In ancient times, France was called Gaul and the French were the Gauls (Gaulois). The rooster became the symbol of Gaul and the Gauls as a result of a pun. The Romans made fun of the Gauls, because, in Latin, the word Gallus means both rooster and Gaul. They regarded them as so boastful and noisy birds or roosters that were no match for the Roman eagle.
It was in the Isère last year that I found a table solution for our troublesome kitchen-diner space in London. Visiting a friend in her chic chalet in the French alps, I saw a table that was just perfect: long and narrow, made from lustrous French boards, with a modern touch in the smoky iron legs. I asked where she had found it–an antiques shop in Grenoble, perhaps, or an estate sale in the French countryside?
Not at all. It came, in fact, from The French House, which is in York and in Fulham not five minutes from our London home. They go all over France and collect wonderful furniture and decorative objects. They also make furniture using reclaimed wood. They had made my friend’s table, and they would make ours.
The also had these mid-century French card chairs which they polished up and reupholstered for the table ends. It felt wrong to buy French furniture from a London shop when we spend so much time in Normandy. At the shop they weren’t surprised at all. They said many people buy furniture for French homes in London. There isn’t enough time to get around and sift through the brocantes yourself.
I have yet to explore the brocantes in Normandy – something to look forwards to. Here’s a site that lists all the brocantes and flea markets and antiques fairs in Upper Normandy. And if you can’t get there in person, Sharon Santoni, who runs group trips to French flea markets, has a delightful online shop, My French Country Brocante.
Another quite fabulous option, if you can find it, is Home Art & Matiere just down the road from Les Iris in Villequier. Occupying the old pilot’s house, right on the Seine, H.A.M. is a wonderbox of treasures, each room painstakingly curated and filled with carefully chosen artifacts. The kind of place you go to find what you didn’t know you wanted.
Of course there’s a catch: it’s only open on Sundays from 3 – 6 pm. Our recommendation: take lunch in nearby Caudebec-en-Caux, and tour the Victor Hugo Museum. From the museum go left along the river to the old pilot’s house, and then browse to your heart’s content as the sun goes down.
The Christmas tree sellers are out in force this weekend, and doing a brisk business. Here’s what I wrote about Christmas tree decorating last year. Not much has changed in the intervening months: it wasn’t a year for far-flung travel for our family. The only new tree decoration is a traditional Romanian straw hat bought with spare change on the way out of Cluj. And still, there are no French decorations.
When traveling for pleasure we like to find local decorations for the Christmas tree. It’s a way to remember some of the interesting places we have visited. It’s also a great excuse to buy tourist tat without making seriously expensive mistakes. My parents did the same, and their tree is heavy with adventures. My favourite is the wooden cosmonaut they picked up at Moscow airport in 1971. He hangs on the tree, a reminder of a vanished era of aspiration and confrontation.
Here are some of the decorations on our tree this year.
This glamorous shopping lady is from Colorado. She has always struck me as overly stylish for the Rockies–perhaps she is taking in the après ski scene inAspen. We found the hand-made lace angel next to her in Tallinn, Eastonia. Tallinn’s old town is beautiful and perfectly sized for a weekend visit if you can just manage to avoid the stag party crowds. The tango dancers are from Buenos Aires, where we watched equally craggy dancers dipping and spinning around the streets of La Boca.
I wonder if the Bengal tiger is wearing lipstick, or is that the remains of dinner around his mouth? He roars fiercly at the snowmen and santa decorations. We found the sweet-faced Pinnochio in Orvieto, a hilltown in Umbria, Italy. When I lived in Italy as a child I worried through Christmas that the old witch Befana who visits on the Ephiphany would bring me the coal that naughty children get instead of gifts.
The little ladies are from Guatemala, where we marveled at the Mayan ruins in Tikal. In Iceland we stayed at the isolated Hotel Budir on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. No vikings in sight there, but it was easy to imagine elves emerging from the mysteriously shaped lava rocks all around.
This crown above and the chandelier below are English, from the Victoria & Albert Museum shop which sells unusual and unique Christmas decorations. The cowgirl is from Texas and I love her sparkling belt buckle. I’m not sure she does much cow herding in this outfit: maybe Daddy owns an oil well.
