Saturday the 22nd of July, I saddled up and rode to the main train station in Boulogne-sur-Mer. I had not planned to run alongside the Somme, but the tracks followed the swollen river all the way to Amiens. I needed to get off at Saint Roch to change for Rouen, but, mesmerized by the scenery, I almost missed my stop.
Fortunately, the other passengers helped me throw my panniers on the platform whilst I pushed the bike out. I left behind one of my water bottles and an elastic strap, but nothing important. By 1930, I was stowing my bike in the linen closet of the Hotel Morand in Rouen. I was assigned a small room on the top floor with a view of the neighbouring rooftops. Très romantique, but the climb up the circular staircase was a Stairmaster® workout each time, and it took four runs to get my panniers up there. I was glad that I was staying two nights.
A walk through the historic center and into the downtown shopping area took me to a “casual fast-food” restaurant called Flunch. The chain operates throughout France, and features an all-you-can-eat vegetable bar when you buy one of the main plates (all under EUR 9). Unfamiliar with the format, I quickly opted for the roast chicken and a small beer. The beer was the bulk of the carbs in my dinner. Sure, the veggies were on a steam table, but there were at least nine to choose from. Once past the cash registers, I figured out how the place worked.
Sunday, I went to Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. The choir was not singing for this service, but the organist played continuously, slipping into a background mode when the liturgy needed to be front and center. As in Köln, the bouncers kept the tourists back at the entrance until Mass was ended. The Cathedral in Rouen has an interesting history (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rouen_Cathedral). Between wars and disasters of every kind, the original 4th-Century church has grown and thrived. The present church was inaugurated by William the Conqueror in 1063, three years before he set off to change British history forever.
After Mass, I rode down to the Seine under threatening skies. I rode downstream to the end of the promenade and back upstream to the end of town. A pleasant ride, but the sky provided the most interesting scenery. I noticed that this was a working port, with river barges of every size racing up and down the river, and river cruise ships from Switzerland and Germany moored at the promenade.
Fleeing the rain, I chose Flunch again, for supper. This time, I knew to order the moules marinières, which were à volonté (all-you-can-eat). There were several fish plates on the board. I may look for the Flunch places on my travels. I had enough mussels in the initial portion not to return, but I did refill on veggies. All this for less than ten euros.
As you might expect, the clientele represented the full range of social classes, with many senior citizens using their Flunch discount cards. You have to appreciate a place where the poor can eat better for less than the cost of McDonald’s.
On Monday, the 24th, I caught the train to Chartres. This required a 6-km ride across downtown Paris in the rain to go from the Saint-Lazare station to the Montparnasse station. I barely had enough time to make it on a dry day, but getting sidetracked at an elevator trying to find the exit, then taking an urgent call from my credit union set me back 20 minutes. I did manage not to slip on the slick cobblestones as I made my way past the Place de Concorde and all the wonderful sights that I could not afford to look at. I arrived one minute after the train left. The rain stopped. With an hour to spare now, I ate my lunch waiting for the track assignment to be displayed. The second leg was uneventful, and my host appreciated my emailing him with my updated arrival time. I arrived at the guest house in Chartres at 1845, just in time to ride to the nearest supermarket before it closed. The guesthouse I had booked had a washer, a dryer, and full kitchen privileges! As close to home as I could get. I enjoyed fried fish and broccoli for supper.
The next morning, I had breakfast with the other couple at our guesthouse, Wim and Ties from Utrecht. They had just spent a two-week holiday cycling in Brittany. After they left to return home to the Netherlands, I rode downtown to the star attraction of this detour: the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres. One cannot accuse the French of wanting original names for their principal churches. In the case of Chartres at least, the choice of Our Lady was part of a Christian spin to supplant the goddess cult that was centered on that site from ancient times.
The Cathedral at Chartres has been on my bucket list since I was a teenager. I was not disappointed. This glorious Cathedral has the most stunning stained-glass windows in the world. That and the detailed sculpture work make this church the most outstanding example of French Gothic architecture. I also appreciated the free entry and the ability to walk around without harassment or major restricted areas. I did notice, however, that backpacks and suitcases, etc. were not allowed inside the church, and that a roaming security guard with a flashlight was checking the backpacks of the occasional tourists who slipped in with theirs.
Notre Dame de Chartres survives with all its stained glass intact and with fewer changes than almost any church of its age (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartres_Cathedral). Making it past the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution was amazing enough, but surviving the Second World War was nothing short of a miracle of individual and collective heroism. In 1939, the stained glass was removed, just before the Germans invaded. The glass was hidden, and the windows were releaded after the war. After the D-Day invasion, a Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith argued with his superiors over the orders to bomb the cathedral, suspected of being a German observation point (this is reason that the Allies bombed the Abbey of Monte Cassino). He volunteered to go behind the lines with a single soldier to confirm the report. The Cathedral was not being used by the Germans, and Griffith thus convinced the authorities to spare the church. He was killed in action later that same day in 1944.
I particularly appreciated the restoration work that is removing centuries of mold, smoke, oil, and dirt, returning the church to the bright and airy space it used to be. The restoration has a long way to go, but at least I could compare the bright central apse with the dark side wings. Frankly, most of the medieval churches and even later buildings that I saw in France could use a cleanup. The difference it has made in Rome is amazing to me.
For all the glory of the Cathedral, I would not want to live in Chartres, or any town in France bigger than a hamlet. The stench of diesel exhaust from poorly tuned engines is everywhere, even when a stiff westerly wind is blowing or in a heavy rain. France led the charge to move the cars to diesel in the 1980’s, and the results of that policy are being felt today. The nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and carbon black from those exhausts can’t be good for anyone or anything. I notice the change in smell whenever I ride from the open countryside by the ocean into any city or town. Just this week, France announced a plan to ban all gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. That’s 22 years for one country to back out of a policy that took less than 10 years to implement all over Europe. It is so hard to recover from bad policy decisions.
While I was working at the kitchen counter following my tour downtown, a Dutch couple from Amsterdam moved in next door, and went back out to the Indian restaurant in town. Shortly thereafter, I followed them to the Indian restaurant, but arrived after they had left. I enjoyed a delicious crevettes Madras with naan stuffed with cheese (must be a French thing). Then I rode back into town for the spectacular son et lumière show. After sundown, the Cathedral and a dozen other architecturally interesting buildings are lit with coloured lights while music accompanies the show. The town’s commitment to fulfilling its role as a pilgrimage destination (now called tourist destination) since the 4th Century remains undimmed. And they do it without a tourist tax in the hotels. Go figure. I shot stills of all three façades, but they do not capture the full feel of the show. You can get an idea of the beauty on You Tube, by looking at videos of past shows. Here is an link by D.G. Geert of last year’s show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zK-KuBiRFkg. There are more professional videos on You Tube, but this show is closer to the 2017 version that I saw.
On Wednesday, I had breakfast with the couple in the room next door. They walked into town for a day of sightseeing, while I packed and worked until our host came down (he works nights). After lunch, I rode to the post office to mail some cards and a thank-you letter. Not wanting to back-track to Paris, I caught the afternoon Regional train to Le Mans, where I connected with the Intercity to Caen, close to where Eurovelo 4 picks up again on the coast.
I had added the Somme and Seine to River Run 2017, and seen two wonderful Cathedrals. Now I was on my way to Normandy, Brittany and the Bay of Biscay.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,