FROM BRITTANY TO NORMANDY: RENNES to ROUEN and DIEPPE
On this leg of our journey in France we travelled by train to Rouen but were on our bikes again just north of Rouen on the Paris to London cycleway to Dieppe.
To travel north from Rennes we decided to avail ourselves of the French rail system and go by train to Granville in Normandy on the Atlantic coast. Travelling by train is easy in France and adjoining countries and it was a quick way to get to where we could explore further north in France. Besides, the temperatures were rising and uncomfortable for riding. Cycling needs to be an enjoyment, not a challenge.
While waiting on the railway platform at Rennes we asked a young man if we were on the right platform and his reply was to the affirmative. Bev and I were then surprised to see him a few minutes later in the driver’s cabin of the train we were about to board. A charming young man and we felt secure in his hands.
From Rennes our first stop was the city of Caen where we had to change trains. We took the opportunity to go for a ride and lunch by the Caen canal. Sitting by the canal it was virtually impossible to visualise the mayhem in the Caen region during WW2. From Caen to the Normandy beaches is approximately thirty-five kilometres so it bore the full brunt of the German retreat and the Allied invasion.
To read about the D-day invasion near Caen go to Archives December 2014, To Normandy & Back Part 3.
Caen, along with other cities in the region, was bombed during the ‘preparatory period’ before the D-day invasion. British bomber command carried out the bombing over a large area to keep the Germans from suspecting the site of the Allied invasion. The entire French railway transportation system was destroyed and being a railway hub and the meeting point for twelve roads, the city bore the full impact of the British bombing. The bombing was part of the ‘Transportation Plan’ and it resulted in 50 000 French civilians killed and over 100 000 wounded.
Even though the bombing was devastating, French citizens generally agreed there was no other way to liberate France. So widespread was the bombing that it was impossible for the Germans to conclude where the invasion by the Allies would actually be. The plan to bomb cities in the region resulted in the loss of 2000 aircraft and 12 000 airmen. I would hardly call the loss of so many airmen and civilians successful but given the circumstance I suppose it was. At the time it was quoted that ‘Freedom is never free’.
The reason I chose to include the above image is that when searching the web for information relating to the stories I am writing I come across images of children at war and I feel obliged to show these wonderful images. I once interviewed a Vietnam War correspondent for the ABC who said ‘war brings out the worst and the best in man’. The photo above shows the best. When prompted to speak about the war and when confronted with an image similar to the one above my mother would say ‘the poor little mites’. The children now would be in their early eighties and the joy of my life would be if they or their descendants saw this post and contacted me. Here’s hoping.
A final comment re the image: the elder of the two boys is wearing the Lance Corporal’s cap, which is known as a forage or wedge cap. I had such a cap as a child after the war and wore it proudly to school. I also had a gas mask bag as a school bag and my jacket was an Australian army battle dress jacket. All the kids had war surplus gear as it was cheap and good quality.
From Caen it was on to Granville, a seaport town on the Bay of Saint Michel. The camping area was a further two kilometres on at Donville les Bains. Bev and I were not impressed with the area and I think it was because it was an overcast day and the beaches were not golden sands but gravel and mud. The difference between low and high tide can be as much as fifteen metres.
Mont-Saint Michel is seventeen kilometres from Granville and is surrounded by mud flats and quicksand. Before the causeway was built pilgrims crossing from the mainland to the island had to judge the tides right so as not to become stuck and drowned by the incoming tide. The island town was built along feudal lines with God at the top (the abbey and monastery) and below them the great halls, then the stores and houses and at the bottom (outside the walls) the houses of the fishermen and farmers.
Bev and I visited Mont St Michel in 2014. Go to Archives November 2014, France: To Normandy and Back Part 2, to read about this fascinating area.
The train from Caen to Granville then the ride to our campsite at Donville les Bains was without event and tracking down the camping area was simple enough. The receptionist, a friendly-natured enthusiastic lady, asked: ‘How long are you staying? A week?’ but having ridden around the camping area before registering we knew we would stay only one night as there was no camp kitchen, shelter or tables, totally unsatisfactory from a cyclist/tent camper’s point of view. The area was more suited to campervans and caravans, which were parked mudguard to mudguard.
GRANVILLE TO ROUEN If you do not warm to a locality it is easy to get out of the sleeping sack, pack up and get on the road and this we did. On the way back to the train station we made a detour to the old seaport. The day was not conducive to taking photographs, however I have plucked a photograph from Wikipedia to show you what the port looked like.
