Saturday, April 9, 2011

Amazing Serendipity-Doo

This time last year (April, 2010) I was living in France, wending my way on a pilgrimage of sorts to 11th, 12th and 13th century Gothic cathedrals, basilicas and churches.  Serendipitously, a couple of months ago I was notified by The Teaching Company about their course,  "The Cathedral" by Professor William R. Cook, Ph.D. of Cornell University, State University of New York at Geneseo.  Of course I bought the course (under $100, as I remember) and was amazed at the content.  Not only did he provide a detailed, animated  architectural description of every French cathedral I visited, he also included the historical, sociological and theological milieu in which each was built.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic, I view these structures not only for their majesty and wonder of construction, but also for the purpose of their design and their incredibly long history of fulfilling that purpose, as sanctified houses of worship.  Dr. Cook (also obviously Catholic) includes that aspect of each church, placing each within its own context.

Dr. Cook is introduced by The Teaching Company as follows:
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor’s degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D.

Professor Cook teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy.

Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State’s Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.
If these medieval cathedrals cause you to catch your breath in astonishment, as they do me, I recommend you consider this DVD series for your collection.  All the courses I've purchased through The Teaching Company have been well worth their price (which is always, always discounted by at least 50% once you get on their mailing list),  but The Cathedral is a particular gem in their collection.

And...even though I took over a month to recover from my month in France last year, I'm so ready to go again.  In Dr. Cook's expert opinion, I missed a few of the most outstanding cathedrals (including Beauvais, Strasbourg, and Cologne in Germany).  Armed with the details of each cathedral as described by Dr. Cook, I'd also be so much more informed as to the history and specific details of each building.  Those sound to me like two good reasons to plan for a return trip.  Croissants, Bonne Maman cookies and life in Paris near the Seine (or in a cottage in Chartres or Amiens) make five reasons...and counting.  Stay tuned...CynWrites may be on the go again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The End -- Impressions Of Paris

One of the two museums I visited in Paris was the Musee Marmottan Monet, a small, private museum set in a former hunting lodge of palatial proportions.  It houses a modest collection of Impressionists, including Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot, plus a glorious display of medieval illuminations.  (More information HERE)

Under the watchful eye of tight-lipped "hosts," the visitor is able to view these works without the crush of other tourists, as at the larger and more popular Musee D'Orsay.  If hopelessly myopic, you can even press your nose to the paintings  -- which I did.  Even though I have a Monet print hung in my home, it wasn't until I was eye-to-canvas with these originals that I realized the scope of his complexity and genius.  I didn't see one brushstroke -- not one -- that was composed of a single, discrete color;  each was glazed with hue upon hue, blended and melded to create the impression he sought to portray.

...Which is exactly my impression of Paris -- singular experiences, views, visions, sounds, smells, motion, weather, people --  multi-sensory strokes applied again and again to create my portrait of the City.

(Caveat:  A flurry of adjectives to follow)

