was once more edging in around the edges as I wondered what other catastrophes my brain may have in wait for me. Whether the tourists noticed, I will never know.

Look at all those wonderful………..details!

But one thing is for certain, terror may indeed be preferable to nonchalance. Whilst fear may leave you expectant of memory loss, that loss creeps up unannounced to the nonchalant, a devastating blow for the unwary. And what worst place than mid performance with no prompt in the wings. As I went to bed that night, those dates were firmly engraved in my brain and my dreams were peppered with pinacles and gargoyles with imaginary labels, 1147, 1245 and 1477.  But the biggest label of all, in bright red letters, the word

GOTHIC.

Far too late of course…

but let’s hope it stays there until next time!

The Impressionists, Monet and Giverny


Last weekend, just before ‘husband à l’etranger’ set off again for Nigeria, we walked into town to try to pick up a fridge magnet for one of his colleagues. Slightly bizarre, you may think, but actually, his colleague bought a fridge magnet for every place he’d visited with his wife when on motorbike – only in Rouen he’d failed to get hold of one. I knew that the Musée de Beaux Arts had some really lovely ones of Impressionist views of Rouen and so it seemed a good opportunity for a sunday morning walk.

The only problem was that this particular sunday, Rouen seemed to be a little more difficult to get around than usual. There was security fencing on all the vital corners that we wanted to pass by, and police presence was heavy, especially near the art gallery. Eventually, we took a seat at a café in the sunshine, and watched the activity around us. It wasn’t long before a couple of limos passed by withdarkened glass and motorbike  outriders. François Hollande, the president was in town.

This summer Rouen celebrates it’s strong link with the Impressionists with the  ‘Festival Normandie Impressioniste’, This is the second time this event has taken place, the first being in 2010. Hollande had come for the official opening of the Exhibition. Most people probably recognise the famous series of 33 paintings of Rouen cathedral by Monet, but what many don’t know is that the art collector and patron of many of the struggling impressionists, François Depeaux had at one time in his collection 600 of their works of art, including at least one of the cethedral series. A messy divorce forced him to try to offload the paintings, and in 1903 he offered them all to the Musée de Beaux Arts at Rouen. The board of governors at the musée refused them all thanks to their ‘avant guard’ status, and by the time they finally changed their mind in 1909, the collection had dwindled to a mere 60. Nevertheless the Musée has a superb Impressionist wing, and to celebrate the Impressionist Festival, is exhibiting another 100 from private collections from around the world. The theme this year is Eblouissant Reflets (dazzling refelctions) celebrating the Impressionists love of painting the movement and reflective quality of the water – particularly on the Seine and the Normandy coast. The exhibition runs from now until 29th September, along with several other large exhibitions in Normandy, and the wonderful Son et Lumiere (sound and light) show on the cathedral facade after dusk.

Whilst we were sitting in the café, we picked up the local paper and were amused to see that ‘les effectifs des guides conferenciers ont été augmentés. Ils passent de 42 à 47 pour prendre en charge le flot de touristes.’ (The numbers of Conference Guides have been augmented from 42 to 47 to take charge of the flow of tourists) I, and my new colleagues had made it into the news! Rouen by all accounts was set to be busy this summer!

In the week preceeding ‘husband à l’etranger’s return, with a mere week left until my final exam for Guide, the arrival of a close friend from England allowed me to suggest a last bit of Impressionist revision. A visit to the home of Monet at Giverny, only 30 minutes by train from Rouen. Arrivals at the station at Vernon, the nearest station to Giverny have the choice of shuttle-bus or taxi to run the final 5 kilometers. Luckily my friend and I think alike, and although an overcast day, delighted in the idea of a bike ride from the station along a disused railway track to the home of Monet. (Bikes can be hired from the café next to the station). The sun blazed as we headed out along the Seine valley and on arrival we avoided queues for entry thanks to pre-booked online tickets.

chemin parking 011

The unseasonably long winter had kept in check the spring flowers, but it was still pretty, and the house was lovely, mostly for its modest and familial proportions. Monet was passionate about his garden, and though I am not a great lover of crowds, I must admit that I really want to go back to see it in its summer prime.

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Just as we left the Japanese garden, the first drops of rain began to fall, and by the time we had hopped back onto our bikes in search of our favorite of the  handful of cafés, the heavens opened, and we flopped into the seats at our table bedraggled. My friend wasted no time in ‘selling’ my guiding ‘talents’ to a neighbouring American couple!

