Monday 25th May, Dieppe, Upper Normandy
This evening we caught our first glimpse of the sea since we arrived in Caen on our way to Thibaut’s wedding well over two months ago. The fresh breeze from the sea confirmed that the sultry summer heat of inland Europe is something you need to be born to if you are to enjoy it.
We left Guise this morning and drove along roads that can only be quite this straight in France. The plains are fairly flat and you can see straight ahead for miles. Even where there are hills the road continues absolutely straight, rising up and down with the contours of the landscape.
Arriving at St. Quentin the road did curve around it, only to take up its original line on the far side. We stopped for fuel and then continued along the straight line, covering two whole pages on our French atlas, that runs from St. Quentin to Amiens, south of the Valley of the Somme.
At Villers-Bretonneux, just east of Amiens we stopped at one of the War Graves Cemeteries known as Adelaide to pay our respects to the tragic casualties of WW1. This cemetery was typical of others. Of the 1000 or so young soldiers lying there over half were Australian , the rest were British and around twenty were Canadian. All died within a short time of each other either attacking the German line holding the insignificant village of Villers-Bretonneux, or defending it once taken. One of the Australian graves had a photo of the young man lying beneath. He looked such an ordinary young man in his army uniform. There was a certain shock about it. Suddenly it was no longer just a name but a face and a personality, somebody’s son so very far from home, in a corner of a foreign field.
At Amiens we were grateful that it was the Monday of Pentecost and therefore a national holiday. The streets were not busy and there was time to find the correct lane and turn at the right set of lights as Ian navigated me right into the centre. We found a side street where we left Modestine and walked to the very heart of the city, dominated by the glass domed railway station and the Tour Perrot. This latter looked like a badly constructed tower of mismatched building bricks balanced one upon the other by one of our granddaughters. We don’t know what purpose it serves but it really does little for the prestige of Amiens.
On the other hand, the nearby Cathedral is an outstanding example of northern French Gothic architecture. I don’t really understand the different architectural styles but this just looked unbelievably light and slender both inside and out. It had flying buttresses to support the weight of its tall, slender arched windows with their flamboyant tracery. The steep roof carried the eye upwards to the delicate black slate covered spire stretching heavenwards. The front of the Cathedral was again delicately carved with tracery, statues of saints, wild and imaginary animals and foliage. There were also finely carved niches for statues. The impression was of something very light and slender. Inside it was the same. It was very light with soaring columns and a roof of slender rib vaulting. Unfortunately much of the stained glass had been lost through accidents of war but there were a few windows still intact, including one of the rose windows and one depicting the Tree of Jesse.
This was not our first visit to Amiens and there is a further account from our earlier visit. This time the head of John the Baptist was not on display. Apparently it is too damp for him during the winter and he goes off somewhere warmer until the main tourist season begins in July. Fortunately we photographed his severed head on our last visit and filed it in our collection alongside his other head which we saw in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul a year or so later. I checked on the internet and there are at least a dozen authenticated severed heads of John the Baptist held in reliquaries around the world. Amazing!
Behind the altar we found our little friend from our last visit - the weeping cherub. Soldiers fighting at the Front in WW1 would visit the Cathedral in Amiens and found comfort and solace in this little weeping statue. Photos and post cards of him were sent around the world to their families. He came to represent the futility of the wasting of so many young lives in a battle that for much of the time was a stalemate, the front line hardly moving for much of the war with massive casualties for so few gains.
Also, on this visit we discovered a plaque commemorating the death of Raymond Asquith the son of the then Prime Minister of Britain, Lord Henry Asquith who died at Guinchy in 1916.
Around the outside of the choir were several 15th and 16th century sculpted polychrome friezes of scenes depicting the life and death of St. Firman, the first abbot of Amiens back in the 3rd century, and the history and decapitation of John the Baptist.
Leaving Amiens behind us around 4pm we made our way northwest in search of the sea and a campsite for the night. We found both of these a few kilometres outside of Dieppe.
