A week in the life…


This morning I was expecting to be up and early for a new experience- giving a bike tour of the city of Rouen. On Saturday afternoon I perfected the route, out on my own in glorious sunshine, wheeling my way along the river quay, past the many boats moored there, before climbing slowly up to the prefecture and passing the church of Joan of Arc nearby.enjoying the flower sellers in the street,and the Gros Horloge,and taking a pit stop in the cool of the abbey of St Ouen, an often missed, but gem of a monument, which easily competes with the cathedral for it’s light and perfect symmetry.But at 6 this morning a great crack of thunder and the rain came pouring down. I was prepared for the eventual soaking but by 9 the clients had cancelled and I now find myself with a free day!

I was thinking what an lovely week this has been for variety, which is perhaps what makes this job as good as it is.

When I’m not in Rouen, my “office” can be found generally with a wonderful view!

On Thursday this was my office at “Giverny”, the famous home and garden of Claude Monet.Then on Friday I met a boat at Les Andelys to walk up to Château Gaillard, Richard the Lionheart’s fortress at the top of the cliff. It was tough sitting waiting for the boat to come in!Later that afternoon we took a closer inspection of a tributary of the river.

and I have Jay and Betty to thank for immortalizing it for posterity!

On Saturday I was up again at the crack of dawn to head of to the Château of La Roche Guyon, a castle that spans the centuries from its early dwelling in the year 260 with troglodyte caves dug deep into the cliffs to its 18th century extensions. We just had enough time to climb to the 12 century donjon (keep) some 350 steps above the river and to take in the view.Even if I did have considerable difficulty getting some of the clients to come down again!

On Sunday another walking tour of Rouen before heading out yesterday to the Château Vascoeuil for an evening of cocktails and music in this historic building and art centre, home to over sixty sculptures in its gardens, including several of Dali.Tomorrow I shall head off to see my favorite dogs, Bêtise and Huge, two border collies who mind the ecological lawn mowers, the flock of 100 sheep at the award-winning cider farm, Duclos Fougeray.It’s all go! But never let it be said that I don’t like heading to the office because I really don’t mind the view!

Which view would you chose to have from your office?

Bon Apetite -Choux buns and Chouquettes


For the recipé click here:

For a few moments this morning I thought I was going to have to deal with a double booking. Not the kind where you find you are booked for two different tours in two entirely different places at the same time, but one you turn up to your destination and find that another group is already there.

This morning I led an eager group of Australians to the Atelier de Sylvie, a cookery school where they were programmed to create a profusion of profiteroles. But when we arrived, we found an equally sized group already crammed into the little cooking class. For a couple of seconds I wondered how I was going to deal with it, until the head of the first group heaved a camera onto his shoulder and with a wink and a grin called:

“Action”.

It turned out that our cooking class was going to be televised and I was dammed glad that I had thought to wash my hair this morning. Five minutes later I was miked-up and ready to translate the charming Sylvie, the owner and chef of the atelier.

WP_20160717_002The morning turned into a riotous affair, doing what the french do best, (and australian TV presenters do worst apparently), cooking and tasting delicious patisserie. In fact the presenter’s choux buns were so bad that we had to take them out of the oven twice in order for the  camera to effectively film the astonished expressions on the assembled cooks, and the grimace on the face of Sylvie!

“Il est le plus mauvais client que j’avais jamais eu dans cet atelier” she exclaimed, and the camera trained back to me to capture the translation. Struggling to contain my laughter I explained that perhaps that was better left untranslated, but no-one was having any of it:

“He’s the worst client that i’ve ever had in my atelier” I explained, and once the the camera man had finished snorting, he demanded we re-run the whole sequence. The presenter bravely bore the ridicule!

As the morning drew to a close we left the atelier, each holding a box laden with choux buns and chouquettes. (some more professionally looking than others!), calling

“Bon Apetite”, to the cameras as we went!

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For the recipé click here, and for the method, click here!

Le Fête du Ventre and Other Activities.


