Abbatiale Saint-Ouen

Posted in La France, Photography, Travel at 23:14

Church of Saint Ouen

Of the multitude of Gothic churches I’ve visited in France, none has impressed me as profoundly as l’Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, known as the Church of Saint Ouen in English. If you’re wondering how to pronounce it, it’s roughly like our Owen and Ewen, which is for good reason, as they’re from the same root. Saint Audoin (Ouen) lived in the seventh century, and eventually became bishop in Rouen. After his death and burial at the original church, built in 553, the building took on his name. Three centuries later, this abbey was sacked by Vikings, which happened relatively often in Normandy. Indeed, in 911, one invader traded peace for a guarantee of his protection of Normandy… against other Viking warriors. He was named King Rollo. One thousand years after Rollo’s victory, Denmark gifted a replica of Harald Bluetooth’s runestone to the city of Rouen, where it still stands in front of the modern abbey.

Church of Saint Ouen, west rose window

Another church began construction in 1062, and was consecrated in 1126. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire in 1248. Today’s abbatiale construction began in 1318, and the last side, the west, was finished in the 19th century. The photo above is of a smaller rose window on this western side – you can see definite Celtic influence.

In addition to the flamboyant exterior – which is indeed mainly Gothic Flamboyant – the church’s stained glass windows are among its most unique sights.

Church of Saint Ouen, stained glass
Church of Saint Ouen, stained glass

If you’d like to see more pictures of the church, there are over a dozen in my photoset of Rouen. Our next entry on the Norman city will be about more down-to-earth buildings, namely the wonderful maisons à colombages, or woodframe homes.

La Cathédrale de Rouen

Posted in La France, Photography, Travel at 22:41

Rouen Cathedral towers

France still holds mysteries, even after nearly two decades living here. Last week I picked Rouen for a day trip, as the SNCF was offering a Saturday special to the Norman city from Paris. While I’ve been to Brittany and Paris, I had never before visited Normandy between them. My twelve hours spent in Rouen were so rich, I’ll be doing a series of posts on the city and its history.

This first entry is dedicated to an edifice that embodies Rouennais history from the twelfth century to our own: la Cathédrale de Rouen. The photo above shows the Tour Saint-Romain on the left, one of the first examples of Gothic architecture in history, and the first part of the cathedral to be built. On the right is the more modern Tour de Beurre, built in the 16th century, a late example of Gothic Flamboyant architecture.

Gothic architecture originated in France, and was in fact first named “French work”, Opus Francigenum. The term we use today was pejorative then: Goths were destructive vandals, and the new-fangled French handiwork was seen as a modern travesty, with Greek- and Roman-inspired Classical architecture held as the ideal against which it was judged. Even Molière, who lived in the seventeenth century, well after Gothic architecture had been established, had words to say about it:

« Tout s’y voyant tiré d’un vaste fonds d’esprit,
Assaisonné du sel de nos grâces antiques,
Et non du fade goût des ornements gothiques,
Ces monstres odieux des siècles ignorants,
Que de la barbarie ont produit les torrents… »

Translation (which can never equal the original):
All had been drawn from a rich reservoir of great thought,
Seasoned with the spice of Ancient graces,
Certainly not the blandness of Gothic ornament,
Such odious monsters borne of ignorant times,
Barbarism alone could produced by such torrents…

As for we contemporary visitors, if we exclaim “oh my God!” or “goodness gracious!” when approaching the legions of gargoyles, sculpted saints, ornate spires, and stained glass windows, all set on massive stonework, we unknowingly keep alive one of the style’s key purposes – which was to inspire awe for God and the Church.

Darkness, Rouen Cathedral

Skipping ahead another few centuries, seventy years ago this May, Rouen Cathedral lost many of her colorful windows, all of her chapels on the south side, and bells in the Saint-Romain tower, which went up in flames. The year was 1944, and Rouen was being bombarded during la Semaine Rouge, “Red Week”, by British and American Allied forces. In Rouen alone, 400 people were killed, many of them drowned after having taken refuge in cathedral cellars, unable to escape them after the bombardment.

