Archive for the 'France' Category


Caen, France

[The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning movie – ‘Saving Private Ryan’ presents one of the most unforgettable and accurate depictions of D-Day ! Though the second World War stretched from 1939 until 1945, no other day in the six years of fighting had perhaps been as decisive and crucial as this day – the 6th of June, 1944. Today, one of the main reasons why tourists come to Normandy is to visit the D-Day landing beaches and its associated museums. Stretching across the English Channel coast, the five beaches code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah, were the sites where on D-Day, over 150,000 allied troops launched a simultaneous surprise invasion of Normandy, in a bid to free France (and subsequently, the rest of Europe) from the clutches of the Nazi Germans. The invasion had marked the beginning of the end of World War II ….and succeeded in driving the first nail into Hitler’s coffin !]

It was Day 3 of my visit to Normandy and I took an early morning train from Rouen to the city of Caen. Since I had just a little over half a day available in the city before catching a train back to Paris, I had to devise a clear plan of how I would spend it…… and that involved visiting Sword Beach and the 11th century Chateau Ducal (Duke’s castle) built by William the Conqueror himself. Sword Beach was one of the five D-Day landing beaches and I had chosen it mainly because it was the closest from Caen [located 15 km north of the city in the sea-side town of Ouistreham], and also, this was where the British troops had landed. [The Americans had landed on Omaha and Utah beaches, the Canadians on Juno and the British on Sword and Gold beaches]

Sword Beach on D-Day (Image courtesy

Right outside the Caen train station was the Gare Routiere (the bus station) and I went in and bought a return ticket to Ouistreham from the lady at the counter. Must admit, all the people I encountered in Normandy have been very friendly and helpful, and with their broken English and my even more shattered French, we’ve been able to get along quite well. I had to catch the Line 1 service to Ouistreham and the bus arrived exactly as per the timetable that I had downloaded before setting off to France. It was a 30-minute ride to the sea-side town of Ouistreham and for the first time in my three days in Normandy, the weather was sunny and warm.


Sea-facing villas at Ouistreham

From Normandy, France

Ouistreham today is the port for Caen and is also a popular sea-side resort dotted with beautiful villas. Many of these villas were occupied by German officers during the years of Nazi occupation in the early 1940’s. Sword beach was a short walk from the bus stop and my first thoughts on seeing it was on how wide and long it was. The clear white sands stretched on for a few kilometres and the sea was several hundreds metres away from the beginning of the beach. Unlike other beaches I had seen in Normandy, at places like ‘Le Havre’, this one was not a pebble beach and looking at the conditions, it was clearly evident on why the allies may have chosen this place for their amphibious landing on D-day.

Sword beach today

From Normandy, France

There was hardly anyone at the beach that morning, except for a few people walking their dogs, but the lady at the Tourist Office near the beach told me that there were major memorial activities planned for the following week – during the anniversary of D-Day. I collected a shell from the beach as a souvenir and visited the D-Day memorial that stood nearby.

D-Day memorial at Sword Beach

From Normandy, France

A museum dedicated to the British No.4 Commando division who had landed on Sword beach, was just across the road, but I skipped it in favour of the Musee du Mur de l’Atlantique (Atlantic Wall museum), which is housed in an old Nazi bunker.

The bunker is actually a large 5-storeyed tower offering vantage views of the beach and it had taken the British 3 full days since D-day to storm in and take the 50+ Nazi soldiers holed up inside as prisoners. But 66 years later, all I had to do was to buy a 7 Euro ticket to get inside.

The Atlantic Wall Museum - in the old Nazi bunker

From Normandy, France

Outside the building were kept a few tanks and gun batteries used in the war, and amongst them, was an actual D-Day landing vessel. Incidentally, this was the very same vessel that was later used for filming the opening scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and had held in it, amongst others, Tom Hanks himself !

An actual landing vessel used on D-Day and later in the filming of 'Saving Private Ryan'

From Normandy, France

As I stepped inside the building, I was greeted by a large TV screen playing the movie […yea, you guessed right] ‘Saving Private Ryan’, albeit a French dubbing. The interiors of the bunker have been restored to what it may have looked like under Nazi possession.

Effigy of a Nazi officer inside the weapons room of the bunker

From Normandy, France

After grabbing a sandwich from a beach stall, I caught a bus back into Caen and headed for the next destination in my agenda.

Chateau Ducal:

Caen Castle

From Normandy, France

Right in the centre of the city, stands the Chateau Ducal or Duke’s Castle. Built by William the Conqueror in 1060, the castle had been in use throughout the middle ages and was also used as military barracks as late as during World War II.

