Friday, June 7, 2013

Rouen, Ville Aux Cent Clochers

Although I got lost regularly in Rouen - I found I always went too far to the north, rather than going too far to the south, as I do in Paris - it's possible to orient yourself by one of the many church buildings there, whether or not the hundred bells are ringing. Our gîte was right next to the church of Saint Vivien; my apologies to the saint, whom we referred to in the feminine, thinking it was Vivienne. S/he was the patron saint of parking while we were there, since the main parking lot was the church parking lot, but only for four hours at a time between 9am and 7pm there or on the street. We put a lot of change into the parking meters that week. There was always a group of young to middle-aged men hanging out in the church lot, listening to a boombox and drinking. The oldest guy, who seemed to not get as drunk as the others, would stand at the entrance to the lot and direct people to empty slots, if there were any. But it was a quiet part of the city, at least before and after the quarter-hour bells rang.

The Saint Vivien church is very near to the Abbey of Saint-Ouen, and once served as its chapel, after the abbey was burned down (for the second time) in the 13th century. The Benedictine Order established the Abbey in Rouen back in the 6th century, but its current ornamental splendor, on the outside anyway, wasn't completely finished until the 19th century. At one point it served as the city hall, at another as an arms manufacturing center for the French Revolution. Today it's empty of soldiers and saints alike, with only one service a year, in August, we were told. Which is a pity, as of all the churches we went into in Rouen it is the most conducive to contemplation, full of light and high quiet arched ceilings, beautiful and spare, somehow making all those tons of stone seem delicate.

The organ at the Abbey is one of the nicest in all of France, apparently, and the space is mostly used for art exhibits, concerts, and recording sessions. A Cavaillé-Coll instrument from the late 19th century, apparently, and according to my brief forays into all things organ, one of the only ones built by him that hasn't been altered since its installation. We didn't get a chance to hear it, as the next scheduled concert isn't until June 21st, but in these CD snippets it sounds quite grand.

The Église Saint-Maclou and the Cathédrale Notre-Dame are so close together I'm not sure which one we saw when, at this point. One or both of them were draped in scaffolding and temporary walls, like a lot of the other churches and monuments we saw during our travels. "It's undergoing reconstruction," became a catchphrase for us, along with "except on [Friday, Monday, whatever day of the week it was]" and "but they can't give specific details about it." So this church, or maybe the other one, was undergoing reconstruction (except on Saturdays) but I can't give you any specific details.

In a way it's a shame we had gone into the Abbey of Saint-Ouen first, because after all of that elegant simplicity the other edifices, both excellent examples of Gothic architecture at its most ornate, just seemed cramped and overdone, focusing on all the busy details of this narrow human world, instead of drawing the eyes and heart up into the limitless expanse of the heavens.

That said, it was (or they were) a beautiful space, from the 10th-century rune-carved tombs to the 20th-century reconstructions of stained glass windows fragmented by Allied bombs.

The third building in the area that's famous for its elaborate Gothic stylings is the Palais de Justice, the largest such structure in France. It was bombed as well, but has been rebuilt.

It was the seat of regional government in Normandy for several hundred years, as well as where the exchequer met to collect taxes and rents on behalf of the king. Although not a religious edifice, it's also covered with steeples and statues and gargoyles and impossibly delicate stonework.

We never did identify an isolated tower sitting off one of the main shopping malls, bristling with anti-pigeon spikes, or the shell of a church tucked into a narrow residential street off to the side. While we were admiring the ruined stonework on this last, an older man came by and peeked through the chain-link fence into the weedy courtyard with us. "They still have services here, you know," he said. "What?" I replied, looking in astonishment at the lack of anything that might be considered a roof over the three remaining walls. "Oh, yes," he said as he walked away. "You should contact the parish office." But as he looked back over his shoulder, his eyes twinkled. "Vous rigolez," I said, catching myself in time before coming out with the rather ruder "Tu te fous de ma gueule, ou quoi?"

A small ornate fountain/monument not far from Saint-Vivien was dubbed by John as commemorating "the world's oldest traffic circle" and indeed we did go around it once or twice. It was positively pedestrian, compared to the lawless swirls of vehicles in the grands places in Paris, or the high-speed truck-filled roundabouts of the French highway system.

We didn't get over to the Église Saint-Paul de Rouen (the patron saint of highway interchanges) on the banks of the Seine or to the other 50-odd church buildings in the area, but the bells rang us through our week in Rouen from the 7am mass (time to get up and make coffee!) to midmorning service (time to eat a chocolate pastry!) to the cacophony at noon (though we weren't in town for most of that clangor), the afternoon call to worship (time to move the car to another parking space!) and the last tolling of the time at ten o'clock.
Isn't tintinnabulation a great word?

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