Giverny 022

We were charmed by our hilarious waiter who offered us Psssscht (pronounced sheet)(an alternative lemonade to 7up) to quench our thirst. When we could barely contain our laughter, he looked a little concerned, and asked what he’d said.

When we explained that it sounded a little rude, he mumbled

‘merde’,

to which we replied

‘exactly’, and promptly fell about again!

We countered the continuing rain to visit the other art gallery, the Musée des Impressionists in Giverny, and visited the exhibition of  Signac, before climbing back onto our bikes, and back into warm sunshine for our return journey home.

But for now on the agenda, is my own visit to the Musée de Beaux Arts to see the visiting works of Art in the ‘Eblouissant Reflets’ exhibition, before I start presenting, amongst other things, the permanent Impressionist gallery to the summer visitors.

The Son et Lumiere at the cathedral is worth every minute of the late-ish night required, the scaffolding for the restoration of the cathedral facade being removed just in time to allow the Impressionist images to be projected onto it. Perhaps i’ll see you there?

C’est Adam et Yves, Monsieur! – Becoming a Tour Guide.


About  two years ago, in total naivety, I popped into the Bureau de Tourisme to see if they ‘had a job going’. The women behind their desks peered at me as if I had just landed from a different planet (which indeed I just had) and sent me packing, and I spent the rest of the evening thinking how dreadfully rude they were.

rouen tourist info 001

Two years on I see their point!

This January, a few curious jobs later, the door of the Bureau de Tourisme inched itself open just a little bit as I managed to get a place on the ‘Formation Guide Conferencier’ having quite by chance made a second tentative the day the Bureau had started recruiting. If I had had any inkling what I was about to put myself through, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so keen. But that’s niavity for you.

So it was that I turned up for an intensive three month lecture series, spending the worst part of the sub zero winter temperatures shivering in freezing monuments, led by two lecturers who can only be described as walking ‘Masterminds’ who spent a good proportion of their time, when not delivering the essentials, embellishing miniscule details and corroborating, or disputing each others event dating down to the sheerest milli-second. Clearly this level of detail was ridiculous…

Or was it?

Curiously, over the space of three months, the thirst for linking each historical event and ancient monument became almost unquenchable. The fact that the canons at the cathedral became so irritated by the merchants at the herb market in the cathedral square for using the cathedral as a meeting house when it rained that they demanded the markets relocation,  which in turn lead to the location of the future Palais de Justice on the same site in 1499. Equally interesting was the fact that the wife of King Charles the Mad held, in 1393, a fancy dress party for him as a distraction from government, in which all the men wore feathered costumes heavily impregnated with highly flammable glue. The Queen’s lover, the Duke of Orléans turned up with a candle, and all the costumed guests, with the exception of the king, burned to death. I am not sure, however that that was the queen’s plan! Who was she? She was the woman that handed the French throne to the descendent of the English crown, which in turn led to the arrival of Joan of Arc.

“Do not”, said our lecturers,” make an error on dates”. Dates, if anyone has not yet tried them in a foreign language, are hellish. Then followed a discussion on how the Germans, in order to route out foriegners and spies, would deliberately lead the conversation around dates, where the unwary would inevitably blunder. If the accent didn’t give me away first, clearly the dates would!

The trouble with the history of Normandy is that the English just didn’t know when to leave. In practically every epoch, or so it seems, the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy were held by the same man – and more often than not the English king had designs on the French throne. Clearly the English were not very good at throwing in the towel and returning home, however much more simple that would have made the revision process for me.

Clearly I have more English genes than I had anticipated, for even when the crowd of suited Directors of Tourisme and Directors of Normandie Patrimonie headed for me on Tuesday morning; when I should have seen their approach and run off down the road screaming in terror, I stood resolute, nurturing my limited vocabulary, ready to give my very best shot.

Part of the exam process had been to select a little blue envelope from the pile of 20 or so on the table. Good fortune was shining on me when I opened mine to discover the coveted ‘Aitre St Maclou, the macarbre Black Death cemetery’. Twenty minutes of preparation and we were at the location ready to begin the presentation.

Not to be deterred by the black suits, I led ‘Le Direction’ into an obscure corner of the cemetery to show them one of the few carvings that had survived the anti-iconographic destruction of the Wars of Religeon.

“Note the exceptional carving of Eve, tempted by the serpent” I said.

“Yves?” said Monsieur Le Direction, looking bewildered,

A hasty discussion ensued amongst the Direction, clearly concerned that Paradise had been inhabited by Adam and Yves, before Monsieur Patrimoine managed to clarify that it was an error of pronunciation,

“Ehv” he reassured.

