The road to Rouen

Today has been full of surprises and delights. Sleep last night was quick to come and over all too soon as well. At the unearthly time of 4am we were up and preparing to leave, our bags packed at the door of our little apartment, the dishes done and stowed away, floor swept and bed made – yes, we know that’s the owner/cleaner’s job, but it really was such a special little place that leaving it in anything but a pristine condition somehow felt incredibly wrong. Like going to your Grandmother’s for afternoon tea and poking your finger in all the cream cakes. Just plain wrong. So by 4.30 we were heading down the four flights of stairs for the last time, trying not to thump and bang the bags on every step – some of our fellow inhabitants were not so considerate at any point upon their return, loud voices and bathroom activities are not something that should be shared with an audience – and stepped out onto the dimly lit streets of Montmartre. If the previous mornings were quiet, this morning was positively dead. There was no-one around, and it was eerily quiet, there were the odd sounds of large vehicles in the distance, of the occasional drunk singing as they stumbled home, or to the nearest subway vent in several instances.

Personally I think that was the most alarming sight in Paris, the sheer number of visibly homeless. Those who that for whatever reason are now reduced to cowering overnight in the doorways of department stores, who are moved on every other night by the Paris constabulary, who’ve been stripped of their dignity – whether by choice or by bad choices – and who now are treated worse than stray dogs, stepped over and spat on by youths, urinated on by rowdy drunks, who’s ‘home’ is a cardboard-cordoned off area of any unobtrusive space where hopefully they can manage a few hours respite from the adversities of the world. I’m not so naive as to think that we don’t have a similar situation in Melbourne, or even in my own hometown, but I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never seen it so blatantly obvious and such a disturbing number of individuals and families in this situation.

That aside we continued on walking the 3kms or so to the Gare Saint-Lazare, the trip feeling like it went much quicker than yesterday’s, and made our way through the concourse to some seats and proceeded to wait until our train’s platform was announced and displayed on the information boards. By quarter to 6 our train was ready for boarding and we shuffled our way onboard – inadvertently into 1st class! Making ourselves comfortable at a table we decided on having our ‘lunch’ for breakfast, given our plan of a croissant and cafe au lait were shot down due to the seller not opening until after our departure. About half an hour later the conductor came round, checked our tickets and said nothing about our location, so we didn’t either. We sat happily at our table, munching on a Dijon and Parisienne Jambon baguette as we stared into the darkness that was the countryside as we whizzed along. It was a pleasant enough ride to Rouen, the sun didn’t really breach the horizon until quite late into the trip, just in time to gleam over the Seine as we approached our destination, the golden rays of dawn touching the fields of spring crops.

Rouen proved to be just as enigmatic as my Grandmother always rambled on about. When I was growing up, during their visits that is, she would go on and on about ‘their’ (her and my Grandfather) time in France, and how she loved Rouen and the Notre Dame there, that it was so… and that was about when I tuned her out. She passed quite some years ago now and I really wish I had listened, I wish I had paid attention just once when she was telling me stories, so that when I stood before the most spectacular building in the city’c old centre, that perhaps I would have understood what she meant. Instead I was left to be awed for my own reasons, to be surprised at seeing a large statue of Rollo in the garden behind the Cathedral, to be silenced by the divine that still resides in such an amazing building despite the years and horrors it has seen. From there we ambled down the rickety old streets and studied the many wooden-framed houses that still litter the streets, even after two World Wars they’re still standing, battered and weary, but standing. I wondered how many of our modern constructions would survive such onslaughts.

Our next stop – that is after collecting the hire car and negotiating Rouen’s streets trying to find the road south – was Giverny and Claude Monet’s house and gardens. After the hustle and bustle of Paris the quiet of Monet’s home was an all too pleasant contrast. I can easily understand why he loved it so, how once found he had to make it a permanent fixture in his life, and of course how it inspired him to create some of his most noted works. For anyone who hasn’t been, or for those that have and just need the reminder to recall the feelings of a summer of halcyon days, the house is truly lovely. A two storey building with wide opening windows or doors onto a verandah that’s covered in wisteria, the bedrooms upstairs remain in the style and decor of the artist and his family, the downstairs holding the family spaces, living-room, dining-room and kitchen, these too kept as a portal into the day-to-day life of a family long since departed. Personally I found the dining-room and kitchen the most poignant, the shiny copper pots and pans adorning the blue and white tiled walls, the lamp-black double-sized large stove and hewn stone sink offering a cool respite from the laughter and raucous behaviour of children from eons ago whose voices still linger at the table in the dining-room next-door. A spacious yellow room with dressers spaced evenly against the back walls, the table set with places laid for the whole family, the feeling is light and airy, of family and fun, of meals shared over laughter and no doubt tears, but that for the most part this was a happy family home.

The gardens themselves are spectacular, and words will certainly not do them justice. The colours were an explosion against a backdrop of greens splashed here and there, the famous lily pond – with resident bullfrog – an inspiration to many a budding artist just as it was to Monet 100 years ago. I won’t go into detail, instead I’ll try to include some pictures from the garden, and leave you with the recommendation, that should you ever find yourself in this corner of the world, take an hour or two and explore this ville, his home, have some lunch at the tearooms and enjoy a cafe glace before moving on. We did, and it was sublime.

From Giverny we made our way northwest towards Lisieux – our destination for the night – and in doing so passed through Evreux. Determined to see something of this town we headed in, not so much to walk around – as there were dark clouds forming above – but to at least have seen something of it, and we did. Giving Fangio a run for his money we rallied through the streets with the best of the locals, up and down, round and around we went until almost lost, then back onto the smaller highway and continued on our way. It’s been a very long day, from being up before the sparrows, once again hurtling across the country, to then ambling around historic sites and even more beautiful sights. It has been a magical day. Bonne nuit!



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