Allied forces bombed nearly 1600 cities and towns in occupied France. In Rouen, the purpose was to destroy bridges and railways, although the cathedral is near neither and was surrounded by homes, which were razed. Understandably, the subject is complex and does not lend itself to facile conclusions. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing available to read on either Rouen or the more widespread bombardments in English. Indeed, as you can see in the Wikipedia article linked for la Semaine Rouge, there is not a single translation into any other language. For a nuanced analysis of it, I highly recommend this 2012 PDF from the Canadian Centre for Military and Strategic Analysis: ROUEN: La Semaine Rouge, by Stephen Bourque.

While many are familiar with the Normandy Invasion, few American, Canadian or British citizens know about the massive air campaign waged against their occupied ally. This offensive lasted four long years and targeted most of France’s population centers and infrastructure. By the time the war was over, the Allied air forces killed as many French as the Germans killed British civilians during the “blitz” and vengeance weapon assaults […] The greater French narrative is extremely complex and begins with Germany’s invasion in 1940 and the resulting occupation.

Rouen Cathedral continues to be restored today, its façade getting more work done, as well repairs to still-damaged structural elements. Another church targeted during la Semaine Rouge was also recently restored: l’église Saint-Maclou. Here you see its freshly-cleaned Gothic Flamboyant entrance framed by wood homes typical of Normandy.

Eglise de Saint Maclou

In the next post of this series on Rouen, we’ll look at the Saint-Ouen Abbey, festooned with gargoyles, light filtering through a veritable tapestry of stained glass windows, and containing one of the largest Gothic organs in France.

Of kings and dead waters

Posted in La France, Travel at 17:23

The small town I’ll be visiting soon is the Camarguais fishing village named Le Grau du Roi, literally, “the king’s bayou”. During the Crusades, its sister city to the north, fortified Aigues Mortes, was a royal port linked to Grau du Roi and the sea by canals built through the salty marshes. “Aigues” comes from the Latin aqua, a word you probably recognize, and “mortes” is the feminine plural form of the adjective mort: Dead Waters. At the end of the 16th century, the Rhone river flooded the Repausset marsh, forming a new entry from the sea that was used to build a permanent canal, causing Le Grau du Roi to gain in importance. This same canal still exists today.

Grau du Roi has since grown from being a major fishing port and viticultural area to also being a major tourism destination, as one of France’s well-known beach resort towns. While outside of France, it’s mainly included as part of the attractions of the Camargue region, within France, it’s rather well recognized on its own, which is one reason my company chose it as a destination this spring. It also continues to be the second most important fishing port on the French Mediterranean coast, the largest being the Grand port maritime de Marseille, and the largest in France at Boulogne-sur-Mer, in the Pas-de-Calais département. The most major contribution towards Grau du Roi’s tourism development came with the extension of the Nîmes – Grau du Roi railway line all the way to the fishing village, in 1909. The first part of the line was built in 1845.

While the marshes between Aigues Mortes and Grau du Roi are home to no fewer than 340 species of birds, the most iconic are their pink flamingoes! I’ll be taking that same railway line from Nîmes to Grau du Roi, and am very much looking forward to the sights along the way. France’s national railway company, the SNCF, also promotes tourism in the area, a ticket costing only a single euro. I’ll also have the opportunity to ride an even older means of transportation, and one that also represents Camargue: the Camargue horse. We’ll have a two-hour ride along the beach at sunset.

For more on visiting Grau du Roi, visit their Office de Tourisme’s website.

La ratapignata

Posted in Nice at 12:17

Siás pinhata, siás pirata,
Ratapinhata, vòla lèu.
Jànluc Sauvaigo, ‘Gigi Pantai’

In French: Tu es pignate, tu es pirate, vole vite ratapignata. To the difference of the original Nissart word order, this rhymes when spoken with a southern French accent, where a final ‘e’ is usually pronounced much like the vowel ‘a’ in the same accent.