My brother clerked for a time at the Supreme Court, and he arranged for us to take a tour and hear the justices hand down a decision. It was amazing to be there and watch history in motion. The blue Matisse blue bulb is from MOMA, New York and the green bulb is from Hawaii’s National Tropical Botanical Garden.
We think of the tree a work in progress, with many gaps to be filled. There is one gaping hole that I’d like to fill quickly. We spend so much of our time in France and yet have nothing to put on the Christmas tree. So please help me – where is the best place in Paris or Normandy to find Christmas decorations? And what are the most typical French Christmas tree decorations?
One of the joys of spending time in Normandy is visiting the area’s bountiful food markets. Our local market, held on a Friday, never disappoints: but in those weeks when we’re traveling or otherwise occupied on a Friday, a close second best is exploring the other markets of Upper Normandy and Calvados. This month we made our way to Pont-l’Évêque, where the weekly market is held on a Monday. It’s home to the eponymous cheese, and to a lovely church which survived wartime bombing.
The point of local markets is they change every time. You go for the seasonal produce and for the individual sellers. It’s the opposite of supermarkets, where it’s downright inconvenient when the aisles are changed around adding a precious few minutes to your already too-long shopping time.
In the first week of November, there were chestnuts, quinces, and the alien-fabulous chou romanesco. I’ve never cooked any of these, although the guests at our cottage the week before had collected chestnuts in the forest and roasted them over the open hearth. I’ll have to try that, and here’s how.
And the chrysanthemums were flying: you could see them lining the village streets, and all around around the cemeteries where families were marking November 1st, a day of remembrance. We left some by the cottage gateposts: I wonder how far into the winter they’ll last.
Giverny–where Claude Monet lived and painted for 43 years–is certainly the most famous garden in Normandy, perhaps in all of Europe or even the world. It was here that he created the water garden with its iconic Japanese bridge that he painted over and over and which hangs, in reproduction, on a million institutional walls.
A visit to Giverny, however, doesn’t start with the lily pond, but with the rather fabulous–and previously unknown to me–Clos Normand, his magnificent wildflower garden.
The garden, which fronts his house, is laid out in corridors of colour: one purple, one yellow, one pink. Flowers and rose arches rise on either side. Even though it’s crowded – on a midweek afternoon during school season we waited 20 minutes for our tickets – you can lose yourself wandering through the fragrant lanes.
We visited in early June, and the flower garden was bursting with colour, all poppies and peonies and hollyhocks and irises.
All those poppies recall the Monet print that hung in my childhood nursery, the one of a girl and her mother walking through a poppy field, the girl wearing a boater not unlike my school uniform hat, and the mother wearing a scarf and carrying a parasol.
The gardeners were busy at work, tending to all that wildness.
If the flower garden offered more than I expected, then the water garden was slightly underwhelming. The two gardens are intersected by a busy road, and there is noise from the traffic on the road. And to be fair the day was grey, the light flat. The pond is really very small, and not as lovely as it is painted in oil and hanging on the walls of the world’s great museums. It reminded me of visiting the most famous gardens in Japan. Like this one they were perfect on a small scale, and elbow to elbow as crowds of tourists sought just the right picture for their holiday blog.
Monet’s house is worth a look. It has been renovated recently, and rooms on both floors are open for viewing. The bedroom overlooks the gardens. The painter’s bed is curiously small for two people, and the ensuite bathroom is luxurious. What is known as the yellow kitchen is in fact a dining room with a large table, with a smart blue kitchen beyond it. It seems that the Monet family enjoyed their entertaining–and who wouldn’t, in such a spot?
The children brought along The Magical Garden of Claude Monet, which takes a child and a dog on a tour of house and gardens. They enjoyed discovering the places shown in the book – especially Monet’s boat.
There are a number of official and unofficial websites dedicated to Giverny, of which we found the best for visitor information to be the Claude Monet Foundation website.
This is a blog about living and travelling in rural Normandy and I try to stay fairly close to the subject. I’ve gone off-piste from time to time. I was star-struck by an encounter with Blur’s Alex James, and I enthused about a friend’s chalet in Vaujany. Today I’m going to stray again. If this blog is all about rural life, I’m going to write about its opposite.