In 1066, six years after building this castle, William, then the Duke of Normandy, had crossed the English Channel and invaded England, setting up a powerful new ruling establishment in the hitherto Anglo-Saxon country. It was the last time England was ever forcefully conquered by a foreign power and even the current queen – Elizabeth II can trace a direct line of ancestry to William the Conqueror ! William built many new castles around England, including the Tower of London [….whose White Tower is so named after the special stones from Caen that were used to build it]. The conquest earned William the title of The Conqueror, which may have very well justified the effort, ‘cos until then he had been referred to as William the Bastard, thanks to his illegitimate birth 😉

The castle complex was massive and interestingly, entrance was free. The lawns around and inside the castle seemed to be a nice hangout for French students, who were seen lazing around and enjoying the sun. And Caen being a college town, there were plenty of them around.


Rouen, France

[I was barely a kid when I first learnt about ‘Joan of Arc’ at school. This young French peasant girl who claimed to hear voices from heaven and led virtually impossible military victories against the English during the Hundred Years War, is perhaps one of the most glorified heroines in history. As captivating as her tales of victory, is the tragedy of her demise, when at the age of 19, she was captured and sold to the English, who tried her for heresy and had her burnt at the stake ! It was in a market square in the city of Rouen, in Normandy, France that she was burnt alive on the 30th of May 1431. Which is why, exactly 579 years later, when I got a chance to visit France, I chose Rouen and decided to follow her trail and explore the places that defined the last few months of her illustrious life.]

Situated on the banks of the Seine, Rouen today is a beautiful and serene city that still preserves its medieval charm. But looking back into the past, the city has had a very tumultous history. During the middle ages, the city had changed hands between the French and the English multiple times. Besides, as recently as in World War II, Rouen had suffered heavy bombardment by the Allies during the ‘Battle of Normandy’. Nevertheless, the bit of Rouen’s history that attracted me to the city was obviously its association with Joan of Arc – the ‘Maid of Orleans’.

On the 29th of May, I took the noon train from Gare St.Lazare in Paris, and 1.5 hours later, after traversing alongside the lush banks of the Seine, arrived at Rouen Rive Droit station. It wasn’t until I heard the public announcements at the station that I came to realize that as with most French words, ‘Rouen’ is not pronounced as it would appear like in English, but involves a very nasal-sound towards the tail-end……which begs the question – Don’t the French ever catch common cold at all ? Wonder how they manage to speak then.

Not surprisingly, the very road leading out from the station was called Rue Jeanne d’Arc …Jeanne d’Arc being French for Joan of Arc. But that wasn’t the end of it – over the next few hours, I came across Jeanne d’Arc restaurants, Jeanne d’Arc tobacco shops, Jeanne d’Arc bakeries, Jeanne d’Arc pharmacies….and it was clearly evident on how much the Rouennais capitalised on her legend !

Tour Jeanne d’Arc:

Tour Jeanne d'Arc

From Normandy, France

My first stop in Rouen was the ‘Tour Jeanne d’Arc’ (‘Joan of Arc Tower’). Situated just about 5 minutes away from the train station, the tower is all that remains of the 13th century Chateau Bouvreuil (Bouvreuil castle), where Joan of Arc was held captive by the English. The castle itself had been destroyed many years ago, but the Tower has survived the sands of time. It was here in this tower that Joan was threatened with torture during her trials.

Entrance to the tower cost just 1.50 euros, and as I bought my ticket, the guy at the counter asked me in his broken English, as to where I was from. When I replied ‘India’, he seemed surprised […I guess not many desis visit Rouen, and even if they do, hardly any may end up in the Joan of Arc tower, of all places.] But then, as the guy started raving about Vishwanathan Anand, it suddenly was my turn to be surprised ! [From Cairo to Vienna, I’ve come across foreigners talking about ShahRukh Khan, but this was the first time someone had mentioned an Indian chess-master ! Quite a welcome change, indeed 🙂 ]

The steps leading up the tower were narrow and steep and each floor had interesting exhibits showcasing the life and times of Joan of Arc….including copies of her actual trial documents. As such, the tower was a perfect starting point for me, and it presented an intriguing picture into what Joan’s days in captivity may have been like.

Notre Dame de Rouen:

Notre Dame de Rouen

From Normandy, France

Rouen Cathedral, otherwise known as ‘Notre Dame de Rouen’ (‘Our Lady of Rouen’) is the most defining feature of Rouen’s historic skyline. This 12th century Gothic structure is so massive and tall that its spires can be seen from around the city. As my hotel was situated just a few lanes across, I ended up walking past the cathedral on several occassions, and each time, I couldn’t help being awestruck by the enormity of the structure and the intricacy of its architecture.

Inside the Notre Dame

From Normandy, France

The interiors of the Cathedral were no less magnificent and the sense of space inside was colossal ! As such, the Notre Dame does not really have much to do with Joan of Arc, but then, what interested me about it was its association with the 12th Century English king – Richard the Lionheart. It is here in this cathedral that Richard’s heart [ ..the so-called ‘Lionheart’ itself] is buried, and an effigy of him marks the spot !