Much as we have enjoyed our latest travels in Italy, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Eastern France, there has been a sense of delight to see the evening sunshine reflecting from the surface of the Channel as we looked out across the fields from our cliff-top camp site. There was enough breeze to make the air fresh but not chill. We felt more energised than we have for weeks.
Tuesday 26th May, Etretat, Upper Normandy
This is probably our last night of camping. Geneviève is expecting us tomorrow afternoon. We have been running down the fridge and our food store cupboard. I don’t want to return with any of the stuff we bought with us when we emptied the kitchen larder before we left!
This morning we drove the short distance into Dieppe and parked down by the port. It was not an area to inspire confidence but then ports never are. They always look a bit seedy and run down. However, there was no pleasure in driving around searching for a parking place and we chanced on one in a side road near the criée or fish market.
Our first impression of Dieppe was one of misgiving. It seemed rather shabby. Around the port there were hundreds of parked cars and it was the same along the sea front. We soon realised we were over-reacting. Much of the town has suffered benign neglect so it has a general air of shabby decay. A town with an active port is always busy and lively. Fishing boats were coming and going, unloading and even selling on the quayside. There were boats being repaired or cleaned, nets being sorted, lorries loading up with crates of fish, crabs and shellfish. Along beside the harbour were small cheap cafes and restaurants selling seafood menus – moules frites, fruits de mer and oysters with white wine. Back from the port there is the main shopping street of the town and beyond that the sea front with its promenade, hotels, swimming pool and castle on the cliffs. There is a stony beach backed by rising white cliffs. The more we saw of Dieppe the more we rapidly came to like it. It is a town with many interesting features and has remained generally unspoilt. There is just so much to see.
Our first gem was the Eglise St. Jacques with its flying buttresses and typically north European gothic tracery. Its spire had been dismantled at some stage and stood beside the church at ground level. It has never had a real make-over so what you see is much as it was when it was built back in the 15th century. Inside there are nets suspended from the gothic rafters to catch the pieces of falling plaster. Surfaces are thick with dust and paintings blackened by accretions of grime so that the images themselves are almost indecipherable. The carving though is delicate and really beautiful, both inside and out.
We had the feeling that Dieppe has changed very little over the years. The square around the church was still lined with small independent, slightly run-down shops and cafes where it seemed people could still bring their own food to eat with a coffee or beer at lunch time. At a small charcuterie in the rue St. Jacques we bought a couple of onion quiches and carried them across to the sea front where we sat on the beach wall to eat our lunch and watched the ferry from Newhaven as it made its way in to the port. We have friends living on the cliffs above Newhaven, maybe this morning they watched it as it set off across the Channel. Suddenly we are beginning to feel a slight nostalgia to be back in England with our family and friends.
Lunch finished we walked along the seafront to the chalk cliffs to look at the castle and to watch the energetic swimmers in the open air pool.
Back in town we stopped for a coffee on the sunny terrace of the Café du Tribunal. We bought a couple of pains chocolat from the neighbouring patisserie to eat with our coffee. It seems to be the accepted thing. It was very pleasant sitting in the sunshine watching the world going about its business knowing that for a while there was nothing important we needed to be doing.
We knew we still had a tin of lentils and some rice back in Modestine so we purchased some sausages to cook with them in remoska for tonight’s supper and trotted off in search of a memorial to the Raid on Dieppe in 1942. We never did find one but we did discover a memorial to the crew of the steam ship the Maine, torpedoed by a German submarine in 1917 while crossing between Newhaven and Dieppe.
Our search took us out to the harbour wall and along the jetty into the open sea. Here there were happy fishermen casting their lines from the harbour wall. Most had several lines propped up while they sat chatting. Despite so many lines we saw nobody catch anything. A bored looking Dachshund left in charge of the fishing lines wagged his tail slightly and raised his head from where he lay snoozing in the sunshine as we passed. Otherwise there was more activity from us striding along the jetty than from all the fishermen put together. One fishing boat chugged cheerfully into harbour as two others left. Caught in each others wake they tossed like corks. Ian says give him something the size of Brittany Ferries any day!