The train to Rouen was an all stations so we had plenty of time to watch the antics of people leaving and boarding the train. Opposite us was an old lady who was sitting on one of the fold-up seats in the bike area and even though she saw me struggling to squeeze our bikes into the area allotted to bikes she had no intention of moving. Each time I went to check on the bikes she gave me an obtuse look, totally unaware the area was reserved for bikes and their riders.
Sitting opposite was a man who constantly looked at his watch. He seemed to be checking if the train arrived at stations along the way on time and again when the train left. I watched the ‘watch watcher’ with interest and wondered about the obsession. My research indicates there is a logical explanation for the obsession and being quite involved I have decided not to detail it here.
Rouen is a marvellous city. Bev and I visited it briefly in 2015 during a train change stopover. This visit was longer and we intended visiting the site where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in the old market place in May 1431. Joan of Arc is a national hero along with Louis Pasteur and Victor Hugo and I doubt if there is a city or town in France that does not have a street or plaza named after them.
From Tbeartravels Archives 2016: Being burned at the stake would have been a ghastly death, not quick at all. From my reading, it seems that more women than men were burned at the stake rather than executed because it was believed that non-physical contact with the executioner protected the accused’s modesty. In some cases, the family of the accused bribed officials to make the fire with green wood in the hope the convicted would suffocate from smoke inhalation before the flames reached them.
Twenty years after her conviction a new trial was conducted and King Charles VII cleared her name. To read a full account about Joan of Arc go to Archives May 2016 France: Paris to Dieppe via Rouen.
Today the Old-Market area is full of colour and the most eye-catching building is the oldest inn in France, the La Couronne, founded in 1345.
It is said of me that I ‘know a little about a lot of things and a lot about little things’. Well, this is true to some extent but in the case of the La Couronne and its association with Julia Child, I knew nothing. I hope you are asking who is Julia Child and if you are, I do not feel so ill-informed.
Julia Carolyn Child (1912-2004) was an American cooking teacher, television personality and author and she was recognised for bringing French cuisine to the American public. Child had a culinary revelation in 1948 at the La Couronne Inn when she dined on oysters and sole meuniere, which she described as ‘an opening up of the soul and spirit for me’. However, it’s not her culinary skills that interest me, what interests me is the period of her life when she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a WW2 intelligence agency of the United States, a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Child joined the OSS in 1942 because she was too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps (1.88m/6ft 1 in) and, due to her intelligence, she soon found herself in the responsible position of a top-secret researcher working directly for the head of the OSS. At the time, there was a department called the Emergency Rescue Equipment Section which was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks and airmen who had crashed into the sea being attacked by sharks.
Child’s solution was to experiment with various concoctions that were smeared on the surface of the explosives. In the case of downed airmen, a substance could be dispersed in their immediate vicinity. After trying hundreds of ingredients, including common poisons, it was found that decayed shark meat, organic acids, copper sulphate and copper acetate were the most effective. After a year of field tests, copper acetate was found to be the best. The copper salt was mixed with a black dye and formed into cakes that could be attached to a lifejacket or strapped to a person’s leg.
In 1963 Child and her husband built a home in Provence France. Should you wish to read more about Julia Child, her file was declassified in 2008 and is available online.
In the streets and on walls of Rouen there are all forms of artistic expression. Works of art abound. Following are images of legends and notable quotes of some we found around the city.
Spanish artist Salvadore Dali (1904-1989) ‘There are some days when I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction’.
American singer Ray Charles (1930-2004). ‘You better live every day like your last because one day you’re going to be right’.
French novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885). ‘Our mind is enriched by what we receive, our heart by what we give.’
French professional basketball player Tony Parker (1982-). ‘I want to be like my father but do it better’.
There are so many back streets and alleyways in Rouen to discover. And in the Rue Eau de Robec, we came across sculptor Jean Philippe Vattier. Dressed in white dustcoat and using black clay he was instructing students in the finer art of figurine sculpture. We chatted about clay and discussed the ceramics produced in my workshop in Australia. The work by Jean Philippe was modern and contemporary and I must say, very impressive. How they worked with dark clay without getting it on their dustcoats, I will never know.
To make a piece like this you start from the base and work up because as you work the wet clay wants to slump. To avoid a collapse the best idea is to prop it up using blocks of wood (as shown above). Eventually, the piece becomes leather-hard and supports itself. The skill is knowing when to remove the props. Too early and the piece collapses and too late, cracks can appear due to differential shrinkage.
