About France that is not only Paris – Part II: Rouen

IMG_1216Finishing my thorough examination of the Rouen Cathedral that I wrote about in my last post, me and Anna engaged in some psychogeography. In a scope of around one hour we stumbled upon two more churches that, together with the Cathedral, were located in very close vicinity. First one, located directly behind the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, was a relatively tiny structure (for a gothic church) called Eglise Paroissiale Saint-Maclou. Although my senses were saturated from observing all the details of the Cathedral by this time, it was still impressive to witness another gothic masterpiece several meters away. The church was positioned in the middle of a small square, surrounded by colorful wooden buildings that essentially characterize the Rouen old town. Their irregular column placement, frequent asymmetry and crude finish contrasted the strict and almost pedantic mathematical placement of every detail and peace of slab of the church, homogeneously white except for some yellowish brown overtones that signified the age of the building. I was greeted by a geometrically neat sprawling arcs that looked like the presbytery (the back side of the gothic church), but upon noticing the entrance at the center of it, I was rather perplexed at the positioning of the church. It had an entrance proper at the front of it, leading to the nave, but unlike most buildings that decorate and highlight the façade of the church this one had a lot more prominent presbytery compared to its front. I was left wondering whether such peculiar placement was intentional or accidental. For some reason I leaned more towards the former.

A brief stroll down the Rue Damiette led us to yet another church – Abbatiale Saint-Ouen. I was honestly surprised to see a church that was virtually just as large as the Cathedral. For Anna, this one topped the former in its grandeur.


Abbatiale Saint-Ouen

Darker, more foreboding rather than dazzling, and clearly not as well maintained as the Cathedral, it made me realize how much effort and human work it required to finish these gothic masterpieces. How much planning, financial and political negotiations, architectural designing, masonry, construction, woodwork, glazing and time was invested into their erections. Witnessing so many monuments of human prowess in such a small amount of time filled me with a certain pride to belong to this species. It is no wonder that God, however it may be portrayed in different cultures, is often referred to as an architect; humans are creators, ultimately, and their construct of the divine being, understandably, is a perfect manifestation of a creator.


Like always, communists have to ruin everything.

As dark and imposing the church is on the outside, the opposite is true about the interior. Columns and walls were radiating white while the sunlight was able to enter inside as if no stained windows were there to obstruct the way. I could only compare it to the Marktkirche in Hannover, Germany, a central church of the city that was significantly damaged during World War II. After the restoration, it was decided to abstain from incorporating new stained glass windows and simple transparent windows were installed instead. That obviously allowed for large quantities of sunlight to enter the church and made the interior very bright. Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, on the other hand, is just as bright on the inside as the Marktkirche, but stained glass windows are quite prominent. Virtually no artificial light is installed to help with this. Such feat is achieved by a smart use of window placement, an enormous amount of surface are that these windows cover, occupying the majority of the height of the nave walls, positioned in three rows, and by careful use of transparent or frosted glass that surrounds the figures depicted in the windows that are portrayed using colored glass.


Interior of Abbatiale Saint-Ouen

Unfortunately, only after I came back from the trip did I read about the organ of the church, which is, to say the least, magnificent. Lack of decorations, supportive columns or any other objects in the interior of the church revealed a massive instrument hanging at the end of the nave. I did not know at the time, but apparently it was built by arguably the most distinguished organ builder of the 19th century – Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. Organ of the Abbatiale Saint-Ouen was one of the last projects he undertook, so it could be considered his swan song. The position of the instrument and the acoustic capabilities of unhindered interior of the church results in an uninterrupted resonance of the sound that many people refer to as perfect. Famous organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor after trying the instrument for the first time himself referred to it as “worthy of Michelangelo”. Organ consists of 4 manuals (sets of keyboards, positioned in rows), 30 pedals and a 32` sub-bass pipe that is rather rare in a church organs and produces “sound” waves of roughly 16 Hz that human ear can hardly pick up, since we are adapted to hearing sound frequency starting from around 20 Hz. In turn, a listener registers a feeling of vibration rather than an actual sound. While writing this, I regret not picking up information about the organ before my trip. I would have loved to hear some Louise Vierne or Pierre Pincemaille being played on them. The only thing I can do now is to listen to the recordings of performances on this magnificent instrument and imagine I am listening to it being played live, standing there to witness it all. A piece bellow was recorded in Abbatiale Saint-Ouen.