In English: You’re a pinnate, you’re a pirate, fly, fly, ratapignata. I preferred to repeat the ‘fly’ since in English it already carries the sense of going quickly; fleeing. You may also have noticed a similarity with the Spanish piñata, and indeed, pignata/pinhata is prounounced the same, however, the Latin roots are different. The Nissart (Niçois language) “pignata” has the same root as our English “pinnate“, which is the Latin pinna, “feather”. Piñata, however, comes from the Latin root pinea, “pinecone”.

If you’ve guessed “feathered rat”, you’re very close (it is the literal translation) – the ratapignata is the “flying rat”, the bat, chauve-souris in French.

The ratapignata of Nice is not well-known outside of the city, and even articles on it in French tend to diminish its importance, due largely to its status as a symbol of imperial resistance. Nice’s history is also unfamiliar to non-Niçois, though I’ve mentioned it before on my blog: Nice was once part of the Duché de Savoie, which was not French. It only became part of France just over 150 years ago, and under rather suspicious circumstances – the ballot was stuffed, with people long dead mysteriously voting to become part of France, and votes against the rattachement oddly being lost. Even before that, however, Nice’s place in Savoy was the result of conquest; the Comté de Nice had been a semi-autonomous member of the Comté de Provence starting in the 12th century, after the fall of Rome.

While most French articles about the ratapignata start with the Carnaval of 1875, the black bat has been a counterweight to the royal eagle for much longer than that. Indeed, as this excellent article in French by Niçois Eric Fontan notes, it symbolizes the power of the people, being the eagle turned upside down. With its wings open wide, to the difference of the more restrained eagle, it is also said to represent the desire of Niçois to take an active part in their city’s affairs.


Fontan’s further remarks on the symbolism are interesting: “On the one hand, there is the red eagle, representing light, day, the sky, the masculine principle, courage faced with the sun, elevated spirituality. On the other hand, there is the black bat, representing resistance, shadows, night, earth, the feminine principle, perspicacity in darkness, and the strengths of the occult. Taking a wider view by comparing these to life principles found in early religions, the eagle represents all that is grand and the bat all that is small; one could also say yang and yin. These two figures are indispensable for harmony in Nice’s society. They complement one another.”

For these reasons, as well as my childhood familiarity with bats in Oregon, I was happy to be able to help this little one out of danger from Susu on my patio this morning. Once the cats and I were inside, la petite ratapignata climbed up onto the wood rafters, where she’s now resting. There are plenty of insects to keep her fed, and she showed she was alert by flicking her ears when I took her photo asleep, so hopefully she’ll be fine.

Ratapignata in safety

An update as it passes 10pm here: Miss Ella the Ratapignata is waking up now and chirping contentedly, quite different from her panicked shouts this morning. Susu didn’t pick her up by the mouth, so hopefully there’s no risk of infection, and the small injury on her wing should heal since the membranes do grow back – the UK Bat Conservation Trust website has been very informative. I’ve also checked with our local environmental organization to ask about bat houses, so that I can put one up for Ella. Bats return to the same roost, so it’s important for her and any others in the future to be protected from my cats. In the meantime I won’t let the cats out while Ella roosts unless I’m able to be there to keep an eye on things. The kitties have plenty to do inside!

Heritage days

Posted in Education, La France at 21:17

Avenue Marius Raveu

Over this past weekend in France were held the journées du patrimoine, heritage days. Many museums and historical sites were open for free, and some had special tours. I once again sacrificed outings for my thesis, mainly because I’ve been to most of the places already, although I have yet to see the inside of the Villa Arson. Improving the French language in my thesis before printing it today was much more important, however! My defense is scheduled for next week – I am starting to feel more nervous, but also looking forward to talking about my research and writing.