Our day around Dieppe has been delightful. There is plenty to see and do – petit train touristique, boat trips, the beach, clifftop walks, the swimming pool, the castle, the museum and fishing trips on local boats to name but a few. But we still had some way to drive to reach our planned site for the night.
This evening we are at the Camping de l’Aiguille Creuse (hollow needle) just outside of Etretat. There is a rock formation on the cliffs. It is an arch with a white pointed chalk stack just beyond. There also happens to be a series of novels, very popular in France, telling of the nefarious activities of Arsène Lupin, a master thief who is forever removing valuable jewellery and treasure from its rightful owners. In one of the novels this darstardly French criminal meets British master sleuth Herlock Sholmes who is determined to outwit him. Legend has it that the white stack, its feet in the sea, is actually hollow and wicked Arsène Lupin has stored all his stolen booty inside. Will British hero Herlock Sholmes outwit France’s notorious criminal and find the treasure? Or will Arsène recover his stolen booty in time and send poor Herlock to the bottom of the sea to be eaten by the fishes? Don’t ask me, I’ve forgotten the outcome! It’s probably been translated, ask for it at Exeter Central Library. That seems to be the way they do their book selection these days. It’s by Maurice Leblanc.
So tomorrow we are off to Etretat in search of stolen treasure before taking a look at the brutalist architecture of Le Havre. Then on to Caen and lots of chatter with our friends as we relax in a real house again. We are so lucky to have friends along so many of the routes we travel. Following the publishing of our recent blog about Baden Wurttemberg we received a message from Eva on Lake Constance wanting to know why our route didn’t take us along the side of the Bodensee this time? Usually we stop for lunch with her as we pass by. Sorry Eva, next time perhaps and thank you anyway.
Thursday 28th May 2015, Caen
We arrived back with Geneviève yesterday afternoon, hot and sticky from exploring both Etretat and Le Havre. After cool showers and fresh clothes we felt fit for polite company again and relaxed in the garden with glasses of wine as supper cooked in the kitchen. There we caught up on each other’s news over the past three months and we told of our visits to Etretat and Le Havre.
We’d arrived early in Etretat and were lucky enough to find somewhere to park before the main crowds arrived. It is a very pretty little town on the seafront nestling in a gap in the white chalky cliffs that rise steeply to either side. Because it is so pretty and has become famous as a result of the stories of Maurice Leblanc it is a magnet for tourists. The town has seriously cashed in on their hero with shops and pubs given names such as “Detective Café,” “Le trésor d’Arsène” and plenty more. There were guides giving tours along the sea front to large groups of retired German and Dutch visitors, and in the bright sunshine everyone was feeling happy.
We'd tried once before to visit Etretat, while we were both still working, before we started these travels. Then the seafront was closed to visitors and much work was being done. We had to make a long detour across the cliffs in a failed attempt to see the white chalk stack that has bought such fame and prosperity to the town. This time we benefitted as the work being done had been to secure the cliffs, build paths and even a platform for easy viewing of the arch and the needle beyond.
I am pleased to report that I managed the steep cliff climb quiet easily. It was mild with a slight breeze from the sea which was beautifully clear and smooth. The stack was spectacular. In its time it was a popular scene for painters, including Monet. The cliffs themselves were also lovely in the sunshine with excellent play of light and shadow, the outline of the cliffs shadow seen across the surface of the bay. The fields and cliffs were filled with wild flowers - sea kale, thrift, marguerites, and long fronds of waving grasses. On the cliff stacks gulls nested, sitting on their eggs, safely out of reach from visitors braving the climb up to the top of the cliffs.