When we moved on, Monsieur Patrimoine was clearly tempted to look at the statue of the murder of Cain and Abel, despite being very mutilated in the Wars of Religeon and in its very undignified position almost in the toilet, where-upon Madamoiselle Patrimoine expressed more than a passing interest in the location of the toilets. I rather suspect she went back there afterwards!

Twenty minutes later it was time to wrap up.

“The cemetery is now on the list of….” but my brain was weary and could no longer recall the translation for  ‘Historic Monuments’.

“Monuments Historiques” filled in Monsieur Le Direction, and my lecturer squeezed me a sympathetic smile.

I left the monument gutted at my linguistic inadequacy, sure of failure.

But a long five hours later an email popped into my in-box from the Direction.

“J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez réussi votre test en français ce matin”

“I have the pleasure to inform you that you have passed your test in French this morning”

The door of the Bureau de Tourisme is open wide. Their office is my office; I am now an official ‘Guide Conferenciére de Rouen’. There has been gain from the pain!

It was nearly the death of me!

So to all planning a visit to Rouen –

Bienvenue!

L’Aître St Maclou and Getting Cold Feet.


I have just returned home after two hours in the pouring rain and bitter cold. We are now in our tenth week of training for ‘Conferencier de Rouen’ and have 20 centuries of French and Norman history under our belt, and eleven edifices at our fingertips. Or we would like to think so!

There is nothing more demoralising than feeling ‘au fait’ with an edifice, or an epoque of history, than hearing the lecturer rattle of the dates in French, and not being absolutely sure that it was the corresponding date in ones own memory – specifically because having translated the date into English, the lecturer has already passed onto another great moment of history, leaving you in the dark as to what he was referring to!

I had a bitter internal struggle this morning as to whether I should leave my umbrella at home in order to have my hands free for note-taking or whether to just listen and consequently remain dry. Our lecturers have so much information stored in their incredible brains, that leaving the note pad behind really wasn’t an option. In the end I huddled under two hoods and got soaked, the two hoods doing nothing to aid comprehension or ability to hear!

Rouen is incredibly lucky historically to have one of the only two ‘Aîtres’ in France. The other, the Aître de Brisgaret is found at Montivilliers near Le Havre. The Aître St Maclou is found in the Martainville area of Rouen.

One must first imagine the city in the medieval age, a city with several fine stone public buildings, the cathedral and the Palais de Justice, to name but two, surrounded by the sinuous and tortuous alleys and streets of timber-framed houses with compacted earth roads and overhanging ‘encorbellements’, vertically narrowing the street and preventing the movement of air and light. To this underbelly, one must add the Normandy climate and incessant rain (!), the mud and the effluent. The sector Martainville was initially the land immediately outside the city’s fortified walls. It was area trapped between two rivers, the Robec, which ran alongside the city ramparts, and the Aubette which ran at the base of the cliffs that surround the town. The area was marshland, frequently flooded by the Robec to north and west, the Aubette, to the east and the Seine to the south. Into this landscape came the industrialists, keen to tap the water to power their mills for the textile trade. And with the trades came the ever increasing number of workers, densifying the built environment with unregulated building, unchecked effluent and high mortality rate.

The increase in industry and the necessity to trade brought with it a route for the highly contageous ‘Black Death’ or ‘Peste’ as it is known in France. The first swathe in 1348 decimated the population and the cemeteries became full. The ‘Hundred years War’ which began in 1345 and continued as a battle over territory weakened resistance to the ‘Peste’. This, combined with the need for high taxation to pay for the war effort, the shortages of grain from famine and lack of cultivation of  farmland created misery. Into this misery came the need to construct a new cemetery to cope with the soaring death rate.

The Aître St Maclou, so named after its resemblance to a Roman atrium, began initially in 1357 as a field, to which over the years to follow additional plots were added. In 1520 the gallery was built around three sides of the perimeter of the field, ostensibly to allow the richer residents of the quartier not to be interred in the ‘fosse commun’ or communal grave but at the edge where little chapels were available for visitors. The demand for space in the common grave became so high that it became necessary to interr the corpses with a caustic cement powder, (a bi-product from construction) to speed the decomposition. The Fosse or grave was worked with such a system that the skeletons could be exhumed without disturbing those still decomposing, and the bones laid to rest in an ‘ossuaire’, an open upper gallery of the building, thus leaving space for new buriels. Suffice to say, the job as grave digger was not only unpleasant but had a high turnover, as each in turn inevitably succumbed to the daily contact with the contagion!