At the end of Rue Eau de Robec is the National Museum of Education in the 15th-century Maison des Quatre Fils Aymon, one of the oldest buildings on the street. This building has delicate bas-relief and leadlight windows. From a distance, it might not look much but close up it is definitely a work of art.
Next to the decorative facade the rest of the building was half-timbered but to eliminate the problem of rotting timbers, slate tiles were nailed over the timbers. There is no doubt that the rotting timber problem was solved but the aesthetics leave a little to be desired. In all our travels we have never seen this method of protecting timbers.
Metal art is also a feature in Rouen. We found some decorative ironwork on the Dame Cakes Tearoom.
The word cartouche takes me back to the days when I was a draftsman because the title block of a drawing, usually at the bottom right-hand corner of a plan, was called the cartouche (an ornate frame around a design or inscription).
Dame Cakes Tearoom gets excellent reviews but, unfortunately, we didn’t have tea there. One of the disadvantages of travelling by bike is the reluctance to leave a fully loaded bike out the front of a shop for fear of having something stolen.
In the city of Rouen there is a colossal work of art containing many mediums and that’s the 14th century astronomical clock. The movement for the Gros-Horloge (Great Clock) was made in 1389 and is one of the oldest mechanisms in France. The surrounding Renaissance arch and facade were added in 1529 and the whole monument complex is a supreme artwork.
The astronomical clock is installed in a Renaissance arch crossing the Rue du Gros-Horloge. My eye is attracted to the finials on the top of the roof.
At the precise centre of the clock face the twenty-four radiating golden tentacles represent the sun’s rays. The dial is two and a half metres in diameter. The ball (the oculus or bull’s eye) set in the cartouche above the clock face indicates the phases of the moon.
Door art in Rouen is everywhere. Following are a few examples.
What fascinates me in the above image are the letterbox appendages. There is one high up in the centre of the door, obviously being used as there are plastic labels over the slot. There are three above each other in the left jamb and one in the ancient wood of the left doorpost.
Lions’ heads in architecture were popular in the 19th century and to find one on a French door is not common as the use of these in architecture is very British. The lion symbolises power, strength, courage and fortitude.
Green is one of the most common door colours and it indicates prosperity, serenity, peace and wealth. I wonder if this was a consideration when these doors were painted.
There is a military aspect to the green door as well. A green-coloured door indicated that behind this door was a sensitive unit and the green of the door alerted individuals not to attempt to enter without appropriate clearances.
There is a reference to a green door in the hit song by American singer/songwriter James E Lowe (1923-2016).
There’s an old piano, And they play it hot behind the green door
Don’t know what they’re doing, But they laugh a lot behind the green door
Wish they’d let me in so I could find out, What’s behind the green door.
I thought of the Lowe song lyrics when I gazed at the green doors in Rouen and wondered if the residents behind these doors laughed a lot!
A saying by a Dutch contemporary artist came to mind when we saw clothes hanging out to air. ‘Art is everything, everything is art.’ On closer examination, the hanging clothes were another form of street art.
Most of the artistic expressions I have shown in this post are relatively modern but in days gone by artisans (those skilled in mechanical art) have displayed their art everywhere, particularly post WW2. Rouen suffered two devastating bombing raids during the war and one of the buildings to suffer extensively was the Law Courts.
The Rouen Law Courts is a Renaissance building typical of its time (16thcentury) and was where the Parliament of Normandy held court. Archaeological digs in the courtyard have revealed the oldest Jewish monument in France.
The Law Courts have not always been so architecturally perfect. Following the WW2 bombings of Rouen it looked like what is depicted in the images below. I often give thought to where the restoration artisans came from following the war. My research indicates that many workers came out of retirement from Italy and Spain.
The Rouen Cathedral was also one of the millions of buildings damaged. Seven Allied bombs fell on the church, however it was said at the time to be a miracle that the main supporting column did not receive a direct hit.
