5.13.2014

rouen

My plan for Rouen was a bit more complicated than it had to be. I was reasonably certain it would prove well worth it.

There are many hotel options in Rouen, but they all left me unimpressed, mostly chain hotels or what sounded like dumps. I thought for the final night of our trip, we should do something special. I booked a room and dinner at a French country home about 25 minutes out of Rouen. My experience staying at French country homes has been very special, and I knew my mother would love it. I prepared her for the transportation issues, and hoped for the best.

Our plan upon arriving in Rouen was to see if there is a consigne in the train station - a place where we could check our luggage while we enjoyed Rouen on our last day (which is tomorrow). No bag check. Amazingly, some of the Paris stations still have them, but many cities no longer do, for "security" reasons.

We took a cab from the station to La Parenthese Normand, exactly as long (25 minutes) and at exactly the price (35 euros) our host had told me by email. When we saw the place, my mom and I were blown away. Our family suite is one of two suites in a small brick house off the main house. Exposed brick walls and timbers mix with sleek glass and blond wood design. It is somehow sleek and rustic at the same time. Downstairs, a big, comfy bed faces glass doors, a wall of glass, which looks out onto a lush flower garden and farmland beyond. The washroom and shower are downstairs, too, all sleek stainless steel. Up shiny wooden steps, there is a loft with two single beds, exposed bricks and beams, and a stunning view of the countryside.

Elisabeth, our host, has less English than Sandrine, although, like me with French, she can understand more than she can communicate. She gave us a tourist map of Rouen and pointed out the major attractions. The bus that I thought stopped right outside her home actually has to be reserved two days in advance. It must be some kind of paratransit, as it takes you to the regular public bus. That bus, into Rouen, is 6 kms (3.7 miles) away; Elisabeth would drive us and pick us up. She went off to organize for us and we decided how we would work everything with the bus and taxis.

Soon after, Elisabeth came back with the bus schedule. We decided which bus we would take, what time to have dinner, and such. The plan was bus back and forth today, bus onto Rouen tomorrow, but leaving our luggage at the house, then a round-trip cab ride to pick up our things and go to the station. Elisabeth was not too happy - she felt it was a waste of our money and time - but Connie and I were fine with it. The alternatives were keeping our bags with us for the day (impossible) or taking an early train back and losing a day of the trip (unacceptable!). We made plans for when to meet and when to have dinner. We assured her it was no problem...although I could tell she didn't believe us.

Elisabeth drove us to the bus and explained in detail where and how to go. The bus took us straight into town, leaving us by the river (the Seine) and very nearby all the sights. When we arrived it was raining too hard to go anywhere and we took shelter under a bus stop until it let up, for the second time in two days.

Before the cathedral we needed lunch. We stopped at an ordinary-looking place, like a place working people go for lunch, except everyone is eating three courses and no one is in a rush. We both had poulet et frites, then I talked Connie into a tartes aux framboise. (Not that I talked her into dessert, just which one.) I saw it go by and it looked so beautiful and delicious. Surprise: it was the most wonderful tart she ever had in her life.

After lunch we walked a few blocks to the Cathedral, the one Monet made famous. I love Gothic cathedrals, although I don't get the crazy rush of awe that I did when I saw them for the first time. Notre Dame de Rouen is being restored and cleaned right now, so part of the front is under wraps. Even so, it is truly awesome in its height, its stone lacework, the stained glass, and the sheer verticality of the building. We were totally wowed.

From there we walked through the pedestrian-only area in the oldest part of town. The streets are stone and cobblestone, and most of the stores are large international chains. The cafes and boulangeries appear to be local, and there aren't many schlocky souvenir stores, so that's nice.

While walking there, we passed one of Rouen's other big attractions, a big astronomical clock known as... le gros reloj (or le gros horloge). The movement dates to the 14th Century and the rest of it from the 1600s. It's part of an impressive old archway: you can see it here.

We made our way to Rue Jeanne D'Arc, first to a post office to buy stamps for Connie's postcards, and next to look for a bookstore recommended by Sandrine, our host from Giverny. (There are so many things I forgot to mention about Sandrine and that B&B that I will write a separate post on both places.) L'Armitiere has two stores, one general and one for children and youth. We found the regular one first, a big, well-lit, serious bookstore more interested in books than gifts and coffee. I asked about the children's store and was sent a bas, meaning lower down on the street, towards the river.

From the outside it appeared simply to be housed in an old building, with huge wooden doors that must date back centuries. But when we walked in, I truly gasped. A huge open space is carved out of wood and exposed brick, giving you the sense of being in an open courtyard, although you are inside, almost like a Spanish patio. The upstairs rings the ground floor like a balcony. And it's not just the architecture, it's one of the best bookstores for young people I've ever seen. The same bookstore has a separate papierie with beautiful blank books and writing materials of every description. I made Connie very happy by letting her buy me something!