My fellow guide and I had a huddled conversation this morning over how on earth we were going to get our 50 Amercan tourists through the heart of the city of Rouen this morning. Lining the streets on every side, cheek to cheek, was every conceivable stall groaning under the weight of speciality and artisan foods from the length and breadth of Normandy.  Finally colourful umbrellas held high, Joan of Arc’s story having already being recounted on a quiet corner, we snaked our way through the crowd to the Vieux Marché and the cross in the garden outside the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc.

Maybe the end of the historic tour, but for me, the start of a fun-filled lunchtime. A quick call to my younger boys back at home to describe the sweet stall I had just passed, and the boys were hastily on route to the café where I had taken refuge for a pause, before launching ourselves into the crowds to taste all that was on offer.

Having started with a creamy hot chocolate, our next stop was of course the sweet stall. But barely had we paid for two groaning bags than we spotted our favourite chocolatier on the other side of the street making chocolate truffles before our eyes.

-“on offer, for a limited time only” he called, and I knew it was true since last year, once thoroughly addicted, the truffle source dried up by about the end of December, leaving an agonising 8 month wait until this year’s Fête!

Now loaded down with two bags of sweets and a huge groaning bag of truffles, we came across the Macroon stall and walked away with chocolate, Tiramisu, Spéculoos, and Framboise flavours.

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But the fun was still to come. As we reached the corner the noise became deafening. Right there, across the street from the Oyster bar,  a jazz band was entertaining the crowds. If you look really carefully you can see the oyster shells piled high on one of the tables.

Leaving the band we headed down the street to see what else we could find!

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-wonderful fresh vegetables,

WP_20141019_008 – and at least twenty varieties of Normandy apples!

 

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– Normandie “escargots” (snails)

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and crates of delicious “champignons”.

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-Don’t forget the “Neufchatel” cheese, formed in the shape of a heart by the Normandy dairymaids to the allied soldiers in the First World War.

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The soft pretzel breads caused a stir with my boys! So much so that they forgot to clamour for a fresh crèpe or a gauffre (waffle)!

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But full on fresh bread, sweet bags in hand, with music still ringing in our ears we headed happily home!  I hope our American visitors enjoyed it as much as we did!

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And A Bird Pooped On My Head!


A great friend of mine asked, at the begining of the summer how I would feel about house-sitting her mini chateau in return for caring for her elderly and ailing dog. After a year in a appartment, albeit a lovely one, the lure of a garden, a tennis court and an orchard was extremely appealing. No suprises that  I said yes.

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Thus began days of endless summer in wonderful Normandy surroundings, a bit of tuning of basic tennis skills and visits to the orchard to harvest the fruit to make jam, and find unripe pears as doggy-treats for a pear-loving dog!

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The beauty of the chateau was that it is close enough to Rouen to continue working, and so it was that I could honour all my tour dates and guide an endless stream of Japanese and American tourists through the historic streets of Rouen.

One of the basic issues with guiding is what to do with personal effects. More often than not, the tour group arrive in Rouen by boat, down on the quayside. While those tours are always aided by microphone, the general indignity is having to carry a brightly coloured lollipop with the ship’s name blazoned across it in order not to loose the odd tourist along the way. On inclement days, the necessity to hold an umbrella claims the other free hand, leaving none with which to point to aspects of historic or aesthetic value. It’s not suprising then that I choose to descend to the ‘rendez-vous’ with nothing in my hands.

Leaving from the chateau early one morning on a hot sunny day it occurred to me that I had rather less pockets than usual. With my keys stuffed in one pocket, there was barely room for a hanky in the other. I deliberated a few moments on the need for a hanky on such a warm day, but having a sniffy nose and presenting a monument in front of thirty or so people are not good bedfellows. The hanky stayed.

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The Parvis in front of the cathedral and the Bureau de Tourism has a lovely shady seating area under two rows of plane trees. Taking advantage of the peace and quiet of the  early hours of this sunday morning I took a seat to wait and to savour the beautiful morning before the arrival of the group when suddenly – quite without warning..

…a bird pooped on my head!

After the initial horror, I felt up to the hairline of my forehead to feel copious quantities of slime slowly oozing their way onto my face. The next few minutes were a hasty attempt to restore my appearance and calm without mirror, and with only one solitary paper tissue to hand. The doors of the Bureau de Tourisme remained resolutely shut at this hour of a sunday morning!