The Aître has its own very particular atmosphere. It was built at a turning point in attitudes towards death and one senses a particular type of menace, reinforced by the incredible carving to both the timber structure, and the stone columns. The timber is heavily worked with representations of death. Skulls, bones, spades and coffins are carved on the horizontal beams, whilst the stone carvings carry grotesque scenes from the ‘Danse Macabre’. If all that does not adequately convey the ‘raison d’être’ of this remarkable building, perhaps the mummified cat built into the wall of the newer southern ‘wing’ will do the trick…

But i’ll leave that for you to find!

In the meantime, my exam is fast approaching; a twenty minute oral on one of the 16 edifices or sectors of Rouen, randomly chosen on the day by my examiners….

…and I’m getting cold feet!

Day trips – A day at Jumièges.


This week, a visitor to Rouen asked me to give her some ideas for her month stay in Rouen.

The river trips haven’t started yet, a fun thing to do in Spring from the begining of the Easter holidays, but nevertheless a trip further down the Seine is a visual treat and its lanscape never fails to impress me. Often visitors come without a car, and this visit to Jumièges is possible by a local bus, and gives a great taste of the Normandy lanscape along the Seine in the footsteps of the Impressionist painters.

Jumièges is a village dating back to medieval times build on a loop of the Seine, and home to one of the Romanesqe, and early Gothic Monasteries, now in ruins. Norman dukes made this the settlement for the first monastery and abbey from the 7th century. The second abbey was built in 1062 and later modernised in the Gothic style in 1278 before being ruined during the Wars of Religeon. The river carves its way through the lanscape with the huge chalk cliffs banking the rive gauche facing over the fertile Jumiége plain with its orchards and Abbey.

Take the number 30 bus from Rouen. Get advice from the TCAR office at the Gare Routière near the Theatre des Arts for the times. In off-season, there are, I believe more buses on a sunday than other days of the week

In Jumiéges there are several small restaurants in the shadow of the abbey, but one of my favorite walks, to prolong the day, and especially in beautiful weather is to turn out of the gate of the abbey to the right, and hugging the bounary of the abbey site as well as possible, to pass behind the monument, passing the wonderful manor which also stands in its grounds, and continue to circuit the site until back at a crossroads with the main street of Jumièges once more. From there cross the main road and take the small lane opposite heading across the plain and orchard fields towards the river. Passing the huddle of houses overlooking the river aim for the Bac ferry which crosses the Seine every 10 minutes (but check the last crossing time before you leave). This small ferry is free to car and foot passengers and lands, very conveniently, in front of a lovely café overlooking the water’s edge.

Spend some moments watching the occasional river traffic before heading either further along the rive gauche, or returning to the rive droit and Jumièges. A 10 minute walk down the lane running perpendicular to the river will take you back to the centre of Jumièges, its cafés, restaurants and bus stop.

Allow yourself a couple of hours for the walk, in addition to the visit to the abbey site, in order to not miss the return bus back home.

And cross your fingers for a sunny day!

 

Bulotamy and La guide Touristique.


For some years I’ve had a little soft spot for the word ‘bulot’. It’s come about after a little incident with the word two years ago when I decided to ‘demission’ from my first job in France.

‘Monsieur’, I wrote ‘Je veux arrêter mon boulot au fin du mois’

I can assure you that, as kind as my French  spell check has been today the ‘arrêter’ did not have a cap on the ‘e’ in the original letter, nor did ‘boulot’ mean job!

For those of you who cannot read French, what I inadvertantly wrote was..

‘Monsieur, I want to finish my snail at the end of the month’.

The letter is quite possibly still on the wall of the directors office to this day, exactly where he pinned it two years ago, having gathered the rest of his staff to watch the event in a state of hysteria.

Two years on, I am as keen to find my way in the French job market as I was then, and so I have invented this new word, ‘bulotomist’ in honour of the ‘linguistically challenged seeker in search of the perfect job’.

rouen tourist info 001Bureau de Tourisme,Rouen

Just before christmas, on my way back from the Ecole de Beaux Arts, where I am now studying to become Monet II, I spotted a glut of American tourists; and where there were tourists, there were guides. It occurred to me that one thing that I did have going my way was fluency in English and knowledge of the city, and this was surely a ‘sure thing’ where such employment was concerned.

After all, when one is obsessed by architecture, fine art and patisserie, is there such a thing as having a finger in too many pies? Not letting the sun set on a good idea, I dropped off my CV at the Bureau de Tourisme with all the panache of a serial bulotomist.