We had a tea in front of the huge Palais de Justice, a pre-revolution building that once housed a Duke. Then we made our way back to the bus which would take us to La Neuville-Chant-d'Oisel. Between Elisabeth's great instructions and perfect signage, including a digital readout on the bus, it was very easy. When we came off the bus, Elisabeth was waiting for us. Happiness all around.

Back at the room, we changed and briefly relaxed before dinner: the table d'hotes I had reserved. If you ever have an opportunity to do a table d'hotes, I highly recommend it. You eat a home-cooked meal with your hosts, typically made from local ingredients, often a simple regional meal of the highest quality. We sat at a big wooden table in an open-concept kitchen, with Elisabeth and Christophe. Christophe had done the cooking, and his English is better, so he narrated the meal. He said for our last night in France they wanted to prepare something typically French, and typically Normand.

We started with tender white asparagus in a delicate Normandie sauce, which means cream. Note that I cannot eat cream at home; there aren't enough Lactaids in the world. But in France, cream has no negative effect. (Well, other than cholesterol!) With the asparagus, they served a Reisling from a local organic vineyard. They were a little confused by Connie not drinking wine, as if they did not know such a thing was possible.

After the asparagus, Christophe showed us his cookpot before he added the sauce, an almost unbelievably fragrant mix of veal medallions, carrots, mushrooms, and tiny onions. Then he added a light cream sauce, saying, "We are in Normandie, after all!" and served it over plain and perfect white rice. My mother does not usually eat rice and I do not eat veal, but we both cleaned our plates. It was incredibly flavourful and the perfect degree of tenderness. I had a small second helping which I would soon regret. I've read that the hideous practice of crating calves to make the meat more tender is not practiced in France; meat becomes tender through cooking. I hope that is true.

When the main dish was served, Christophe and Elisabeth were discussing something in French, and I caught two words: vin rouge. I said, "Oh, du vin rouge, oui merci." We all laughed. It was like a dog cartoon: blah blah blah blah vin rouge blah blah blah. Out came the red wine (I don't remember what it was, possibly a beaujolais).

And here's why I ended up sorry to have eaten more of the main course: out came the cheese. A cheese course! If only I had known! There were three kinds of cheese: a goat brie, a goat Camembert, and something made with raw cow's milk (take that, Canada!). I cut some for Connie, but I apparently did it wrong. They tossed the piece and started over!

They served the cheese course with a green salad, something I had never seen done. The salad was only lettuce, dressed in oil and herbs.

After cheese came a crumble, a typical Normande dessert. This was a dish of apple and rhubarb topped with a crumb mix and baked til it is gooey, almost but not quite burnt. Coincidentally, the crappy meal in Giverny ended with a crumble; Connie picked it apart looking for an edible bit but never found one. This one was sooooo good! This was definitely the best meal of the trip (to that point), and a very special experience for my mother, which is exactly what I hoped and intended it would be.

The meal was also lovely for the company. We learned a little about them, they a little about us. We talked about bookstores and libraries, our family backgrounds, places we have traveled... a bit of everything, helping each other over the language gap.

At dinner, Elisabeth and Christophe brought up the topic of our luggage for the next day. They could not let us take the round-trip cab, no matter how we insisted that it was fine. At one point, Elisabeth said she would drive our luggage to the station and we could meet her there! I told her she was too generous and we could not accept. When I translated for Connie, she had the same immediate reaction.

Christophe said he had another idea and excused himself to make a phone call. He came back with a business card from a restaurant where his friend works (maybe he is part owner). Christophe said we are to take our luggage there, leave it at the restaurant for the day, and retrieve it when we are ready. And the restaurant is the only one in the old part of town to serve Normande food made with only local ingredients. We instantly decided that instead of riding back and forth in a cab, we would eat lunch there.

We had heard that the suite connected to ours was occupied by a Canadian couple. I assumed they were francophones, but Elisabeth said no, they spoke English. And wouldn't you know it, when we walked back to our little house, there they were, finishing a pizza and drinking wine and beer. They practically pounced on us, introducing themselves, pulling over chairs from our patio to theirs, and pouring wine. I'm not known to turn down wine, and as Allan and I like to say, "That's how they get ya!"

They're originally from Mississauga, now retired in Barrie, and who the hell cares. I give them great credit for spending a month in France, but I could have lived without the details of their World War I and World War II pilgrimages. The self-congratulatory smugness was off the charts. What good Canadians you are, visiting both Vimy Ridge and Juno Beach! Let's put it this way: even Connie thought they talked too much. A full moon was rising and I was remembering that I had wanted to take pictures of the grounds and now had lost the light. Finally it got too cold and dark and we made our escape. The last frightening words we heard were... "See you at breakfast!"

Photos of Rouen are here. Some photos of the children's bookstore are here.

3 comments:

Stephanie said...

I wanted to say: you are starting to write with a French accent now? "a restaurant where 'is friend works"

But there it is no longer.

allan said...

I admit it: I fixed the typo!

laura k said...

Lol! No, I am just typing on a crazy annoying keyboard! Plus I wrote this post offline and copied it in, quite the production on my tablet. Thanks, Allan. :)