I've been home a couple of weeks and the immediacy of the journey has faded to its own niche in the past, and when I now think of "Paris" I remember...
  • The Quai de Tournelle, barely two blocks from my apartment, from which I can feel the flow of the Seine and watch the sweep of light and shadow over Notre Dame, particularly striking at dusk...
  • Omnipresent, bold and sassy pigeons outnumbering Parisians by three to one...and churchyard sparrows tame enough to perch on your hand for a crumb...
  • Seductive pheromones of bread, croissant and pastry calories wafting from bakeries, at least one on every block...
  • The heart-stopping evocation of Notre Dame's great bourdon bell, "Emmanuel" which tolls the hours and services...
  • Traffic chaos, the voice of Paris -- that after awhile becomes white noise, absent only in sleep...
  • Swaying buses sucking in their sides to squeeze through minuscule chinks in traffic jams (Dramamine should accompany each ticket)...
  • Stairs, stairs, stairs, stairs, stairs EVERYWHERE and barely a lift, escaltor or ramp in sight..."Dear Monsieur Bertrand Delanoe, Mayor of Paris:  Your City's stairs make it almost too difficult to enjoy its attractions.  Love, Cyn."...
  • Splendid parks, designed and landscaped with precision, exhibiting an abundance of both blooms and Parisians enjoying their City... 
  • Insouciant monuments preening and posing for photographers, especially that old courtesan, La Tour Eiffel, who sparkled aplenty before a full moon.
  • Musicians, rollerskaters, mimes and clowns of many colors playing for coins...begging cups at every tourist venue for old men on tattered blankets cuddling irresistible puppies...blind grandmas clutching babies in blankets (or -- was that only a big doll?)...broken cripples who break your own heart until you can't resist...and the sly young gypsy girls, aggressive with their silly cons...
  • The inimitable chic of Paris...alluring shop windows with shoes, shoes, shoes, captivating, extravagant  baby clothes, designer labels you only read about... each Parisian of every age dressed with such style it makes your eyes water... I don't think they even SELL mediocre clothes in France -- the casual and banal are seen only on (American) tourists...yes, including moi...
  • A perfect day spent with Ann in the relaxed and cheerful atmosphere of Montmartre, culminating in a madman's taxi...
  • Forty thousand restaurants in Paris and all but two percent with sidewalk service...the variety of whimsical, unique chairs that would make a delightful coffee table book...(you read it here first...)...
  • "Bonne Maman" (Grandmother) -- the Sara Lee of France, only far, far better... I'm haunted by her coconut cookies and profiteroles... and, God help me, I just discovered her items on mail order....
  • The controlled bedlam of Paris' many train stations fading from my mind once the journeys begin through the charming (there's just no other word for it) French countryside, dappled with red-topped houses, each built to identical proportions and surrounded by gardens heaped with flowers...
  • According to Wiki, Paris' title as The City Of Light originated..."first to its fame as a centre of education and ideas during the Age of Enlightenment, and later to its early adoption of street lighting."  To me, the "light" will ever be the brightest white of clouds against a pure blue sky, somehow clearer and more brilliant than any sky I've ever seen, and unique to France (in my opinion)...
  • To all those who warned me of these particular dangers in France, be advised.  If there were a way to have this next sentence notarized online, I would do so:  "I swear by sweet French butter that in all the miles I walked, bused, trained and taxied through France, I came across only one fragrant French man, saw no untoward body hair and had to avoid only six (6) piles of dog poop on the sidewalks." 
  • And never believe the slander that the French are rude...Except for the "Information" employees of the railway, I encountered only one grumpy person in 30 days.  Everyone else was unfailingly courteous and friendly, anxious to assist however they were able.. and always with great humor.  Vive tous les Francais!...
  • The tired adjective "awesome" is the only appropriate one to describe the Gothic Cathedrals I visited...standing in the naves where a thousand years of prayer overlay the massive stone foundations, piers and columns, illuminated above by brilliant stained glass... these exalted monuments of the Age of Faith are alive yet with souls of peasants, priests, bishops, kings and queens, saints and martyrs, knights, maidens, courtiers, artisans, brilliant architects and guild members... the rich and poor who conceived, funded and formed these astonishing churches to God's glory...
  • Un-sentimental me, touched to the bone by the devotion shown by French Catholics during Masses at Notre Dame de Paris...and the quality of the Gregorian chant and other music there...
  • Finally living a dream only imagined for years, and then greeting each realized detail like an old friend...
Obviously, I could write all day.  It was an experience that will linger in my memory until I finally lie beneath my tombstone:  "Cyn:  She worked, she loved her twins and their families, and she spent a fabulous month in France!"

A very sincere "thank you" to all of you who accompanied me on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  Writing about the events of each day helped me to focus them, make them more tangible, more fun...and your sharing the postings made it all even greater fun.  I hope you enjoyed seeing France through my eyes...I so appreciated your company and loved all the emails and comments I received.  

