If my reason for wanting to spend a bit of time pottering around Northern France was to put a picture to the places and events I studied at school, H’s was all about the art. We both love the Impressionists, I had a print of Monet’s Poppy Field on my wall as a child and my serious interest started one Christmas when my parents made good on a longing plea for a giant tome called “The Impressionists by Themselves”. It was full of their paintings naturally, but also letters between each other, snippets of detail from their social circle, and it painted a picture of a society that was light years apart from my world in salty, windy, wintery Devon. As a book it was very nearly bigger than me, or so it felt, you had to read it with it sat on your lap, and I devoured it that holiday. It was awesome.
H is a more later convert; I think I just took him to enough art galleries that finally the paint fumes got to work and the passion rubbed off on him. But as an artist himself he can see so much more than me; he sees colours and the type of brush that’s been used, and the layering that’s been used to build up the picture and he can spend far longer staring at a picture than you’d think possible.
The Impressionists’ summer holiday hang out was along the Normandy coast and unsurprisingly they took their paints with them. Monet certainly painted Honfleur and Deauville-Trouville and probably a host of other spots along the coast, but as we left lower Normandy by way of the Pont du Normand we were in search of two very particular places: Etretat and Rouen.
Back in our halcyon pre-children days, and in fact, pre marriage days, we went to New York for a week and in the Met we saw in the flesh Monet’s The Manneporte. It’s pretty on screen and it’s simply stunning in real life, the one painting that we went back to again and again, circling round to stand and just simply stare at it. So there was no question that we wouldn’t try to get to the spot where it was painted.
Try being the optimum word. Etretat is a small coastal village at the end of two small village roads and going to see it on a Saturday may not have been our best idea. The fact that we probably should have realised this when we got horribly stuck in traffic over the Pont du Normand because the toll booths just couldn’t go fast enough to keep up with everyone we shall gloss over. We pootled along merrily and as we got to the outskirts we could see that an enterprising farmer had given over a stretch of his land for parking and that quite a lot of people were taking advantage of it. But our one problem was that with three small children there was just no way we could walk the rest of the way into town down narrow streets with the amount of traffic on the road, and so we pressed on.
On the fourth loop of the village we agreed, we were either going to find parking right now, or we were calling it off and heading on to our next campsite. Two corners later and up a hill into possibly the most badly organised car park I have ever been into (long, skinny, entrance and exit at the same spot, no room to turn around), we secured the last of the ‘invent it yourself’ spots.
And as the sun continued to rise we strolled down the hill past deep pink hydrangeas, past homages to the Tour du France that had visited earlier in the summer, and past a great house sign before we finally reached the promenade, the beach, and the view.
It is a stunning spot. Even hot, frustrated and tired as we were there was no denying it.
The sea is the bluest of blue and crystal clear, and the sun shimmers over it to the arch on one side and up the hill to the church on the other, and if you can get to the water over the giant pebbles it does look very inviting.
But I think that if you want to go to Etretat, don’t do what we did. Go early, or even better, find somewhere in Etretat to stay and then make the most of the early mornings or the sunny summer evenings. Because if you go back and look at those photos again, you’ll see the near solid line of people, a little constant column of people marching its way up and down to both view points. There were so many people, and the town was so touristy and felt so inauthentic, especially in contrast to the beautiful villages we’d explored in the previous days, that we sat, we looked, we ate our picnic, and then we were done.
I’m glad we went, I’m glad we saw it, and I’m glad that if I want to look at an incredible rock arch into the sea, we’re a lot nearer to Durdle Door.
In contrast, Rouen, famous for Joan of Arc and Monet’s series of paintings of the Cathedral, was practically deserted. It was our first experience of the French Sunday shutdown, we parked underneath the Sunday market and spent a while wandering round and enjoying the sights and smells before heading into the old town aiming for the Cathedral. I’d expected it to be like York, little side streets filled with tiny shops and the hustle and bustle of a busy town. But there was nothing and no one, just beautiful all but silent buildings.
The Cathedral is magnificent.
Tall and thin to make it’s height seem to reach even higher, covered with intricate carving on the outside and yet very plain and simple on the inside, save for a rather beautiful staircase.
You expect intricate valuable stained glass to match, but it has clearly not survived history, and that makes the windows that have survived all the more special, and the windows made up of patches of other old windows pieced together, possibly even more special than their undamaged companions. The Cathedral suffered during WW2 but was repaired, restored and had key bits replaced and I’m so glad that they did, it’s such a beautiful piece of architecture.
And, and I shall neither admit nor deny that this is the most important bit, I also found a wall that I thought would make a great quilt pattern:
What do you think?