Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dazzling Reflections

At the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen I discovered that I am an Impressionist. I wondered where the impulse came from to always take pictures of water, and of reflections, of puddles mirroring trees and lake surfaces sending doubled images of cliffs or houses, of oceans shading from blue into grey. Once I saw the exhibit titled "Dazzling Reflections" (Éblouissants Reflets) it was as clear as a brook running over shallows that I am channeling Caillebotte and Peltier and the early adopters of that new-fangled photographic apparatus who took the series of images that were nothing but reflections in black and white and sepia tones. That was a nice counterpoint to the rich colors of the paintings, especially my new favorite artist Robert Antoine Pinchon, whose "Les Coteaux de Belbeuf" I stared at happily for a long while. I was also quite taken with a work by Maximilien Luce. And of course there was Monet, some of the paintings of Giverney where we had already been, and some of the coast near Étretat, where we decided to go on Saturday, taking advantage of the clear skies.

We were looking for fossils as well as art on the coast, and while we did find sketch-worthy scenery the fossil landscape was pretty sketchy. One of the sites I'd done research on said that fossilized sea urchins could sometimes be found between the stones on the beach, but we weren't so lucky. In fact, there wasn't much evidence of recently-dead sea life on the beach, much less long-dead creatures. It was hard to walk on the piled ridges and flat shoreline covered with large round rocks, and if any shells had washed up they were likely quickly crushed into minuscule fragments. Or else we just got there after the early beachcombers had already cleared the area. John said there wasn't even anything in the tide pools, just a bit of seaweed.

We started out by driving to Fécamp which, now that I am looking on line, is more interesting than we had time to discover, including the remains of the 10th-century ducal palace where William the Conqueror celebrated his victory after the Battle of Hastings. We saw the Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity perched at the top of the cliff forming the northeast edge of the bay, and saw flocks of parasailers take to the wind from the abbey grounds, but we didn't make the trip up there. It's worth a visit, however; I'm looking through the tourist office info right now and have discovered that this building is as big as the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which we also didn't visit (the interior, anyway).

We drove along the high winding road edging the cliffs west to the small town of Yport, and ate lunch in the parking lot above the harbor, after a quick visit to the casino. We had to go to the casino to use the bathrooms, you see, and so we were then obligated to try out their machines ... we had to show identification before we went in, and I lost about eight euros, though due to John's timely find of a forgotten euro coin in one of the machines he and Mom managed to come out ahead. By one euro. The bathrooms were nice, though.

Mom kept going up to the chalk cliffs we'd been told not to go up to, due to the frequent rockfalls. If I remember correctly, the variation in the rock layers is due to the changing sea levels. She found a small fossil here, I think, or perhaps at Étretat, where we went next.

Monet and other painters spent a good bit of time along the coast here, and Étretat in particular is popular due to its long beach as well as its artistic connections. I'm glad we were there before the vacation season really got started, as it's probably wall to wall sunbathers on the beach during July and August, even though the beach is more of the lumpy rock fields and not sand. There's a casino here, too, but we didn't go in to that one. I headed to the northeast end of the promenade to try to get a good photo of the famous arch, and Mom and John went to the other end to continue the fossil hunt.

There used to be a fairly thriving fishing industry here, though now it's more a place to go for windsurfing, having become a seaside resort popular with people from both sides of the Channel. The town is tucked into a small break in the cliffs with narrow winding streets leading to the port; we had to park up towards the top of town and walk back. It's a fairly generic seaside town, like Seaside in fact, and the promenade was lined with shuttered booths and stalls that probably sell souvenirs and ice cream and such, once the season starts.

When we parked the car, I noticed a sign advertising farmstead goat cheese - unusual in Normandy, land of cows and butter - pointing down a small road leading away from town, and when we got back we followed the signs that led us down a bumpy narrow road with tall hedges on either side and shortly to the farm Le Valaine, where Agnès and Bernard Dherbécourt make cheese and chocolates and frozen treats out of goat's milk. The cheese is a simple farm cheese that is naturally cultured, a chèvre in other words, hand-ladled into the molds and then drained and aged, eaten young and soft or aged and sharp and crumbly. The flavor is very good, pointing to the quality of the forage and feed provided for their herd of goats. We didn't ask for a tour of the facility, but I talked with Mme Dherbécourt for a bit about milk allergies; she is deathly allergic to cow's milk, she said, and when she was recovering from a particularly nasty bout of cancer ate almost nothing but the goat's-milk chocolate puddings that her husband made for her. Whether or not they're a cure for cancer, the chocolates are incredible - rich ganache inside a crunchy shell, plain or flavored, and I can vouch for the absolute yumminess of the walnut-topped version with walnut liquor blended into the filling. The frozen dessert they sell is made from the whey left after the cheesemaking, and I would like to go back and find out how they do that. It's good, creamy and fresh, in strawberry or raspberry or (the one I would try next) the apple with Calvados, a true Normandy product.

I was driving on the way back to Rouen as well, and got a little random from time to time, swerving off the main road to follow other signs that promised interesting things to see. We found several red-and-white brick manors of various ages, and Mom and I agreed that somewhere, in one of them, is the duke (or earl, or count - I'm not picky) that I am destined to marry. I did get the Pentecost Dove, you remember. However, none of them were home that day, so I will have stop by and knock on the gate some other day, on my way back to pick up more goat's-milk chocolates.

And so the northern coast of France became the latest in the series of "we could have spent all three weeks here" spots we visited. We could go back in the fall when the apples are harvested to make the area's famous cider and Calvados, and we never did eat moules-frites at the source, or the famous oysters of the region. I would love to visit Mont Saint Michel some day, and the Bordier buttery is not far away either. And maybe there are more renegade cheesemakers who opted for goats or sheep instead of cows. Or I could just take up sketching again, and spend my days trying to capture the dazzling reflections on the waves in summer, if I could find a place to sit on the crowded shore. It worked for Monet, anyway.

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