This is the final posting on this blog, but when I finish editing all 2500+ photos Ann and I took, I will send a link to the Shutterfly album, which, I promise, will include only the best pictures.  

The photos below are Ann's, who visited many places on her own, including Monet's home (Giverny), Versailles, the champagne caves in Reims, and the tip-top of the Eiffel.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"...And The Winner Is..."

The jury has been out now for a week (actually, the "jury" has been sleeping for a week since flying home)...and the winners of the Miss French Gothic Cathedral are declared to be as follows:

Third runner-up:  The Cathedral Of Sainte-Etienne de Bourges -- Although I was unable to take very good pictures of this cathedral due to its somewhat dark interior, the sheer size of that very open interior was, as the kids say, truly awesome, and the stained glass was absolutely the most beautiful of any I saw.  

Second runner-up:  The Cathedral Of Notre Dame de Chartres -- The grandmother of most other French Gothic cathedrals, as her form and beauty became the archetype of many who followed in her footsteps.  She isn't as graceful as some, but she bears an ineffable grandeur as well as charm.  She is undergoing a major restoration and cleaning now, and if on completion the rest of her looks as beautiful as the finished dome over the altar, she would give the winner a run for the money in the next contest.

First runner-up and Miss Congeniality:  Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris -- Not the largest, tallest nor the most elaborate, but absolutely the warmest and most welcoming, architecturally and liturgically, of all fifteen churches I visited.  In addition to the perfect symmetry of the church, it has as an added benefit perfectly glorious music.  As their website states: "Since earliest times, music has been an integral part of the life of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. While the pointed arches of the new gothic style rose up to the heavens to form the chancel, the new Notre Dame Choir School, with its magnificent polyphony, was born. The voices of the choristers responded in virtuosity to that of the builders. Since that time, the musical tradition at Notre Dame has been upheld to the highest degree and each generation in turn, has added a stone to the prestigious edifice, which is that of the Cathedral’s musical history.".. I can attest to the quality of that music which fills the entire Cathedral at every service.  The Cathedral is also home to the Archbishop of Paris.  Let me assure you, once you have attended Mass presided by the Archbishop, with the choir, in the setting of Notre Dame, you have REALLY attended Mass.

And so, the official Miss Gothic Cathedral is....The Cathedral Of Our Lady Of Rouen!
My daughter-in-law also visited Rouen and doesn't agree with my choice.  I'm not sure I can explain my preference, except that this one cathedral contains all the elements that knock my Gothic-loving socks off:  the enormous height of the chancel; massive stone piers that both anchor the church to the earth and raise the roof towards heaven; graceful columns partially encircling the altar to make it a more dramatic focal point than is usually seen in churches of this period, facades filled with statues of saints that, on close inspection, are fine carvings of very human figures; glorious stained glass but a very bright interior, keeping none of the glory of the church hidden.  Although this cathedral has been severely damaged throughout the centuries, nearly destroyed in World War II, its integrity as a true Gothic cathedral has not been compromised by well-meaning but clumsy and ineffective "restoration" or "updating" as, for instance, at  Amiens.

The final cathedral that I visited is nestled in Champagne-Ardenne country in the city of Reims (pronounced, God knows why, as "Rahns").  As the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris is the royal necropolis, Notre Dame de Reims has been the site of the coronations of nearly all French royalty from Louis VIII in 1223 to Charles X in 1825.  It was in this massive cathedral that St. Joan of Arc brought Charles VII in 1429 to be crowned.  Reims has been almost leveled and gutted in wars over the centuries and it, like Rouen, is undergoing a major restoration at this time.  It boasts well over 2000 statues on the exterior facades and carved from the walls of the interior, but these are not life-size statues -- they are at least one and one-half times larger, maybe closer to two, than life -- including its famous "Smiling Angel" at the North Portal.

