Daytripping Around Vernon and Giverny
Excerpt from A Mule In Rouen by Rob Silverstone
Toilets have undergone a transformation in France. I remember on a school holiday in the late sixties, recourse to a public facility was to be avoided at all costs. No semblance of a seat, just two stark footsteps raised above the abyss. A rusty nail on the wall with a few shards of newspaper; on desperate occasions you looked up to discover the nail starkly bare. And the flushing mechanism was a lottery. Either totally redundant, leaving the malarial swamp unmoved, or geared to unleash such a torrent of water, you had to spring from the starting blocks to avoid an unsolicited anal irrigation.
Today, as if by national decree, these cubicles have been transformed into places of sanitary splendour. Softly lit, luxuriously tiled, abundant hot water and then copious folds of crisp linen towelling to end ones' ablution. Just occasionally you step into the recesses of a café and encounter something from the past. Such was the experience in Vernon, a town midway between Rouen and Paris.
I had just been served the most execrable cup of coffee. The bar boasted a gleaming espresso machine, but this cup had been drawn from a bottle of camp coffee dating back to pre-war times. Eager to purge myself of the foul essence, I sought out the facility, and there in yellow-tinged sepia, was the urinal, bizarrely shrouded behind a shower curtain. It was as if gliding down the aisle on a modern TGV train, you slide open the compartment door to discover an old third class carriage with joltingly bone hard benches, black clad peasant women and a plump-faced girl clutching a hen...
Vernon is a pleasant little town sloping down to the banks of the Seine, where there is an open air swimming pool and castles on either side of the bridge. Turn right and Giverny, home of Monet's Gardens, is just an hour's walk away. The river road is rather busy, but you can cut up to a cycle path which is altogether more peaceful. One of the joys of being in Normandy is discovering it as the home of impressionist art. Every little civic gallery boasts Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, et al. The sky hung low and threatening, and I hurried on to avoid the deluge in anticipation of the little hump-back bridge and those water lilies.
Giverny was totally deserted. Just one shop open and a war cemetery. It transpired that Monet's Gardens were closed until Easter. I tried scaling the walls to get a glimpse of dappled colours reflected in the pond, but they were built to deter intruders, and I trapesed away disconsolate. Oh well, at least the rain had held off, and probably it was all sanitised memorabilia within the fortress.
I lifted my head, and there was a little sheltered field with ostriches bounding among sheep and goats. I hadn't seen an ostrich since that episode of Northern Exposure when Maurice, the retired astronaut , tried to persuade Marilyn to sell her ostrich eggs as part of a sure-fire money spinner. The little, round Indian quietly mused before deciding to leave those ostrich eggs with their long-legged mummy. Denied Monet, but glad to re-discover Marilyn.
After days of drizzle, dawn broke with a clear, blue sky, pale and tenuous at first, but growing in confidence as the sun rose. On such a morning it seemed right to give Giverny a second try, and see Monet's Gardens in their autumn clothes. I hired a bicycle outside Vernon station, crossed the Seine and pedaled carefree through the soft sunshine.
I was half expecting a repeat of Monet in the Twentieth Century, at London's Royal Academy, where the crowds were so great, you ended up feeling like a cow tetchily swishing a tail at the flies in front of its face. In fact, the tide of tourism had pulled out, and the gardens were maintained in a state of casual splendour, making for a great sense of tranquility. It seemed as if every flower and border were in full bloom, producing one last crescendo of colour before the gates were shut, November took hold and the fairies departed the water lily pond.
Giverny was very quiet, and I sat down for lunch at La Terrasse, a tiny café with just four tables. The kindly owner prided herself on only using local produce cheeses, charcuterie, cider, honey bread and ice creams. The charcuterie platter was excellent, especially an orange-scented duck terrine. A glass of local apple juice simply irrigated the tongue and tarte normande was a perfect combination of soft fruit and crisp pastry. What a rich heritage!