Last weekend we spent a day wandering around East London – a helter skelter patchwork of old industry and new development, a resolutely urban space crawling with builders and testers and security guards and snapping tourists like me as it enters the last weeks before the London Olympics. (For a neat travel account of things to do in East London, see the New York Times’ 36 Hours in East London).
We walked along the Lee Navigation, a system of canals built out of from the River Lea that once served industry, and are now the heart-center of Olympic development. This provided some excellent views of the main Olympic stadium, where sound checks were underway all afternoon.
Here is one of the entrances to the Olympic park. You can see old industrial buildings next to a secured gate into the Park. I love the graffiti under the canal bridge: IMAGINE WAKING TOMORROW AND ALL MUSIC HAS DISAPPEARED. Our dancing-singing-violin-playing daughters tried to imagine what that would be like.
It’s been decades since the canals have carried working barges, but there are houseboats all along the sides. You might think a houseboat is a romantic, bohemian way to live cost-effectively in London–that’s not always the case. Even if the houseboat is affordable, mooring prices and terms vary widely. Behind the houseboats here, you can see the kind of smart apartments that have appeared all over this once industrial area.
Someone has set up these miniature sculptures ‘watching’ the construction of the Olympic Park from across the Lee Navigation. (Is this a good moment to mention that there is a French connection to the Olympics. It was a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who in 1894 proposed in a speech at the Sorbonne the idea of revival of the Games and establishment of the International Olympic Committee.)
For lunch we made our way into Bow, where Roach Road was unexpectedly buzzing with Bugaboos and LandRovers–surely day visitors from Islington and Dulwich trying to snatch a bit of artistic urban cool just like us? Look at the Olympic Stadium looming behind.
With children and dog in tow, we were delighted to discover that the cafe at Stour Space is energetically child and dog friendly. This is certainly not the case in much of London–I have yet to find a dog-friendly cafe in Fulham. The excellent brunch menu included pea soup and bacon sandwiches.
Stour Space is hosting a retrospective of works by local printmaker James Brown. This version of a William Morris quotation, which can be bought at the V&A, particular spoke to us:
Since we’re talking opposites today, I had to take note of the requisite anti-Olympics graffiti just along the street.
There’s much beauty in the contrasts here. Of course there is: it’s the differences in life, after all, that provide richness and texture. The town mouse and the country mouse need each other, and make each other, in their contrast, more beautiful.
Le Havre probably isn’t top of your list of things to do in Normandy. It certainly wasn’t top of mine–even though it’s on the Unesco World Heritage list. For me, Le Havre has always been a ferry port on the way to somewhere nicer, famous for having been bombed to bits by both sides during World War II.
But my ever adventurous husband kept encouraging me to go. He wanted to know where all the boats that pass by the end of our garden were coming from; and he was interested in seeing the largest container port, and second busiest overall port, in France. So we left behind the bucolic blossomy Easter week countryside and drove off in search of urban grit.
We arrived in a shower of rain, found parking, and ran into the nearest shelter, a large concrete doorway. I stumbled in, looked up, and then had one of those blinking-into-the-gloom moments that you get in the great medieval cathedrals like Notre Dame, Salisbury or Reims. Except here I was in a dramatic modernist space, the Eglise Saint-Joseph du Havre, made entirely from reinforced concrete. Built in the 1950s, the cathedral was designed by Auguste Perret, the architect who led the reconstruction of Le Havre after the war. It’s quite hard to describe the effect of stepping into this cathedral, and pictures don’t do it justice. The concrete is hard and cold and ugly, and yet the overall effect is uplifting and awe-inspiring. If you do one thing in Le Havre, go there.
The rain stopped, the sun came out (every day in Normandy contains about 7 days of weather in other places) and we headed towards the port, stopping along the way at the covered market for sandwiches and where we admired the traditional Easter bells and other chocolate on display.
Dotted around the port are some interesting sculptures, and this unusual Oscar Neimeyer designed volcano, which houses a cultural centre.