The cathedral was modeled after Chartres but much of its upper stained glass was removed in the 13th century and so this church is lighter as well as taller, more linear and far larger.  Although the exterior shows its age it is exquisite in its complexity, but the interior is so massive I couldn't begin to photograph it, even in the limited manner that I've captured the other cathedrals.  Subjectively, I found Reims almost too big, overpowering, nearly oppressive in its bulk, even though the height of the nave is proportional and elegant.  I think it was my least favorite cathedral -- maybe I was frustrated because it just wouldn't pose for my camera.  Maybe Ann, with her better camera, lens and photographic eye, has better photos of Reims.  I haven't yet gone through her 1250 pictures to see...

Friday, April 30, 2010

Eat, Drink and Drive Scary

We all know that France has the reputation for creme de la creme cuisine, and I feel disloyal to my adopted-for-a-month country by admitting I'm not all that crazy about French food...which may be understandable for someone who doesn't like cheese and isn't a chocolate addict, either.

This entire nation has an obsession with both cheese and chocolate, and it shows up at every restaurant, food vendor, bakery and gift shop in Paris.

"Ah, toothpaste. Does madame want the roquefort or swiss flavor?"
"Non, we are out of croissants this morning, except for chocolate croissants."
"Sandwich?  Of course, Madam.  Ham and cheese, chicken and cheese, tuna and cheese, avocado and cheese, or cheese and cheese?  No, I'm sorry, we don't make anything in this entire restaurant without cheese, except the chocolate mousse."
"I'll take that yellow scarf, please.  Yes, the one under the 300 pounds of gift chocolates."

The oh-so-fancy chocolate stores aren't really stores, you know.  They are controlled-temperature temples to the gods of cacao.  Cross my heart, I walked into two stores last week, one in the Sevres-Babylon area and one in Place Madeleine, and walked right back out again.  I haven't been that intimidated by a potential retail transaction since buying my first bra.  You know that flutter in your stomach during the home-buying process, when you have to pony-up every financial record you've ever acquired?  I swear I felt as though I would have to produce my passport, my bank records, my business profit and loss statements, my revocable trust and the pinky finger from my youngest grandchild to qualify to buy a box of chocolates.  The sales people, men and women, were dressed to have breakfast at Baccarat's, and I know I saw their thoughts telegraph between one another when they caught a glimpse of my tennis shoes. 

Cooking for oneself is a definite advantage of apartment living during an extended vacation. Eating out in Paris is EXPENSIVE, even if all you're after is a ham (and cheese) crepe -- with the exchange rate it comes to about $7.50.  I think that's high for a two-minute process that includes a mucus product you don't want. So, by eating 180 eggs and five pounds of ham this month, I've saved enough Euros to skip most public transportation and take taxis wherever I've wanted to go -- and did you notice that none of those meals included cheese?

Oh, there have been a few meals out, of course.  In the warren of tiny streets that comprise the oldest part of the Latin Quarter, near Notre Dame, we've had bad duck, good duck, overcooked veggies, tasteless onion soup, a really, really bad omelette, a good Greek salad (served by a cute Greek waiter) and, I'm told, excellent fondue; I didn't do the fondue so I have no opinion.

We also had an excellent farewell-to-Paris dinner at Chez Rene'  consisting of boeuf bourguignon and salad, with decadent pastries for dessert.  Pastries, I might add, that included 5000 calories EACH of cream, but no cheese.  I just read through that link I posted and I see a couple of negative reviews -- I can't imagine why... it was a great meal, reasonably priced, with a charming and helpful waiter and an excellent wine and champagne menu, too.

Speaking of charm -- I've run into several taxi drivers who either like to tease grandmas or I'm just too stupid to know when I'm being ridiculed.  My French usage, pronunciation and confidence in speaking have improved since those first rainy days of April, I know they have.  Dammit, they HAVE.  My address here is difficult to pronounce with three French R's right in a row and a tongue twister at the end.  When I asked the driver the other day if he spoke English and he said no, I gave him the address in French -- and his head spun around like a Wes Craven movie -- he laughed -- repeated what I said, then told me (in very broken English) he wasn't moving the car until I said "Charles de Gaulle" for him... and he meant it.  We sat there in a taxi line until I said it -- and he laughed again.  Loudly.