It’s three weeks later now, the school year has begun, and once more the city plays host to the late summer arrival of a multitude of American and Australian tourists. Looking at the sky this morning, I deliberated on leaving my umbrella behind. After a weekend of 30° weather it seemed unneccessary that it encumber my day. At the last minute I swung it onto my arm and set out.

No more than three seconds into welcoming my group from their tour host and about one nano-second before I invited the crowd to move across the Parvis into the centre of the square, there came a shriek from one of the ladies at the back. If I thought I had been inundated with bird poop three weeks earlier, it was nothing on this poor woman. The rogue bird had managed to cover her hair, face and an extensive portion of her blouse. The tour ground to a complete standstill and the shocked victim was rushed off to the Bureau de Tourisme to repair the damage. Thankfully it was monday, and the Bureau was open, a significant improvement on my experience. Five minutes later she rejoined us in good spirits ready to get going.

It was less than five minutes later, from an apparently clear sky that I felt the first spots of rain. The speed with which the clouds followed, and the skies darkened beggered belief, but only moments later the heavens opened to torrents of rain. Three quarters of the group were umbrella-less, but generally good-humoured and optimistic that it would be shortlived.

It was not.

By the Eglise St Maclou, in all its fine new stone-cleaned whiteness, the drips were dripping down the necks of the unprotected crowd, and we hastily pressed ourselves under a small roof overhang to keep out of the worst of it.

By the Aitre St Maclou, the tour groups had bunched up, all trying in vain to shelter under the archway access point. It was a devil of a job not to loose Americans to the German group, and welcome some Russians to ours as we started to disentangle and move on to our respective destinations. One lone couple of elderly Canadians had completely lost sight of their group – and may even now still be wandering the rainy streets!

By the Passage des Chanoines, with clothes now drenched to the skin, the more miserable of the un-umbrella’d group pleaded with me to take them back to their bus.

“Unfortunately” I said, “the very nature of inner city parking in Rouen is such that where you were dropped off is not where you will be picked up – we will, unfortunately have to make our way to the meeting point at the other end of the city”

As you can imagine, the sense of humour, so abundent at the start was rapidly begining to diminish from a small quantity of the group.

We made our way, ducking and dodging between short arcades, doorways and cafe canopés to the Vieux Marché and the site of Joan of Arc’s death from burning at the stake. To add insult to indignity, an open overhead spigot-gutter shot a spout of water over the  more unwary, until finally the sight of the tour operator came into view, hair wet and plastered to his head, and we headed off to the bus. One woman stepped into a huge puddle on the kerbside, but didn’t appear to notice, the rest, forewarned by me of it’s existance hardly seemed to care.. they were wet enough already.

Once home I looked down at my jeans, sodden to the knee, and mused that if any advice could be given to any tourist, or tour guide (for that matter) about to embark on a guided tour – it is this…

Don’t forget an umbrella regardless of the forcast ..

and for heavens sake, …more than one tissue!

Madness in Rouen


It really is madness in Rouen this week. On strict instructions from Tuesday’s tour operator I dutifully arrived at the Vieux Marché to show my group of thirty tourists the Vitraux (stained glass) rescued from St Vincent church during World War One to find a snaking queue in both directions through main entrance door.

“It’s not necessary to pay for entry” I said, as the well-dressed beggar on the door was doing a roaring trade with the unsuspecting Americans!

I wished I could have left out the stained glass and shown something more obscure and less stampeded; there were plenty of places I hadn’t had time to show them.

There are approximately 40 guides in Rouen, and over the last few weeks I have turned up to the river cruise ships to find guides who have been drafted in from Paris to help cater for demand. Some of them had had to rise at 4am to arrive on time. I am glad of my cosy apartment a second away from the centre.

Last night I cursed as the sounds of music came beating through my windows, thinking that once again the students in the neighbourhood were partying and it would be a night ‘thin’ on sleep, but pulled open the huge windows nevertheless to water the Geraniums hanging off my balconies, when I realised, with a start, that this wasn’t any old music…..