Backside of the church has a cozy park with some statuary references to the past of Normandy that I spoke about in my previous post. Most notably, there is a statue of Rollo – the first Duke of Normandy. This one, as opposed to the figure of Rollo on top of his tomb in the Cathedral, looks like a proper Viking with a solid moustache and raiding apparel. It was very interesting to see details that signified the Nordic origins of the region sprinkled around the city, like a small replica of a Viking ship in one of the chapels in the Cathedral, or a stone with runic writing in the park.


Rollo, First Duke of Normandy

My exploration took me across the river Seine, opposite the old town. I instantly felt a completely different atmosphere in this part of the city. Barge boats and industrial structures started frequenting my stroll that concluded in a sight of a vast industrial railway network – Gare de Rouen-Orleans.


Industrial side of Rouen

A very creative ways of representing the city were numerous posters scattered across different points, depicting a famous piece of artwork by an artist who painted a specific portion of Rouen. The posters were positioned at the exact same place where the author of the painting had been sitting and completing its work. In turn, you can witness the view from an angle that the artist did while working.

My next stop was Musee d`Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum)  – one of my favorite places that I`ve visited during my stay in Rouen. The philosophy behind the museum’s administration is just as interesting as its exhibits. The admission is completely free, while the working hours are quite peculiar and differ depending on the day of the week. A very important part of this museum is to preserve its original form in the most accurate way possible. That includes the exhibits, the internal decorum, containers and even the background and foliage of the exhibits. Even if the above mentioned things require restoration, no modernization is allowed. Everything has to be restored to its original form. That made it a very peculiar but extremely enjoyable visit. It goes without saying that there are no English descriptions of the exhibits. It would somewhat damage the spirit of the museum and would be unusual in France. Although I would have wanted to read about some of the subjects, visuals were enough to satisfy me.

The first room that I was directed to had a temporary exhibition and was arguably the most different in that the setup of it was highly contemporary. It was an exposition about food and its importance in the world, together with a presentation of pictures from a photography album Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel. For those of you that are unfamiliar with his work, he did a series of photographs which portray families around the world together with their usual weeks’ worth of groceries. It is not the first time that I see his work being temporarily presented in a museum: 1,5 years ago I`ve witnessed a similar exhibition at Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, not to mention countless websites around the internet presenting some of the pictures from the book. Apart from the photographs, the room was filled with information boards with statistics and facts about food and nutrition – in French. In turn, I was not able to fully experience this particular exhibition, but that did not dissuade me, because I knew what was awaiting me at the next floor.

And it did not disappoint. The whole museum is divided into 7 parts: (1) the exhibit of mammals,(2) fish, reptiles and amphibians, (3) geology, (4) paleontology, (5) continental culture and wildlife, (6) birds, and (7) insects and other invertebrate animals. Early 20th century glassware with minerals, plant material and organs of animals, squeaky wooden floor, yellowed paper with hand-written descriptions of the exhibits and just enough dim light to read it, roughly painted background and foliage with faded colors and omnipresent silence. All of it contributed to a truly unique atmosphere that I haven`t witnessed for a long time. And although the museum might seem old and small at the first glance, there is surprisingly a lot to see. I`ve spent around 3 hours carefully taking in the sights.