After printing and binding my 155-page tome (volume), I went to deliver it, having taken the afternoon off to do just that. I got off a few bus stops too early, so decided to walk to the Université de Nice to deliver copies of my thesis to the two jury members’ mailboxes rather than take the bus. UNice, as it’s also known here (not spoken UNice, but written), has several campuses in Nice, as well as in Sophia Antipolis. For literature and languages, the faculté (college) is at Campus Carlone, located on a hill. I started at the Fabron musée d’art naïf and walked up a narrow road with switchbacks. It was nice, as it ended up being my own sort of heritage day! I had been unfamiliar with that part of Nice until now, and enjoyed visiting.

Above is a street plaque I crossed. I searched for Marius Raveu online, and found the best information gathered together in this French WWI history forum. Raveu flew bombing missions in WWI, was awarded the croix de guerre and continued as a civilian pilot afterwards, “beating several records”. He died in an airplane crash at the end of 1925.

I also passed a few beautiful villas, including one with gorgeous iris frescoes beneath the eaves (taken with my smartphone, so the quality isn’t great, but you can see their complexity by zooming in). I love these under-eave frescoes here.


Posted in La France, Nice at 17:00


Ma cérémonie d’accueil dans la nationalité française took place on Friday, in the palais préfectoral located in Vieux Nice. The “prefectoral palace” was formerly le palais des ducs de Savoie ; le palais des rois de Sardaigne. Just 150 years ago, Nice was not part of France, but part of the duchy of Savoy, which later became part of the kingdom of Sardinia, thus the dual names for the palace. Although the palace is open to visit a few times a year, I’d never been inside, so it was quite a treat to experience the richly decorated salle des fêtes (festivities hall) firsthand.

About a hundred brand-new French citizens residing in the département des Alpes-Maritimes had been invited to the ceremony, so it was quite large, and long. The sous-préfet began the ceremony with a nice speech, then we stood to sing La Marseillaise. After that, we were shown a short film entitled “Devenir Français”, which gave a very brief history of la République Française, the Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, some background on the French republic’s values (and official motto) liberté, égalité, fraternité, an additional bit on laïcité, and finally, a rather jarring sequence of ground, air, and naval war scenes with running commentary about how we could be called to defend France.

Once the film had finished, we were each called by name to shake hands with the sous-préfet and our city’s representative, and receive our new papers. There was a verre de l’amitié (“friendship toast”) afterwards, but as we’d all arrived at 8:30am and I was finally called at 11am (they went in alphabetical order), I didn’t hang around to see how it went. Neither did many others – it was kind of a shame that they had invited so many of us at once, since a smaller group would have been more conducive to meeting people. Even the préfecture staff commented on how the group was a bit too large, so I got the sense that they’ll be on a smaller scale in the future.

Upcoming celebration in Nice

Posted in La France, Nice at 17:38

Politiquement incorrect
300-odd years ago, Nice was not part of France, but part of the Duchy of Savoy, and later the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. Duchy of Savoy territories were the last to join France, their annexation in the 1860 Treaty of Turin ratified by a hotly-contested vote that is still the subject of debate today. Calls for secession from France continue, by authors such as Alain Roullier and groups like Liberà Nissa and the harder-right Nissa Rebela, which I photographed for a “politically incorrect” topic in a recent competition here. (The winner was a photograph of someone using a French flag as toilet paper, to put it politely. When that caused an uproar, the winner was stripped of their prize, which was then given to a photograph of a pregnant woman holding a burning cigarette in front of her stomach. All I can say is that if those were the types of photos they were looking for, I’m glad I didn’t win.)

Amidst this debate, celebrations for Nice’s 150th year as part of France are set for this weekend, beginning Friday evening with a traditional bell-casting for the Notre Dame church here. Festivities will end with a flyover by the Patrouille de France on Monday, the day the French flag was raised over the Palais des Ducs de Savoie, today known as the Palais de la Préfecture in Vieux Nice (Old Nice). I’m going to try to make it to all the events and hope to blog them every day from this Friday to next Monday.