Travels with Mama 3 – Westward ho!

Trier was the turning point. We were going west now and on the return side of our journey. We needed to be back in Paris in a few days for a flight, but I was convinced there was much we could see on the way. I was determined to see the things I felt I had missed during my seven year sojourn that had ended six years ago. On the list were the Tapestry of Bayeux and the Cathedrals of Rouen and Beauvais.

We saw signs for one of the fortifications of the Maginot Line, the defense system built after the First World War that was expected to repel definitively another attack by the Germans. The inner structures were closed to the public in late September and we only stayed a few minutes to imagine war and its machinery tromping over the landscape below us.

We went back through Rheims, always considered a crossroads city throughout history – for the Romans, Charlemagne, the Prussians, the Germans. We stayed at the Hotel de la Paix for a night of luxury. We took a different path, heading north of Paris to avoid its  busy traffic. Besides, the side roads of France are ever-changing, picturesque rural scenes that might have been subject of any of the Impressionists. It was a pleasurable eyeful for us both.

We pushed on for Compiegne, but I don’t remember whether we stopped there, or just  kept pushing on. We only had a limited time. We stopped at the ruins of the castle described in Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, a wonderful historical documentary book about the calamitous 13th century in France.

We stopped in at Beauvais and saw the Cathedral St. Pierre which, around 1275,  was considered the highest vaulted cathedral in Europe and the finest Gothic architecture. (seeWikepedia)

As we entered the inner, old city of Rouen, I saw for the first time, a whole intact area of medieval half timber houses with exposed wood framing and plaster infill,  in what the English call the Tudor style, reaching four or five stories high,  looking like they were leaning against each other crazily for support. As one looks up, they appear to lean in over the street.  In Rouen, we stopped right near the Cathedral, which Mother was not eager to see inside for some reason.

“I think I will stay in the car. How long will you be, Kay?” she asked.

“About twenty minutes. ”

I knew how fearful she would be, sitting in a parked car in the middle of a city, especially since she did not speak the language. Perhaps her feet were hurting her. Perhaps she had no interest in medieval stone, as I did.

“Just come in and sit in a pew,” I suggested, and that’s what she did. I wandered about looking upwards, drinking in the medieval light, feasting on the decorations. This Cathedral was bombed in 1944 during the great war and a large part of the Cathedral is restored although it’s hard to tell which parts. Like all the great Gothic cathedrals of the middle ages, there is mystery and majesty filtering through every atom of its construction. I think it was here that the beautiful cloister dominated by red brick construction was attached to the cathedral. Memory fails now. It might have been Beauvais.

Leaving Rouen, we passed through the industrial district beside the river. Mother exhorted me to hurry. It was unfamiliar territory to her; there were no houses, no places to get succour should it be needed. If there were no people to be seen, it couldn’t bode well. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the white cathedrals to industry. I had no idea what these industries were, originally built close to the river for ease of transport, but they shone in the late autumn sun. I could see Monet doing a series of paintings of this, just like he did of the cathedrals. The silos and towers, walkways and railings, pipes and smoke stacks all combined into an interesting industrial lace. I wanted to stop for pictures. I wanted to get out my sketchbook, and draw; or come back and paint.
But there were two of us travelling and compromises needed to be made. She’d waited me out at the Cathedral; I’d give in on this one. The picture of this stretch of industrial road is now more vague in my mind but the memory of it still calls me.

Then in Bayeux, west of Caen,  we stayed in a small hotel in the centre of the city. It perched on the edge of a narrow canal that threaded between the medieval houses to the river. The hotel rooms were not numbered. Instead they had names of ancient royalty. We stayed in the Queen Maud room. There were ones named after Matilda,William the Conqueror, Henry II, Harold and others.

We spent a long time looking over the handwork of Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, and her handmaidens while he was off fighting Harold for control of England. Not many people read in those days and pictures were more valid as a way of recording history and advertising a husband’s glory.

The tapestry surprised me in that it is one continuous long piece of Medieval comic book style writing, protected in a museum created especially for it, sealed off from air and lit by special lamps that minimize the effects of light damage. It has iconic interest for artists as a n early handbook for design.

It was her birthday, the 28th of September and I offered her a birthday lunch in a lovely looking café to celebrate. Later in the late afternoon, we walked up to the church and looked within. We got somewhat turned around in our walk back. Suddenly I no longer knew where I was. Mother depended on me for finding our way. All I knew was that we were near the edge of a little canal, though there was no guarantee that it was the same canal that passed our hotel. I stopped and looked around. Nothing gave me a clue as to which direction we should take. There weren’t any people about. Darkness was coming on. Mother asked what was the matter and I told her.

Mother, who has no sense of direction whatsoever, insisted that we go left when my instincts said we should retrace our steps and go back the way we had come. I sat on a planter box seat for a moment and asked her to sit down while I thought. Every minute I sat brought her closer to a panic attack. She peppered questions at me while I was trying to think, reason, figure out for sure which direction to take. I was close to a panic attack myself. What could I do? There were no people to ask. It was a walking space with no signs or street names. I hadn’t a map. My first instincts were most likely to be right. I took her hand firmly, drew her along protesting as we retraced our steps, crossed a little whitewashed bridge against the watercourse and regained a street with traffic on it.

There we found someone to ask. We had done the right thing. Not one street away, we could see our hotel. With grateful feet and hearts, we regained our room and plunked onto our beds. We did not go out for dinner but ate apples that we had picked up somewhere on the way.