The next day, I asked a driver to take me to an intersection in a well-known part of town.  That didn't work for him - he wanted a number.  I didn't think fast enough to make up a number, so I gave him the name of a nearby church.  He didn't speak much English either, but we had a pleasant conversation about how I must  come from England.  No, California.  Oh, Los Angeles.  No, Northern California.  He didn't understand that but did know about Arnold Schwarzenegger.  When we arrived at the neighborhood (but not yet the church) he stopped the taxi, said "Oh, church around here somewhere, you'll find it" and effectively concluded the drive.  I did find the church, but it was named St. Clotilde, not St. Pierre, as I told him.

To arrive at the touring agency for an evening Seine cruise and nighttime illuminated monuments tour, I tried to get away with saying 2 rue Pyramides just as it's typed here (two roo pyramids).  The driver pretended to not understand me until I put all the ruffles and flourishes on that phrase -- ahhh, yes, madame.  Of course.

And yesterday's driver provided the single most exciting hour of this whole adventure.

We went to the Montmartre area to see Sacre Coeur church and experience what is left of Paris' bohemian days (not much).  It was surprisingly fun, considering the overwhelming number of tourists -- but even they were fun.  The area is full of unique architecture, twisting, hilly streets, hidden vineyards not as big as my backyard, restaurants, gift shops, crap shops galore, artists who will paint your portrait or caricature in 10 minutes and others who have the familiar Parisian scenes in watercolor or oil for exorbitant prices.

After a long afternoon in the hot sun and a couple of beers, we flagged down a taxi driven by (I think) a Jamaican who played loud Latin music on the radio, spoke NO English (but understood my French, yes he did), and succeeded in scaring our panties off as we flew down that hill and through Paris.  He missed a car by two inches -- that's all -- two inches, and I'm not even sure he missed the Moped dudes... and all the time he was giggling -- at traffic, at those he nearly killed and at us.  He got a big fat tip for just delivering us alive.

 Life-size horse lamp in an arcade in Place Madeleine.

St. Clotilde Church, rue St. Dominique

 The Eiffel,showing off her sparkle lights at the top of the hour.  (Night tour)

 Sacre Coeur Basilica, Montmartre 

Hazy day -- Paris from Sacre Coeur

Forbidden picture, inside Sacre Coeur

Montmartre, Paris below

"Art" for sale in Montmartre


Monday, April 26, 2010

Paris Vignettes

The blog was quiet last week -- because the blogger has been resting and simply enjoying the City's unique ambiance.

It sometimes seems this whole City is one big combination cliche of every movie or TV scene you've ever seen near the Seine, except each small scene is truly what makes Paris, Paris.  (My favorite English teacher just twitched in her grave.)

Today, for instance, I took the bus to one of the well-known shopping areas, rue de Sevres and Babylon ("babby-yone," they say).  Coming back, many Euros lighter but laden with ritzy shopping bags (including one sprouting a real rose and a handful of rose petals,) I stopped on the hectic corner of Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard San Michel to sit in a small park and drink a Perrier purchased from a street vendor.  (Okay, okay, it was a Coke.)

Sheltered by abundantly leafy trees and bordered by the Roman ruins of the Cluny Museum, I was serenaded by a street musician playing (on his accordion, of course) "The Anniversary Waltz" and "April In Paris."  His dog, with the hungry-puppy stare perfected, guarded the donation cup. Two old men, both smoking, huddled on benches, one reading a newspaper, one eating a baguette.  A few steps away, a street market offered fresh fruits, veggies, roasted sausage and chicken, tacky jewelry and the omnipresent bread.  In the background, a Parisian ambulance wailed its own theme song.

