Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Sorry folks! I've been really busy these last few weeks and have tons to say, yet have not had enough time to get it all down on paper or rather computer. I have a nice block of time in the near future and hope to catch up completely.
A "chapelle" within Abbaye aux Hommes

So, I'd like to tell you all about Caen: the city that I'm currently living in. During World War II, Caen was occupied by Nazi Germany as were many settlements in France along the western Atlantic border. During this time Caen was heavily bombed by Allied aircraft resulting in near total destruction of the city. Unfortunately, this means that very few historic buildings remain today. Despite this, there are a few architectural gems that survive today which I enjoy immensely whenever I pass one by. One perk of the forced citywide renovation is that the roads were able to be widened and organized more efficiently. This makes travel by car and exploring on foot much easier. Still, I find myself longing for the grid system of Edmonton. It makes finding things so much easier! They also name streets and avenues here instead of numbering them sequentially thus making it hard to find shops and easy to get lost! In the face of this navigational problem, I have devised a way to keep tabs on where I am and where I want to go! Church Towers are the key. As there are so many old and towering churches in Caen, and in practically all French cities, one is usually close by anywhere you want to go. Better still, as these churches are some of the oldest buildings in the city, often all the newer construction was planned around them. While many of these churches were restored beautifully after the war, others were left in their bombed state as a somber reminder of what was lost. An example of one of these bombed churches is Eglise St. Etienne which can be seen to the right. Now, I am able to recognize near all the churches by the steeple as well as remember generally what is around it. I no longer get lost.

A skyline of Caen

As I mentioned earlier, the roads in Caen were redone and remade wider, yet it is hard to imagine how the current roads could be any narrower. Lanes are barely wide enough for one car and it is not uncommon to see cars straddling two lanes in the absence of oncoming traffic. As a matter of fact, the side mirrors on all cars here fold inwards to allow drivers to squeeze though narrow roadways and slide into tiny parking spaces. The French also seem to capitalize on space as much as possible. It's not uncommon to see parking spaces painted halfway onto the sidewalk allowing cars to rest with two wheels on the road and two on the walkway. Speaking of cars, driving in France can be described with a single word: Scary. They drive like maniacs! Weaving in and out of traffic, horns blazing narrowly missing pedestrians... In the main commercial centre, it's not uncommon to see a car making it's was through a sea of people - quickly. Taking all this into consideration, there are amazingly few to traffic accidents. I have not yet even heard about one let alone seen the evidence of an accident.

While it was hard to concentrate the first few car trips to anything but the frightening driving, I eventually started to notice the brands of cars here. They have Toyota as well as many other recognizable names but one new one struck me in particular and made me laugh: Citroën. In French, the word citron means lemon. Back in Canada, (and I assume the United States) one describes a very poor car as a "lemon." Perhaps this name choice is why I've never seen this car in North America. Interestingly enough however, Citroën is apparently a very reputable car brand in France which is known for it's inventive innovations in vehicles. Still, I chuckle every time I see "lemon" written on the back of a car. One other thing to note is that cars in France are noticeably smaller than those in North America not only by chassis but also in wheel diameter. I think some American cars would have quite a bit of difficulty negotiating with some of the narrower streets and slimmer parking spaces.

The two neatest things I've yet seen in Caen is the public bicycle system and the automatic shop. The public bicycle system, Veol, was implemented in an effort to cut down pollution and traffic. Caen and a number of other French cities have public bike racks where you can cheaply rent a bike 24hours a day 7 days a week! I'm sure my father, Paul, would love to see these. They're maintained about once a week so they're always in good repair. I'm itching to get a Veol card so I can try them out. As for the automatic shop, it's essentially a giant vending machine on the street where you can buy pretty much anything you could at a generic convenience store. One just pops in some money and enters the code of the desired item. We need some of these in Edmonton!