“Our House” was definitely playing at top volume, buffeted by the wind in my direction. And of course I should have known. My teenage son had headed off with a friend to listen to Madness on the quayside, a good 40 minute walk away, and I’d been relegated to babysitting. But now I had a perfect seat with the windows wide open to hear an hour and a half of Madness live performance, sadly without the visuals.. but we can’t have everything!

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Every so often “Husband à l’Etranger” and I have raved about the cult pop groups of our time, only for our kids eyes to glaze over – “mum you are SO old”. Last night my son eventually returned,  converted, having managed to get himself five rows from the stage, and having videod entire songs on his phone. How could I have ever thought that mobile phones for teenagers were evil!

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Thankfully the organisers were handing out earplugs to the crowd, of which, according to no1 son, there were thousands. Tonight he’s off again to hear ‘Pony Pony Run Run’ – now there’s a band that is definitely not of my time! But what the city is gearing up for is Friday night’s concert of “Mika”. Superbly popular in France, this will draw thousands, including me and my two younger ones, not necessarily because he is to everyone’s taste, but because his songs are internationally known and because Mika is bilingual French/English which adds to his fan-pulling capability in France.

So there you are, Rouen has drawn in the crowds, not only with the Armada ships, but also with these great free live open-air concerts.

It was madness, there has been Madness, and it still is madness, and will be until Sunday…

when the ships set sail once again and head for open sea. And then?

Well Rouen still has something to Impression you with,

But more about that later!

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!

C’est Chaud à Rouen – Hotting up for the Armada


The cherry-pickers were out on Monday putting up ‘Armada’ bunting across the main street through Rouen, rue Jean d’Arc. There is a charged atmosphere about the city, expectant, and ready. The first Armada tall ships will hopefully arrive in Rouen next Wednesday evening, passing below the Pont Flaubert, the tallest lifting bridge in the world, which will be raised for the occasion.

But for today I was meeting another boat, and was there on the quayside just as The Viking moored after its gradual journey down the Seine from Paris. Should I have been worried? The last time Vikings were seen on the Seine, the city suffered from total destruction, pillaging, and Normandy was handed over to them. Thankfully for me, this Viking ship contained 120 American tourists who were keener on admiring our treasures, than plundering them. This is after all 2013 and not 841.

I am envious of the Americans, for when they continue their journey towards Le Havre, they will have the pleasure of watching the Armada ships sailing up the Seine from an excellent vantage point, the Seine itself. But for us, we have a week of ceremony, free access to the ships, fireworks and a ‘maritime Sunday mass’ ahead of us.

Tourists and visitors are arriving in their masses to watch the spectacle, the hotels are bursting at their seams, and everywhere you chose to look  there are people carrying poles atopped with a shiny red disc denoting ‘group 2A, 2B, or 2C’. I should know, today I was one of them guiding the many tourists around the great monuments of Rouen, trying not to lose Americans in the general hubub and swirling crowds, and trying to keep count of 30 heads whilst at the same time telling them how the leaders of the Harelle riot lost theirs in 1382, and how we lost Jean of Arc for ever.

My diary is crammed with tour dates, many of the guides are running at three a day,  but for some of us, we have to somehow fit in the picking up and dropping off of our children who are incorporated into choirs for both the rehearsals and the the sunday maritime mass, and find the time to provide them with brightly coloured teeshirts (with no buttons or logo) for their performance in front of the cameras. as the 640 strong choir will be televised.

One place I shall certainly be, with my boys,  will be on one of the many bridges spanning the Seine watching the fireworks display at 11.30 on Friday night, which are rumoured to be outstanding. Having missed the great British Guy Fawkes night for the past two years, and inexplicably been out of France for every 14th July, this is an event we cannot miss.

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So if you are at a loose end next week, Rouen is where you need to be, and if you see a numbered ‘lolly stick’ waggling above the heads of the crowds, you never know, it could just be me!

A fortnight from now we may just catch a breath for a brief moment, before the ‘City of Impressionists’ festival begins…

But that’s another story!

All photos thanks to google