Effigy of Richard the Lionheart

From Normandy, France

Best known for his fierce military campaigns during the Holy Crusades, Richard the Lionheart had achieved far more and gone much further than any other Western Crusader before him. Richard and his equally powerful Arab counterpart – Saladin, were perhaps the Federer and Nadal of the 12th Century, but in spite of their bitter rivalry, had remarkable respect for each other. Though Richard’s ultimate goal of capturing Jerusalem for the Christians fell short outside the walls of the holy city, such was the terror he inflicted that it is said that even today, traditional Arabs scare their kids using his name !

Richard the Lionheart had died in France, but not in the manner shown in the recent ‘Robin Hood’ movie 😛 As per his wishes, his heart was buried in this Rouen Cathedral, whereas the rest of his body lay interred at other locations in Normandy. Four years ago, I had had the fortune of visiting Saladin’s massive fortress in Cairo, and it was great to now visit the tomb of his arch-rival.

Gros Horloge:

Gros Horloge

From Normandy, France

The Gros Horloge or the ‘Big Clock’ is a 16th century astronomical clock situated a stone’s throw away from the Notre Dame. For 6.50 euros, one can get inside the structure to see the ancient gears and mechanisms that still drive the clock, and also climb up to the top of the adjoining bell tower to enjoy a panoramic view of city, including one of the best views of the Notre Dame.

View of Rouen from the top of the Gros Horloge

From Normandy, France

The Gros Horloge is located in the middle of an intricate network of colourful pedestrian shopping streets, and the place was teeming with people.

Straight ahead on the same street, in the direction away from the Notre Dame is the ‘Place du Vieux Marche’ – the most important destination in Rouen, as far as I’m concerned !

Place du Vieux Marche:

The ‘Place du Vieux Marche’ or ‘Old Market Square’ is an ancient public square in the heart of Rouen. On the 30th of May 1431, a high wooden stake stood in the middle of this square, and the Rounnais public watched as a 19-year old Joan of Arc was burnt alive in it. The English, not wanting to leave any relics behind, threw her ashes and remains into the Seine, from the nearby ‘Boieldieu Bridge’.

Joan of Arc church and the Place du Vieux Marche

From Normandy, France

Today, a small market does exist on the square, however, much of the area is occupied by the modern ‘Eglise Saint Jeanne d’Arc’ (St.Joan of Arc church). The peculiar shape of the church symbolises the pyres in which Joan was burnt. The square itself is surrounded by beautiful old timber buildings and it appeared as though nothing much had changed there since Joan of Arc’s times. As I walked into the square on the evening of the 29th, I set out straight to find the place where Joan of Arc was burnt. That wasn’t quite hard as a board marks the exact spot, which today lies amidst a circular bed of flowers.

The exact spot where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake

From Normandy, France

After paying a quick visit to the adjacent ‘Eglise Saint Jeanne d’Arc’, I checked out the Joan of Arc museum, which stood just across. Many pubs and cafes line the periphery of the square, and they presented me with the opportunity to taste some authentic French wine, in the evening 🙂 The area is also dotted with pretty, old timber houses, which is one of the main factors that gives Rouen its medieval charm.

Old timber houses

From Normandy, France

I did make it a point to return to the square at 9am the next day – the 30th of May…as it marked the exact anniversary of Joan’s death.

Abbatiale St-Ouen:

The ‘Abbatiale St-Ouen’ or ‘Abbey St.Ouen’ is a 14th century church in Rouen, not too far from the Note-Dame de Rouen. Its Gothic architecture, though not as grand as its more illustrious neighbour, is quite impressive, nevertheless. It was here in the Abbatiale St-Ouen that many of the sessions of Joan’s trials for heresy were held and it was also here that her sentence was read out to her, a week before she was killed. She had been forced to sign an abjuration, but a few days later, when she resumed wearing men’s clothing, the abjuration was revoked and ultimately led to her being burnt at the stake.

[Though quite acceptable by today’s standards, cross-dressing was considered to be a grave sin in the middle ages, tantamount to heresy ! Thank heavens that of all the archaic laws and practices, this one didn’t survive into the modern age :)]

As I approached the abbey, I came to realize that the structure was not as well maintained as one would imagine. Evidently, it didn’t enjoy as much patronage as the Notre Dame. The gardens surrounding the abbey were littered and one of the more secluded porticos on the northern side had a couple of tramps sleeping in them. Shocking !

Abbatiale St-Ouen in the background of the Napoleon statue

From Normandy, France

Nevertheless, the grandeur of the building is simply amazing. As I entered through the thick wooden doors into the main hall, I was instantly struck by the sheer size of its interiors. The elaborately decorated pillars and the pointed arches on top of them seemed to stretch atleast a few storeys into the sky. Churches were tradionally built big, so as to make the visitor feel small in front of God, and this abbey did its job well. But as with most cathedrals in Europe, though it was a Sunday, there were more tourists there and hardly any worshippers.

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