The Petit Casino 24: Roadside Vending Machine

Moving on, the information I was told on the weather here in Normandy was not at all overstated. It rains; and it rains a lot. There are many gag tourist items showing the four seasons of Normandy as the same: Gray and Rainy. This however is not quite true. There are many days when the sun shines brightly and one feels warm. The form that rain can take here is also interesting. Some days, it's merely falling mist that is just a little bit too heavy to be blown away. Another neat thing is how fast Norman weather can change. In Edmonton, when it rains in the morning one can be fairly sure as to how the weather will be throughout the day: Wet. In Caen, it can rain a little bit, stop, and be sunny for a few hours before a bit more rain falls again and vice-versa. I suspect these speedy climate changes are due to our proximity to the ocean. With all this rain, comes humidity. However, as it's never particularly hot in Normandy, the humidity is rather nice and does not cause you to overheat. This moist air has been wonderful for my lungs and great for my violin. She's sounding better than ever and I've received more than one comment on the quality of sound. I'm very glad I decided to bring her.

The Annual French Weather Forecast

Back to architecture. The churches here are amazing. All are mostly in the Gothic style but some of the older ones had been changed from traditional Roman architecture as can be seen from the rounded arches inside amidst the Gothic pointed ones. If you look to the right, you can see Gothic arches that have been built within the old roman ones.

Caen also has it's own version of the Leaning tower of Pisa. One of the churches in the middle of the city has a doorway and bell tower that have existed at an alarming angle for many years without change. This tilt occurred shortly after it was built. it is said the King who commissioned the Eglise St. Jean to be built did so in order to attain permission from the Pope to divorce his wife. He was rather contemptuous about having to do this and built it on a riverbed. The soft and sodden ground resulted in the tipping of the entrance and the bell tower above it. The doorway of Eglise St. Jean is shown to the left. Below are a few pictures of some of my favorite churches in Caen. If you would like to see more pictures, including the interiors, they are posted under the album "Caen" in the photo section of my Facebook profile.

Abbaye aux Hommes

Abbaye aux Dames
Eglise St. Pierre

With the above photographs, I'd like to include a little history. The Abbaye aux Dames used to have spires but they were knocked down during the Hundred Years War. Not having the funds nor the manpower to rebuild the spires, they instead put up balustrades. The Abbaye aux Hommes used to house the school I that now attend and served as a makeshift hospital during World War II. In order to prevent the allies from bombing it, the French used bloody sheets to form a large red cross on the roof during air raids. Interestingly enough, the greatest danger to these old churches today are the pigeons! They peck at the limestone and make it look like sea sponge. An example of this can be seen above Amid these churches are a few surviving neat old shops. The picture to the left is a tiny place where one brings antique books for repair. I had a nice chat with the owner during one of my lunch hours. (In french!)

During my first week here, I got to visit the infamous Château Ducal built by William the Conqueror (formerly William the Bastard and today known as William I of England) around 1066. There is a rather funny story concerning dear William, his castle and the two magnificent cathedrals built at the same time around it. No, William was not a particularly devout man who wanted many grand buildings of worship near his castle. He was a man who was seeking to bribe the Pope. For you see, William married his cousin, Matilda of Flanders, which was highly frowned upon by the church. In order to attain the forgiveness of Pope Leo IX (and God I suppose), William promised to build 2 cathedrals around his castle. These two cathedrals stand today as the aforementioned Abbaye aux Hommes (The Men's Abbey) sponsored by William and Abbaye aux Dames (The Woman's Abbey) sponsored by Matilda. William's tome lies within Abbaye aux Hommes and Matilda's within Abbaye aux Dames.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of Caen.

Ciao for now.


Anonymous said...

I love the picures of the churches - and who'd have thought of them as a navigating system! It sounds like you are soaking up the culture and history and having a great time!

Looking forward to the next installment - perhaps some fishing-related tall tales or beach pictures.

Ciao - Penny (Mom)

jo.lightfoot said...

Hey Alec - Nan just emailed me your news! Hawaii is going to be amazing!! Congratulations, you International Man of Mystery!