Out in the bay we watched a group of young children on a sailing course bobbing their way across the bay accompanied by their instructors in a motorised boat. The children were having a brilliant time bobbing and rocking on the gentle waves.
Back down on the sea front we sat watching the bay while drinking coffee at a picturesque little cafe created by thatching over one of the little fishing boats.
It was then time to leave and head for Le Havre where we found somewhere to park in the residential area designed by the architect August Perret who laid out the plan for rebuilding much of the city after it was almost completely destroyed during WW2. The rebuilding of the city was largely carried out between 1945 and 1964 using concrete as the primary building material. Perret was personally responsible for designing the massive church of St. Joseph and the Town Hall, both in precast concrete and both classic examples of post war brutalism in building design. Concrete modules are precast and erected in a cellular format producing buildings of a regular style with straight angles and lines. The city was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2005 and is one of very few contemporary sites on that list.
Also in the city centre, around a large rectangular central basin, is a building known as The Volcano because of its shape. This was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architect and constitutes the “House of Culture” which houses the city theatre. It is currently being redesigned and developed to include a public library.
In its time Le Havre shocked because of its stark and functional design. Yesterday in the sunshine, the buildings clean and bright, with trees and public gardens that have developed over the years, the city has lost some of its impact. In fact we quite liked it, though would not choose to live there. Everyone lives in flats but they are living right in the city centre. The buildings are very bare and stark it is true, but people were out sitting at tables drinking with friends while children played in the large pedestrianised squares. The gardens in front of the Town Hall had a fountain playing, there was a wide green lawn and the beds were filled with flowers. I would imagine that the picture would look considerably less inviting on a wet winter’s day with the wind howling around the tower blocks.
The central basin was being used by canoes and school children. We walked up the far side and crossed back into the centre over a steeply arched footbridge, again not much fun if it is raining. Nor would I enjoy the wide open space I’d need to cross, in either the heat of the sun or the chill of winter, to arrive for Mass at one of the biggest and most ugly churches I have seen in a modern city. It looked more like a power station that a place of worship!
We stayed longer and enjoyed it far more than expected. Time though to move on. Leaving the city took some time with road works and unsynchronised traffic lights. Out of the centre the city still looks rather as if it is being rebuilt after the war. I won’t be rushing to go again but Le Havre is certainly worth a visit. The port area is the second largest in France - after Marseilles, and has a ferry link to Portsmouth. It is France’s largest port for container traffic. The city also has an important chemical and petroleum industry.
Caen is about an hour along the motorway from Le Havre. We used it to enable us to cross the estuary of the Seine at the Pont de Normandie. At Pont L’Eveque we turned off along the ordinary roads of lower Normandy, avoiding the heavy tolls of French motorways. An additional bonus was passing through a pretty rural countryside of flowering field bounded by bright hedges, areas of mixed woodland and apple orchards, so typical of the area, the trees covered in blossom and brown and white speckled Normandy cattle browsing beneath them. A while later we crossed the Plain de Caen and arrived with Geneviève as predicted, around 4.30pm.
We stayed several days in Caen before taking the ferry back to Portsmouth and home. With Geneviève we took several day trips out into the Normandy countryside, all to places we have already reported on. One of particular delight was up into the Cotentin to St Vaast la Hougue where, when Modestine first began taking us to Europe, we saw a delightful tumbled house on the sea’s edge, near the marine church and cemetery, with which we fell in love. Seeking it out in the rain today we found that nine years later it has been sold and the new owners are busy restoring everything structural and relaying services. With an enclosed and sheltered marine garden and a conservatory overlooking the sea it will be all we imagined when it is eventually completed.
We are delighted it is receiving so much TLC and still consider it to have been the most practical and charming of the many properties that took our imagination as we travelled. Now though, circumstances have changed back home and we are a decade older. Our roots are intractably buried in Devon’s soil, surrounded by our family and friends. But still today, in the words of the song “It’s oh so nice to go travelling ...”
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