Friday, 27 July 2018

La voie des Anglais

Coffee in Rouen

France is enjoying hot temperatures this summer, unusual, says P*, for the sun to shine in Rouen day after day, it rains almost all the time here.

The Jardin des Plantes is regularly watered and as green as ever, the flowers a mixture of colours, profuse and tended, a place of tranquillity and repose. 

By contrast, the city centre and its approach roads are loud with works, widening bridges, creating new cycle and pedestrian paths, and completely blocking vehicle access to the train station, as it’s being changed into ‘a green area’ for pedestrians only. The quartier Saint Sever has become completely pedestrianized since I was last here, with several shade-giving trees removed, and replaced with boxes filled with flowers, very aromatic but not shade-giving. Where are the men who used to sit on benches beneath the trees, playing dominoes and chess supposed to sit now? There are some stone benches but they are exposed to sunlight and the people sitting there have a slightly hunted expression, looking around them as if on the watch for possible danger. 

This is in marked contrast to the people sitting on shady benches in the Jardin des Plantes, some reading, some simply gazing at the greenery and foliage around them.

But the market has not changed, as busy and full of life as ever. I buy two pots of roses there, for P*’s garden.

The old town centre with its ancient and beautiful buildings is of course unchanged. 

And I discover something about the long straight road that I am so familiar with now, leading directly from le Jardin des Plantes to the city centre via quartier Saint Sever.

There are many starting points for le chemin St Jacques which, once in Spain, turns into the camino de Santiago de Compostella.
Several of the places in France I’ve spent time in have turned out to be on or very close to these pilgrim ways. The first was during a residency in St Mathieu de Tréviers near Montpellier. Just outside St Mathieu is the Pic St Loup, a wedge of rocky cliff, sheer on one side while the other is a slope covered with stocky thorn trees and spiny bushes, herbs and plants adapted to survive in a dry climate. The view from the top of Le Pic into the valley below and across to the rocks on the other side is remarkable.

Le Pic Saint Loup
Looking down on Saint Mathieu de Treviers from Le  Pic St Loup

Later that same year I spent time on the other side of the valley, in a house perched half way up the tree-covered slope, sheltered by the marble-grey rocks where the wild boars lived, and where the wind blew through the forests with a sound like the distant swell of the sea. 

I was told then that le chemin Saint Jacques passed along the road 

directly under the Pic.  A year later, in Paris, I was staying near la 

rue de la Tombe Issoire. My walking route to Saint Michel and the 

city centre was via la rue Saint Jacques which I discovered later is 

also the route of le chemin. (Yes the name is a bit of a giveaway!).


In 2007 and again in 2013, I spent time at another writers’ 

residency a few kilometers away from the small town of Vauvert, 

not far from Nîmes.
I was out on the bicycle every day, exploring the countryside and the towns and villages nearby, Le Cailar, Aigues-Mortes, Le Grau du Roi, St Gilles. The countryside around was mainly flat, and from a nearby point de vue, you could see on the distant horizon the promontory of le Pic St Loup. 
Le Pic Saint Loup on the horizon, just above the cream farmhouse, seen from near Vauvert

During the latter stay I found out that the chemin St Jacques went through Vauvert, being part of the same route that continued and passed under the Pic St Loup. I cycled along parts of it, following canals, along paths through shady woods, tracks alongside poppy fields and through sunstruck medieval villages (as recounted here).

This year, I took the train from Rouen to the port of Dieppe, on the north coast of France. I discovered that there is another route towards the Spanish camino de Santiago, known as la voie des      Anglais, which begins at the church Saint Jacques in Dieppe, and goes south through Rouen on the way to Chartres. And as I was walking back from the market at Saint Sever in Rouen, along the familiar street which goes past le Jardin des Plantes, I happened to look down and see something that must always have been there but I had not seen before. There at my feet, on the pavement in front of me was the sign of the pilgrim route, the coquille Saint Jacques. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Paris bridges, cafes, bookshops and parks

I took the overnight coach from London to Paris. It arrived at Paris Bercy gare routiere early in the morning, severely early, the driver was ahead of schedule, probably wanted to get home.

The station is vast, several coaches are parked there but few people apart from us who have just arrived. Some of the benches are occupied by people lying stretched out on them. Outside it's still dark, a few people clustered together, talking quietly. I wait till it's light then walk outside into the empty park, along a walkway, looking for an exit. 

There is that special early morning feeling, an overcast day just beginning to wake up. And I am in Paris. There is always something dream-like for me to be in Paris. I test the dream as I walk over an enormous passerelle, not flat but undulating,  giving the feeling of being on water, a gradual wave-like feeling increasing the  sense of unreality.

The bridge is made of thin wooden slats, some of them loose underfoot, and there are gaps too where you can see the water far below. I don't look down.  This is an enchanting bridge suspended between sky and water, you could imagine angels using this crossing as they mediate between the worlds.

I walk to gare d'Austerlitz and take the metro. I'm heading for boulevard  Saint Michel and the bookshops. But first, croissants from a boulangerie near the metro Maubert Mutualite. They won an award so I read for being the best croissants in Paris. And they are. Then to the cafe Village Ronsard, with market stalls all around, for coffee.

My search in the bookshops on Boulevard Saint Michel was hugely successful. I found the books I wanted, and others. By this time the clouds had dispersed and the sun was out. I have plenty of time before catching the next bus so I walk along by the Seine, back to the Parc de Bercy and the coach station.

Just next to the park there is a delightful garden with brick walkways, lots of flowers and an insect hotel.

Then I take the coach to Rouen.