Musee d`Histoire Naturelle

The first hall instantly greeted me with a juxtaposition of variously aged human skeletons on one side of the room and skeletons of different monkey species on the other, virtually staring at one another that in turn put a smile on my face. It was clear that the majority of stuffed animals were extremely old, strange and borderline creepy. For me as a biologist, a section of mammalian exhibition that included preserved fetus of a kangaroo or a dolphin, skeleton of a platypus and skull of a walrus was very interesting. There was also a section of teratology – collection of highly physically deformed animal specimens, a respectful collection of snakes in glass containers and fossils of extinct animals, most notably – an intact skull of a saber-toothed cat. Absence of people, eerie light and thousands of inanimate curiosities made me feel like walking inside a mansion of a 19th century scientist.


Skull of a Sea Lion and a Foetus of a Dolphin

Gallery of the continental culture and nature was still a work in progress. Many of the exhibition cases were empty. Considering that I only had roughly an hour to explore the rest of the museum before it would close, it did not feel like I missed out on a lot. By the time I reached the invertebrate section I was already fairly tired from the amount of information I witnessed so far and wasn`t willing to try and translate French descriptions anymore. Entering the kingdom of insects and trying to discriminately pay attention to every genera or family always proves difficult. It is no wonder, since ~75% of world`s living species are invertebrate animals (there is an estimated number of 1,9 million living species in the world as of yet), of whom roughly 1 million are insects. The differences between some insect species are also difficult to observe without the help of a microscope. You are in turn greeted by a plethora of small hexapedal creatures that overwhelm any desire to inspect each one of them; especially after carefully investigating other stuffed animal exhibits for 2 hours. The only case that specifically captivated my attention was an exhibition of old preserved parasitic worms that had a certain nostalgic property since I had to prepare for parasitology course exam in the university practicing on similar containers of parasites. I stood there and played the game of guessing the specie or at least the genus of the specimen without looking at the description. By the time I was finished with the worms, museum was closing for the day.


Insect gallore

Even later that evening me and Anna decided to have a rather early supper and walked around the city to search for a cozy place to sit down and have a meal. This was the first time that we came across a convention among French people that, to my knowledge, persists throughout the whole country. Our search began at around 6 pm. We found a couple of places that seemed promising, but every time we would speak to the waiter, he would disappoint us with reporting that at the current time, the kitchen is unavailable and we can only choose from the drinks menu. In other words – no food. At first it seemed like a coincidence, but after checking 4-5 places with an identical situation we became restless and confused. A similar scenario followed the next day when we were searching for a place to have lunch at around 12 pm. Many restaurants were either closed or completely empty, without a single person near the table. I started to suspect that there might be a fairly narrow time window when people eat here. It seemed a rather alien concept to me since I was used to eating out whenever I felt like it back home. And that was indeed the case. Apparently, majority of the restaurants, excluding fast food and many non-traditional places, serve food at 1-2 pm for lunch and 7-8 pm for supper. And this tradition is very strong, and for majority of the citizens – common sense. Interestingly enough, this was probably the biggest cultural clash that I have experienced on this trip, although on the outside it might seem like an insignificant detail.

Later that evening we stumbled upon a very small cozy wine bar LA MIGA with only few tables, a selection of Spanish wines and snacks, and live music. Although I was determined to look a little further for a place that would have a wide cider selection (and such a place remained elusive throughout the duration of my trip), Anna instantly fell in love with it. Music was a key element of the experience, blending the Spanish vibe of the bar with a touch of French, since there were two people performing: a guitar player that sang in Spanish and a woman that sang in French. The performance of latter was particularly enjoyable.


La Miga

Back at the hotel after a night’s stroll we tried another one of Normandy’s illustrious cheeses – Neufchâtel, one of the oldest cheeses in France. I was specifically looking for it in a fromagerie – a specialized cheese shop. I had to choose from either young or mature Neufchâtel. As the shop owner informed me, the young cheese has slightly harder and grainier texture and a milder taste, while the mature one is creamier and stronger. Since I am not entirely used to strong mold-ripened cheeses, I decided not to risk it and took the young one. As is the custom, Neufchâtel is produced in a shape of a heart. Taste wise it did not significantly differ from Camembert, though it was recognizably stronger (the mature one might have been too strong for my taste receptors) and fairly salty (probably the saltiest cheese that I have tasted in Normandy).




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