Cliche?  Lord, yes.  Pure Paris?  Absolutement!

One of the many ghost ladies of Paris ambled into the park, her spine curved like an escargot, her legs as thin as the stems of flowers in her tissue-wrapped bouquet.  These intrepid relics, all well over 80, must have endured great nutritional deprivation in their growth years as they are all under five feet tall and crippled by bone disease, yet they attack each painful step with determination and don't hesitate to clear their paths with cane, shopping cart or umbrella. Oh, yes...she was dressed impeccably from hat to high heel, as though the opera were but an hour away.

Earlier, while wandering down rue du Dragon, a twisting, tiny street lined with exquisite shoe shops, I watched an older gentleman, maybe 70, halt abruptly before a store window, instantly mesmerized by a pair of needle-nose Louis Vuitton shoes.  He himself wore purple suede slippers that exactly matched his jacket.

On my final lap home I stopped by the vintner's to pick up wine for dinner with my visiting daughter-in-law. "Cabernet," I say, sure of my choice.  "That's crap," he says, "buy Bordeaux."  So I did.  I tried once more for white wine.  "Have you chardonnay, monsieur?"  He shakes his head.  "Buy zees, madame," and hands me a 2008 vin de Bourgogne -- proof that our California wines are ridiculed in Paris.

Struggling back to the apartment with my day's purchases, I heard behind me the confident, swift staccato of heels and stepped aside to let her pass:  leather boots, black tights, very short skirt precisely coordinated with tailored top, neck swathed in yards of scarf, flawless makeup, subtle jewelry and stylishly haphazard dark hair, all packaged in a haze of perfume and speaking into a cell phone-- just another one of the thousands of Parisiennes who are a species unto themselves.

Natural selection has worked well in France, and these women bear the same Gallic face seen in 18th century portraits, with charcoal eyes, a nose and cheekbones unafraid to be noticed, and an air of cool assurance.  Even the genetically short-changed seem beautiful, those under five feet, two inches tall have legs four feet in length, and all are slim as a shadow.  They are born to be to be admired, loved and envied, non?

The equally gorgeous men with their seductive glances and sardonic smirks are all listed on

Despite what you may see in the news of rioting French youths, there is a civility, a courtesy, a formality and restraint here in daily contacts that the America I know discarded in the 1950's.  I loathe generalizations, but my impression of life in France is that it is lived without excess -- that "just enough" is perfect and anything more is simply crass and unnecessary. 

You don't have to fight your way into items' packaging -- thin paper works just as well.  One person doesn't require 2500 square feet in which to live -- a small, one bedroom apartment is fine, thank you, and oui, I can walk up the three flights.  Baby strollers are just that, a conveyance for a toddler, not a vehicle designed to cushion a moon landing.  An automobile?  With this transportation system?  Ah, it is to laugh!  I've seen potholes in the sidewalks with NO orange cones, no barricades and no warning signs, and (presumably) no lurking personal injury attorneys.  More often than not, shops list their open hours as just two or three days per week.  Work is not an obsession here, but the enjoyment of life may be. 

I know -- all generalizations and all cliche -- didn't I already say Paris is a city packed with cliches?  Their abundance doesn't make them any less true, however, and I'll remember these 30 days in Paris forever.  In fact, I'm changing the instructions for my tombstone:  "She worked, had twins and grandchildren, and spent a month in Paris."

These pictures are from an afternoon spent at the Tuileries, a large and beautiful garden next to the Louvre (also in the pictures).  To photo critics -- these were taken about noon, which accounts for the flat light -- sorry.)

I think it's interesting to note that most of the people I encounter or overhear speak French, even in museums and well-known tourist attractions,  which to me means foreigners are in the minority and the native French love to enjoy their City.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cathedrals to the West and the South: Rouen and Bourges

It's officially April in Paris, and I have a couple of pictures of Notre Dame/Paris to prove it. Claude Monet, eat your heart out.

 And now onto the serious stuff.