It’s now time to take a short look at the Notre-Dame de Rouen. It would be lax of me not to include the cathedral in these writings. It is an architectural masterpiece and has to be mentioned. I could tell you lots of interesting facts like there was a place of worship on the site in the late 4th century; all the buildings were destroyed during a Viking raid in the 9th century; it was burnt down in 1200; it was damaged during the French Wars of Religion; the spire was destroyed by a lightning strike in the 16th century and again in 1822; it was bombed on two occasions during WW2 and the consequent fires melted the bells; it was again damaged by a cyclone in 1999; the chapel fences were removed and turned into killing implements to support the wars of the French Republic. Need I go on? Except to say the tower on top of the cathedral is referred to as a ‘lantern tower of late flamboyant Gothic style’. It was originally made from wood clad with gold-plated lead sheet and in later years was replaced with a cast iron construction.
Daniel Vordran took this photograph from the previously mentioned Gros-Horloge tower. In the late 1800s it was the tallest building in the world with a height of 151 metres.
Previously I referred to artisans, artists who worked with mechanical skills, and I expect cladding the original lantern tower with gold-plated lead sheet would have allowed them to express their skills, but working with lead, unbeknown to them, would have been a health hazard. Since the first century artisans have been working with lead. One theory considered lead poisoning as a contributing factor and cause of the Roman Empire collapse. Lead was used in Roman times as a preservative (sapo) in wine and it was also used to sweeten poor quality wine, hence the etymological link with the Latin verb sapo, ‘to taste good’.
Painters decorating the cathedrals suffered from lead poisoning as white lead-based colours were used extensively. An eminent German physician at the time suggested to artisans they should ‘keep windows open’ and ‘to cover their mouth with a rag when working with metals or using lead-based paints’.
In architecture, a lantern tower is a tall construction above the junction of four arms of a cruciform plan church with openings through which light from outside can shine down to the crossing point. Many lantern towers are octagonal and give an extra dimension to the interior of the dome.
A final image of the Notre-Dame de Rouen is a painting by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). When it comes to past masters, I can’t help myself and I have to admit I knew nothing of Pissarro before setting my fingers to the keyboard and writing about Rouen. Please excuse my indulgence with yet another master.
Pissarro was not the only artist who transfixed his attention on Notre-Dame de Rouen. Claude Monet produced a series of paintings of the building showing the same scene at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. However, even though one of the paintings is valued at $40 million, from a personal point of view I do not think they are his best work. Some might think who am I to comment, but art is in the eye of the beholder.
There are many quaint ancient buildings and alleyways in Rouen’s old town, there is something surprising around every corner. It was delightful to ride among these age-old parts.
Our stay while in Rouen was at the YHA, a few kilometres from the Rouen old town. The hostel had an excellent kitchen and dining room and over dinner we partook in social interaction with fellow hostellers. One very interesting character was Tom Fremantle, an Englishman walking across Europe as part of an around the world endeavour to cross all continents.
Tom is a happy-go-lucky likeable cove and is not new to travel. In 1996 he rode his bike from England to Australia then hiked with a mule across America and paddled down the River Niger in West Africa. Now he is walking around the world. Tom said, ‘I’m an old geezer now and it was time to stop waddling around my local park and up my game. The 16 000 mile+ walk may well finish me off. But, as Sean Connery said ’Ah, what the hell, you gotta die of something’.
By the way, Tom, add another thirty years to your present age and you could consider yourself ‘an old geezer’.
Tom walks not just for self-satisfaction but for charity as well. The charities he supports are: Alzheimer’s Society: We all know about that affliction so there is no need for me to expand on that here. Medical Detection Dogs: Canines have an incredible olfactory capacity. They sniff in parts per trillion and with suitable training they can detect cancer and other serious illnesses in humans. The Puzzle Centre: The Puzzle Centre is a small special learning centre providing help to children who have autism and other communication difficulties. The centre also provides support for children in their homes or at their school as well as training courses for practitioners.
Good on you Tom!
Our intrepid walker/adventurer has written several books about his travels. They include The Road to Timbuktu, which tells of Tom’s travels in a dugout canoe, a slothful ox, a donkey and various mechanical jalopies as he travelled down the Niger River in Africa; The Moonshine Mule, a 4300 kilometre walk from Mexico to Manhattan; and Johnny Ginger’s Last Ride, a 20 000 kilometre bike ride from England to Australia.
Update on Tom’s World Walk. The Covid-19 lockdowns stopped his trek through the Ukraine and Russia. He returned to England in March 2020 but at the time of writing he has recently completed a 250 mile walk from St Austell in Cornwall to St Pauls Cathedral in London raising funds for the Alzheimer Society on the way.
For more about Tom Fremantle and his travels go to https://tomsworldwalk.com He has a wonderful and descriptive way of documenting his travels.