During my ski adventure in Switzerland I received word that i’d been accepted onto the ‘Formation de Guide Accompagnateur’, and today I arrived at the venue to be formed ,reformed or transformed, depending upon how one likes to look at it! To add to the authentic French atmosphere, a street musician serenaded my arrival with his accordian.


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This morning’s lecture was two hours on the History of France with special reference to Rouen. A title worthy of  ‘Mastermind’.  My pride in my quasi-bilingualism was quickly devastated by my new found colleagues introductions. They were for the most part trilingual French and Spanish, a potential quadlingual Japanese, along side which my skills looked somewhat pathetic; there were unformed guides and several preformed guides from other regions… but only one architect. Ha!  The thought of glamourising my attributes in ropey French having heard the introductions of my counterparts set my heart racing. Thankfully, the effort of concentrating on the French wiped away all traces of nerves and if there is one thing I have learnt since living here is not to take myself too seriously. I delivered the potted me!

In four months this little oral introduction will have been transformed into a 15 minute oral exam on an aspect of the history of Rouen or its monuments, a suprise topic selected by the tutors.

‘If you pass the French oral, you get to do it in your native language’. they said.

And that’s where the fun begins!

For now we have an intensive study period from Charlemagne, and the Vikings, to Colombage, and the Renaissance. In June the Armada tall ships arrive to dock in Rouen bringing with them thousands of tourists, in July and August the Japanese arrive in their groups requiring city tours and accompanied exclusive shopping, and the summer sees a return of ‘The City of Impressionism’ and the celebration of Monet and his ‘friends’.

If all goes well, I’ll be in the thick of it…

…if not, it’ll be ‘escargots’ for me till next time!

boulotimage thanks to parispainter.blogspot

The Great French Hypothetical House Hunt – The perfect Kitchen.


Today I received a phone call from the French estate agent that thought that this would be my perfect house:

“Madame” he said, “If you are quick to put in an offer, you will be in a very strong position – no matter if your house in England has not yet sold”

“Yes” I mused, “I will be in a very strong position because no-one else wants this particular house – Its is very plain and very banal and not at all what I am looking for”

His call did however set me to reflecting about one of the most important rooms of a house. The kitchen.  With my new found passion for patisserie, I often dream of the large smooth granite slab atop my central island unit in my old kitchen and think how wonderful it would be with all its marvelous ‘coldness’ for creating chocolate curls, and preparing pâte feuilleté (puff pastry) and croissants.

And so my dreams started to formulate themselves into my new and perfect hypothetical kitchen. And at that moment I knew why, even with the smooth talking Monsieur’s …

“mais madame, on habite à l’interieur d’une maison, pas l’exterieur”

(but madam, one lives in the interior of a house, not the exterior)

..the house in question simply would never work, even if blindfolded on entry. The kitchen was simply too small and pokey for any kind of creative excess.

Firstly the ideal kitchen has to large, and how much more fantastic than to have an open fire and bold beautiful architectural features. Look at this vaulted ceiling!

Top of the wish list –  plenty of room for a huge table for family and friends to sit around.

and ideally doors leading out to the garden..

…and a view! I know of course that I’m getting carried away, but i’d like to be able to wander out and pick mint from the garden to put with the peas.

If I lower my expectations, this would do very nicely!

Did I mention how important it is to have a huge slab of polished stone for patisserie? I imagine I did!

Simplicity is key when choosing cupboards, and calm cool colours. All the ‘busy’ will come from the utensils.

Simple glassware and china..

..crocks and pots.

and a wonderful corner for friends to settle in and chat, or the kids to lounge about and talk about their day whilst I cook –

or dare I say it, for ‘husband à l’etranger’ and I to have ‘time-out’ with a glass of wine!

…leaning on some wonderful cushions made from old grain sacks like these from Atelier Be.

and an ‘aide memoire’ to remind me what I need to buy. I imagine blue means I need to order more and white, that I have enough. This cannot be my house, I have plenty of wine left and have not finished all the chocolate!

An old battered jug in which to put garden flowers would be lovely,

 and old French linen tablecloths,

and some old french plates found in a brocante.

and a wonderful old french clock to get us to school on time.

and perhaps some unframed portraits of odd ancestors!

and no matter what, with all those old brocante ‘finds’ , the old french windows and food from the market, the ideal kitchen is unmistakably French.

The perfect kitchen for lounging lazily at the table with a glass of wine and a delectable patisserie?

I’ll let you know once i’ve polished off these macarons!

All photos thanks to Google Images