Sunday, January 17, 2010

Camembert Cheese & Concrete Cities - Rouen and Le Havre, France

Destination: Rouen & Le Havre, France
Number of Days Spent:  1 day
Where we stayed:  RCI's Jewel of the Seas
Best restaurant:   Gooey French chocolate croissants rounded out our picnic in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. 
Best of:  Camembert cheese, Joan of Arc, Monet watercolors
Worst of:    The walking tour of Le Havre outlined in Lonely Planet was a major disappointment.  Could be that the UNESCO listed town itself has little to be desired, at least in our opinion.
Most Memorable:  We brought back some Normandy's stinky cheese onto the cruise ship.  Even double bagged it made our stateroom stink.  But oh it was tasty with bread and a glass of red wine! 

Useful Tip:   Take the train from Le Havre to Rouen, it was quick, cheap & easy and allowed us to go at our own pace.  We had enough time to see the major sights of Rouen & then spend a few hours wandering around Le Havre before getting back to the ship. 
The ship landed in La Havre, the closest port to Paris, and while most passengers were off to see Paris, a three hour one-way train ride, we opted to stop halfway in between the two at Rouen.  Having been to Paris on a separate trip, we found the 6 hours of travel for 4 hours of time in the city not worth the while, but if you have never been to Paris - it's certainly worth any amount of time you can give it no matter how small.
Rouen in its own right has plenty to see and do.  As the capital of Normandy when England controlled it, the city hosted its fair share of historical events.  One such event was the trials of Joan of Arc.  The famed teenage military leader was tried for heresy, found guilty, and burned at the stake here in Place du Vieux Marché square.  Later the ruling was reversed and she was canonized as a saint and martyr.  A modern structure stands on the spot where it all went down and thousands of Catholics come to worship and praise one of the patron saints of France.  The church is designed to resemble the pyre upon which she was burned.
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Also in the square with Joan sits a small market.  Fresh produce, cheese, meats, and hand made soaps dominate this tiny market.  Of course our day in France would not be complete without a few goodies to make a picnic. 
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After picking up our ingredients for a picnic, we headed out to see a couple more sites around town.  The city is filled with several fine examples of Gothic architecture. 
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The city also boasts one of the finer collections of half-timber homes still in existence in France.  These "gingerbread" style homes can be found in many parts of Europe, but the French, as always, have a style on their own.
In the heart of the old city lies the Cathedral Notre Dame of Rouen.  The church dates from as early as the 12th century, although it has been added on to over the years - most notably the addition of the metal spire to make it the tallest in the world at the time.  Also buried here is the heart of King Richard the Lionheart.  This Gothic masterpiece inspired a series of paintings by the famous impressionist painter Monet. Monet sat outside the cathedral painted virtually the same painting only at different times of the day to catch varying degrees of light. 
Feeling a bit inspired ourselves, we spread out our picnic and followed in the footsteps of Monet by admiring the beauty of the Cathedral combined with a little people watching.  Pick up some wine and cheese from the market, tacked on some bread and chocolate croissants from a nearby bakery and viola a typical French meal without spending a fortune in a restaurant!
After having a little coffee after our picnic, we strolled through an excellent art museum.  As one would imagine, Monet and Impressionist colleagues were well represented.
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Even the train stations in France are photogenic; Tracy couldn't resist photographing the train station in Rouen.  We love the whimsical style writing on the signs.
Back in Le Havre, we decided to take the quick walking tour that is outlined in Lonely Planet.  With allied razing during WWII leaving the city virtually in rubble, the rebuilding process was handed over to an architect by the name of Perret.  What resulted is considered by many to be his masterpiece.  UNESCO recently added it to their list of World Heritage Sites for "innovative exploitation of the potential of concrete".  Hmmm...what could be more exciting than concrete!?!  Well, let's say we were less impressed than the voting committee at UNESCO.  Using mostly concrete in construction, everything was rebuilt from office buildings to concert halls to churches.  It feels more eastern block communist than free enterprise modern day Western Europe.  While it was an ok detour, I certainly would not make any extra efforts to return.
What is up with these statues? 
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Perhaps the crown jewel of Perret's town is the cathedral tower that dominates the skyline.  Much in the same utilitarian fashion as the rest of town, the tower is made up of concrete and stained glass windows.
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What the heck is this?  Well, it's called Vulcan, or Volcano, and they apparently have concerts inside.  Looks more like a Nuclear Power Plant tower, but to each their own.
Back safely on board the ship, we set sail for the next port of Cherborg, France!
To see more photos from Rouen click here! 
To see more photos from Le Havre click here!

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