Some years ago, when working as a freelance reporter for ABC Radio I came across a walker for charity, Count Alexei von Schmidt. Count Alexei was walking around Australia collecting monies for HIV Aids research and epilepsy. When questioned about his nobility he told me that while walking he was offered a lift by a passing car. The driver was a Russian count and was so impressed by Alexei’s efforts he bestowed on him the title of count. Under one of the ties holding his load to the handcart was a copy of a book entitled Russian Aristocracy. He was obviously taking his new title seriously. Alexei told me stories, including how he was bashed and robbed and left in a table drain to die. Fortunately, he activated his emergency distress beacon and the police rescued him. The perpetrators were later arrested and the stolen money returned to Alexei.
Before leaving Rouen to join the Paris to London cycle path we ate at the Mogador Restaurant. I mention this because it was the first time we have walked out of a restaurant without paying! There had been much congenial chitchat with the friendly owner who was from Mogador on the coast of Morocco and time passed with payment forgotten. No harm was done but profuse apologies and laughter followed.
The Paris to London cycle path is approximately 250 kilometres long. The Paris end is not complete but we were taking it from Forges-les-Eaux to Dieppe in the other direction. To join the route we took the train to Serqueux, a few kilometres from Forge-les-Eaux, stayed overnight and commenced the ride to Dieppe next day.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at Forge-les-Eaux and before setting off to the camping area we visited the local supermarket for the makings of our evening meal. While Bev shopped I was outside with the bikes and the threatening black clouds suddenly opened. I moved Bev’s bike under shelter and as I returned to get mine a near-miss lightning strike exploded nearby. A near miss is when you experience both the sound and lightning flash at the same time. What actually happens when there is a lightning strike defies comprehension, but from what I understand negative electrical currents fly down a channel towards the earth and a visible streak of lightning shoots upwards at some 300 million kph. In fifteen minutes about 50mm (two inches) of rain had thundered down from the heavens and a heavy cast-iron rainwater drainage access hole erupted and was pushed upwards by the intensity of the rain.
Lightning is a spectacular natural event and if you happen to be struck by lightning it would definitely be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Approximately 2000 people are killed worldwide each year and survivors often suffer from a variety of lasting symptoms including memory loss and dizziness.
The idea of camping was abandoned as the rain continued so we resorted to a hotel for the night. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer any ill effects from the storm but my battery did, it wouldn’t power up next morning. Panic didn’t set in, as experienced travellers never panic! I was simply thinking about the difficulties of cycling without power-assist and how I could get a new battery sent from the Dillenger warehouse in London. After analysing the pros and cons of having only one battery, Bev offered me hers and if the hills were too steep I could tow her. Luckily the English Channel end of the London to Paris bike path is flat, at least until Dieppe.
The London to Paris bike path for most parts follows a disused rail route. The lines and sleepers have been removed and the ballast has been bituminised, it has gentle grades and is a pleasure to cycle along. Abandoned railway stations have been converted to cafes and accommodation.
To read about Dieppe geography and battles fought on the beach during WW2, go to Archives August 2016, France: Dieppe and Return to London.
The camping area was about five kilometres from Dieppe on the other side of a long hill. With one battery not powering up I was going to have to tow Bev as it would be a tough pedal for her without a battery. I put my scrounging abilities to the test in the camping area and with my trusty Leatherman hacked a short piece from a roll of polythene pipe to make a handle for Bev to hold whilst being towed.
The camping area was a sterile place…no seats, no kitchen, no food, we were totally on our own. Our evening meal of zucchini soup was not a Julia Child creation, but under the circumstances it was the best we could do. The following morning we chanced across Peter and Sandie, a couple of Australians from the Sunshine Coast who invited us to their camp for a breakfast of baguette, butter, jam and fresh coffee. Butter is a treat, as we do not carry such luxuries.
Note the chair. An English couple took pity on us and loaned us a chair each. Great! We stayed two nights and without the chairs we would have probably pushed on. They also offered us toilet paper as we were caught short. In many camping areas people have to provide their own paper.
The last day in the Dieppe region was spent pushing/towing up and down dales. In the next post we document our journey to Amiens and the Somme WW1 battlefields. The Somme is significant for Australians as the Australian Military Forces (AIF) were participants in the Battle of the Somme.
That’s the end of this post. We trust you have enjoyed the adventure. If you wish to make a comment please do so and don’t forget, to view enlarged images click on the photograph.