Rouen Cathedral is currently first in the running for the crown of "Miss Gothic Cathedral" which I will award on my flight home.  It incorporates everything I personally love about these amazing and historically significant churches:  incredible height of the nave, massive columns that seem to rise from the very earth, sparkling light from intricate stained glass, the palpable weight of centuries, and a sense of sacred space filled with God's presence. I'm certainly no Gothic architectural expert, but, even though they were built somewhat contemporaneously (Rouen taking longer to complete,) Rouen seems to finish what Chartres started.  There is more grandeur here, even as there is more simplicity and openness, notable especially by the choir that is surrounded by fourteen soaring pillars, which configuration recalls the perfection of  Roman and Greek structures and opens up the entire church.

According to Wiki, Rouen is the historic capital city of Normandy, in northern France on the River Seine, and currently the capital of the Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy) region. Once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe, Rouen was the seat of the Exchequer of Normandy in the Middle Ages. It was one of the capitals of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of modern France from the eleventh century to the 15th century. It was in Rouen where Joan of Arc was burnt in 1431. People from Rouen are called Rouennais.

Rouen Cathedral has been damaged throughout the centuries with fire, wars, hurricanes, religious fanatics, French revolutionaries, and aerial bombardment in 1944, but it has survived. There is currently some cleaning and restoration going on and some of the life-sized stone saint figures have been removed and placed along one ambulatory.  I've included a picture of them -- it's quite remarkable to stand next to one that has graced the cathedral for hundreds of years.

 Rollo, a Viking conqueror of disputed heritage, and Richard The Lionheart's heart are entombed here.  The rest of Richard was buried at Fontevraud Abbey in the Loire Valley until royal remains were scattered during the Revolution -- his tomb remains there, however, with his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and father Henry II.

Claude Monet created at least 30 paintings of the facades of Rouen Cathedral over a two-year period, capturing the many values of color and light that play across the exterior.

There are many other churches and timbered houses to see in Rouen, and the town has a friendly, though touristy, ambience.  I visited on a Saturday and the medieval streets around the cathedral were packed with sightseers, including me.

The Cathedral St-Etienne in Bourges, along with Amiens, drew me to France for this trip of discovery the first time I saw photos of it.  I've used so many superlatives in writing about these cathedrals that I'm sure mere words lose their impact. Click the link at the beginning of this paragraph to get an idea of the majesty of this church.  In his book, Great Gothic Cathedrals of France, Stan Parry writes: "This rising fugue of complexity and simplicity, of wholeness and detail, of space and light, of strength and lightness, of power and refinement is the Cathedral of St-Etienne of Bourges.  It is one of the true architectural glories of Western civilization."  And Balzac was quoted as saying, "All of Paris is not worth the Cathedral at Bourges."

The initial impact upon the first sight of this church, and upon entering it, is one of great mass.  It was not built according to the Latin cross formation, as was nearly every other church of its time, and after, but has an open nave from front to back; in fact, there are five naves, according to the information pamphlet:  two left side naves/aisles, the main nave, and two right side naves/aisles.  The double-span buttresses providing support for this immense struture are not the graceful "flying buttresses" of later construction, but instead solid, vertical columns that appear to anchor the church to earth. 

What struck me even more than the bulk and complete integrity of the building was the quality of the stained glass.  It is said to be comparable to Chartres, but the windows are placed much lower and so are more visible.  I don't know if it was due to the time of day of my visit or the intricate patterns of the glass, but it is by far the most beautiful that I've seen, and I wish my camera had done a better job of capturing the neon effect of the glowing figures. 

 Bourges is located in the center of France, about two hours south of Paris, in a beautiful locale.  It is a university town, and the area around the cathedral has a warren of 16th and 17th century streets and buildings, very lively and busy.  Visiting Bourges cathedral was worth the entire trip -- it was even worth sitting in the train station for four hours waiting for a train back to Paris that had NOT been canceled by a strike.