In the morning, we wanted to leave early. At seven, we tiptoed down the stairs to the breakfast room hoping it would be open a bit early. We tried the door but it was locked. We thought, instead, we would go out for breakfast. Surely there would be a bakery open, but we were locked in. Instantly, her fear of fire asserted itself. What would we do if there were a fire? We could only return to our room.

I agreed with her that it was unthinkable, totally unacceptable, for patrons to be unable to leave a hotel, dependent on the key keeper to be able to get to the door in case of emergency.

At the appointed hour, the breakfast room was opened up.  We sat and ate their home made butter croissants with coffee for me and tea for Mom. In her ninety-fourth year, Mom was still asking me,”Kay, do you remember those croissants from the hotel in Bayeux. Those were the best I ever had.”

We had wanted to get away early and we did not linger over breakfast. We headed up to Arromanche-les-Bains to see the Atlantic, the English Channel, pound against the beach. Not too distant from the shore, we could see scuttled landing vehicles from D-Day. We talked about the war. It was so much more real when we could see the remains of it sitting in the landscape in which it occurred.

Now we were more pressed for time. We had one more day, then we needed to return the car in Orly and fly away. We had little time except for the essentials. We planned to circle Paris, stop at Versailles, stop at the small village of  Barbizon then head straight for Orly.

At Versailles, we visited the palace which thrilled Mom. I’d seen it before, but I found it equally fascinating second time around. We were unable to go into the gardens because the French Prime Minister was holding talks in one of the buildings there there during the day. and the place was crawling with military and police. Once again as we were leaving the palace, there was police/military activity.  We were held up to allow a cavalcade of black diplomatic cars to sweep past and out the ornate wrought iron gates that were leafed in real gold.

We found our rental car and headed out towards Fontainbleau.

(to be continued)


3 Responses to “Travels with Mama 3 – Westward ho!”

  1. paintingartist Says:

    It is hard to fathom the great war that took place not too long ago. I don’t know that it could ever be too long ago.

    To see what you have seen has to be amazing especially with your mom.

    I like your reference to the impressionists.

    Nice to see you are an artist with paint as well as words. Very fine story, I feel as though I was there.

  2. Kay Says:

    Painting Artist,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I lived in Rheims, studying at the Ecole Regionale des Beaux Arts for four years. Every day and everywhere there were reminders around the city of the effects of the Second World War. There were plaques on walls of houses where people had been taken away and died by the enemy hand. If known, the reason for their demise – died in a work camp, died in a concentration camp, tortured, etc.etc – it was noted. Regularly, there were dried flowers renewed in these small monuments of remembrance.
    There was a house, just around the corner, that had been commandeered by the enemy that had been the local place that locals were tortured for information. The inhabitants were determined never to forget the bravery of their own countrymen who had resisted the invaders.
    They would never, never, never, forget that in the First WW, the Germans had hit directly on the Cathedral to destroy it and to demoralize the population. Then, when they had overpowered the city, they used it for a hospital for their wounded, and set fire to it when they were in retreat.
    That the cathedral was reconstructed, lovingly and with the greatest attention to historical detail, was a miracle that I was able to share with Mlle. Voisin, a wonderful older lady who loved greeting foreign students and had us to tea on Sundays. When she learned of my interest in Gothic Architecture, she took me through the Cathedral several times on private tours, which was a very special honour. She was a tour guide and member of the Historical preservation society for the Cathedral – very knowledgeable.
    Close to Rheims, there were many fields, meticulously kept, that honoured the fallen during the First World War. The Marne was one of those areas where the fighting went on and on, in trenches, in muddy fields that I found, when I was grape harvesting at a friend’s vineyard, was a chalk clay that stuck to one’s boots and added another two to three pound to each foot as one moved through the fields. It brought the reality of what the doughboys must have lived with, day in and day out, as they huddled in their wet and cold trenches.
    The father of my fellow-painting student, whose vineyard it was, had escaped from a German forced labour gang, and had come back to his own village not far from Rheims. He had lived in fear of capture for the last year and a half, sleeping in barn lofts when he could, but as often as not, just in the fields, moving only at night, hiding in ditches and in thickets, never having a warm bed or an assured meal, until the war was over.

    I loved living in France and if I won the lottery, would gladly spend a few months per year there. It was a real privilege to have been accepted into their society and treated with a warm welcome. I still have some very good French friends with whom I keep contact.
    The French have so many tourists, they are a bit stand-offish to foreigners until they can gauge the seriousness of thenewcomer’s involvement and love of their country.
    There was no book in the world that could have made me understand history and it’s effect on the people of the area as I did by living there. Seeing these daily reminders of the context of the war and the brave people who had lived through the traumatic events of it that affected absolutely every family, was better than any text book, any enthusiastic school teacher.
    Mom was a great travel companion, only somewhat slowed down by age and mobility. She was eager to see historical sights, art galleries, factories where artisanal objects were made (like the Daum glass factory, the Baccarat crystal works) and go shopping.
    Probably I wouldn’t have, without her, gone to a fashion show in the Printemps Galleries – a clothing and department store of great repute. We enjoyed that immensely, and then wandered about the fashion floors for an hour, delighted to see the fashions and colours that would reach us on the West Coast of the North American continent two years later.
    She had a wonderful sense of curiosity. She wanted to see and to know.

    I’ve rather blathered on again. Thanks so much for your comments. It’s satisfying and makes it all that much more worthwhile when I know someone is reading and enjoying my tales.

  3. artstage Says:

    Thank you very much for the wonderful journey! I was very touched and rememberd my mother who died very young.

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