Then on to the Musée Malraux, known as MuMa, and its excellent collection of impressionist art in another modernist space that’s more attractive inside than out.
There are works by Boudin, Monet, Dufy, and many of the impressionists; I particularly liked the several portraits by Renoir, as well as the way the museum windows let the changing Normandy light right inside.
Along the seafront from the museum, boats were being taken out of dry dock by men with a small crane. We walked out along the long pier. Retired couples out for a stroll greeted us warmly, and a class of small student sailboats bobbed about at the end of the pier. Looking back was a rather lovely view of the port, smart new apartments, and the Perret cathedral tower.
Do look out for the seafront shop, La Belle-Iloise, which has walls and walls of these brightly coloured tins of sardines. What wonderful gifts.
Le Havre seems to me something like a beautiful easter egg hidden in an old bag, full of delightful surprises that it’s worth taking the time to savour.
Normandy is just about my favourite place in the spring. Get there at the right moment, and the countryside is trimmed with white apple blossom, like lace on a Victorian bride. The sky is big and the light changeable and nuanced. No wonder the impressionists discovered light here.
I was lucky enough to spend last week in Upper Normandy. Here are some of my pictures.
Arboretum in bloom, Château d’Harcourt
Evening, Auberge du Vieux Logis, Conteville
Spring garden overlooking the Seine at Les Iris
Easter bells, bunnies, chickens, at the central market in Le Havre
Scarecrows, near Harcourt
Le Havre from the pier
Spring flowers and herb garden, Les Iris
Vieux-Port and the Seine
Yellow field near Sainte-Opportune-la-Mare
This is a post about a walk in the woods to a mysterious place not far from our cottage. From the village and from nearby Azier, there are signs pointing to the Chapelle Saint-Thomas, up in the hills. Follow the signs and you will find yourself climbing this wooded road.
Chapelle Saint-Thomas isn’t listed in the guidebooks yet. It’s been around since the 1200s, and was inhabited until the eighteenth century. Over the last decade, the site has been the subject of an archeological excavation to expose the foundations and history of the Leproserie de Saint-Thomas d’Aizier.
How did medieval lepers live? In Biblical society (it’s Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about the gospels), leprosy was a symbol of sin, and lepers were stigmatised and lived on the margins of civilisation. That’s why it’s a story worth telling when Jesus engages with lepers. Who would do that? You can’t imagine that wherever the Biblical or medieval lepers ended up living was much of a place.
But here, overlooking a curve in the Seine (which is visible through the leafless trees in winter), is the loveliest place, all silvery birches and green velvet moss. There is an excellent set of display boards marking out the various areas of the settlement – the living and working areas, the Romanesque chapel, the cemetery. Not a slum at all, it seems, but rather a working, monastic-type community and hospital.
People still come to think and pray in this peaceful, verdant spot. Lovers knot branches which grow up in these strange curved shapes as the years go on.
Walking is one of our great joys in Normandy. In London, the city buzzes around us all the time. Cars speed up and down our street of terraced Victorian houses, while overhead planes cruise towards Heathrow from dawn into the night. We walk in the city too, but mainly to get somewhere, and in a hurry. It’s a luxury to set off on foot without any particular agenda.
A national park footpath starts just beyond the end of the garden and runs east for a few kilometers along the Seine to Aizier. It’s a great walk for the children, flat, and lined with blackberry bushes, and with neat stepping stones across a vigorous stream. The path ends at a large picnic ground, from where you can turn right into the attractive village of Aizier.
Aizier’s Romanesque church dates from the 11th century. Even older is a mysterious stone with a large round hole in it. Discovered in the 1870s, it is thought to be 4000 years old, and marked the position of a neolithic burial ground.
Around the church there is a short historical walk with archived photographs of the village.
Look at all those people – the policeman, the deliveryman, the baker, the schoolchildren – squinting smartly into the sun in front of the general store. You’d be hard pressed to round up anyone in sleepy Aizier today.
What was once the petrol station is now smartened up and reborn as the swanky La Bonne Auberge
From here, return to Vieux-Port either back along the river or along the road. Better, extend the walk by taking the small road up the hill towards the recently excavated Chapelle Saint-Thomas.