Cycling along I had passed a little shop selling honey from a local beekeeper, and signs for artisan cuisinier et traiteur. Even the little lane from Vernonnet was named after André Touftel, a master baker who had served his community for fifty-four years. Yet leafing through the daily paper Libération, I came across a news item about chefs marching on the National Assembly, protesting at a VAT regime that favours takeaway foods, and proclaiming la mort de la cuisine traditionelle.
Time will tell, but France seems well adept at fostering the old alongside the new. Elsewhere in the paper was an article by the Guadeloupe writer Maryse Condé, part of a series considering the world as it enters the new milennium. "Do not listen to sorrowful spirits and above all do not fear for the uniqueness of the region to which you belong. The culture of a people never dies. It is a living matter that changes in order to adapt itself to new needs."
On the way back I visited Vernon's museum, which is a beautiful old building with one very light and modern gallery attached. You follow through a series of rooms, ending among the rafters with Les artistes de Giverny. There are some pretty big names here, including Pierre Bonnard and members of the Monet family.
Further downstairs, the exhibits on local history reveal a litany of disasters: 1870, invasion by Prussia, and total destruction of the bridge across the Seine. 1914, a tide of Belgian refugees and blank exhaustion in the faces of the poilus (trans.: shaggy-haired men) returning from the front. 1940, massive bombardment of the town, followed by further destruction of the bridge as the Germans fought a fierce rearguard action. The sword and scabbard of an English officer killed in this battle displayed in a glass case; a modern war fought with almost medieval intensity.
Intrigued by the local impact of war, I went to Clères, a village about twenty miles north of Rouen, to visit the museum of the 1944 Liberation. Unfortunately it was all shut up. The owner had recently died and his sons sold off the exhibits to pay what was owed. Only a rusty mortar gun was left, sitting on a bank.
Just along from the old museum is the Parc Zoologique de Clères. A path shaded by huge trees wends its way round richly green lawns and a magnificent château. A sequence of wonderful birds passes by, some confined but most free to wander by you. Peacocks, black swans and ducks nestling a beak on their backs. A cluster of pink flamingos perched still and serene in the shallows. Gently, the path rises uphill, and you're walking above the lake, the sun filtering orange and green through the leaves, little deer nosing a soft-eyed interest.
You come down behind the château at an immaculate Norman house, with lightly mauve timbers, lattice windows and clematis reddening on the walls. Through a gate there's an old ruin, totally colonised by trees and shrubs, just a single arch rising intact above its new habitation. In the grounds of the château, three most wonderful birds, a sort of black and white peacock with red cheeks, electric eyes and vibrant beige crown shining in the sun. Why leave this enclave of tranquility? Take another turn, there are few restrictions here. No stern little white-chained fences keeping you from where you want to be.
I glided round again, and sat quietly in the sun on a stone bench, the birds occasionally squawking, the clock tower sounding the hour. Finally I left the park, and noticed a monument directly opposite, dedicated to the village war dead. Twenty nine dead in the first world war and eight in the second, of which five were shot as victimes civiles. On the walls of the station waiting-room are plaques to three railway workers killed during the German occupation. The park and the monument, the bridge and Giverny. Symbols of war and peace in such close proximity. Sanctuaries so tranquil they might have eased the mayhem of shellshocked minds.
© 2005 Rob Silverstone All Rights Reserved. Reproduced here with the author's permission.
Rob Silverstone spent many years as a chef in Oxford, Copenhagen, Eugénie-les-Bains, and Nice. After developing a healthy style of cuisine at The Cook & Fiddle on Brighton's seafront, he moved to Le Moulin de Mule in Rouen, Normandy. His discovery of the region's art, history, and cuisine provided the inspiration for his book, A Mule In Rouen. Rob is now back in the U.K., lecturing on food and nutrition. His web site is: www.normandymule.co.uk.
Images: (1.) A typical chiottes à la turque type of toilet, photographer unknown. (2.) Street signs in Giverny, (3.) Water lilies in the pond of Monet's Gardens, ©2003 Ian C. Mills (photographer) of Discover France. (4.) Château de Clères, from the Office de Tourisme, Canton de Clères. All Rights Reserved.