from ancient to modern

Today we went to visit Olivier’s grandfather. Papy lives in his house in the countryside during the summer, but spends the winter months in a maison de retraite in Caen.

We took an early train from Saint-Lazare and arrived in Caen just before midday, taking the tram to Papy’s apartment. When we got there, Papy kissed us on both cheeks and immediately offered us whisky. The French take their apéritifs very seriously, but all that boozing before lunch just makes me want to sleep. Luckily, we didn’t have long to wait before making our way downstairs to the dining room, where we were served a three course lunch by the cheerful staff. I don’t know what retirement homes are like in the UK, but in France, the attitude seems to be that getting old is no reason to stop eating good food and drinking good wine. Amen to that.

After lunch, we went out for a walk and Papy showed us around the city. Caen is situated on the northern coast of France, and is full of history, much of which is due to its close physical proximity to England.

Many of its historical buildings were built during the reign of William, the Duke of Normandy, who was subsequently known as William the Conqueror after leading the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and became the first Norman King of England. (Olivier frequently likes to remind me of this.)

During World War II, Caen suffered heavy bombing, as it was the closest city to the nearby port of Ouistreham. It was in this area that the D-Day landings took place, and the city was one of the first to be liberated by the British, American and Canadian troops in 1944. (I frequently like to remind Olivier of this.)

As a result of the destruction caused during the war, Caen’s architecture is now a strange mix of ancient and modern. Being somewhat frivolous and shallow, I prefer to take photographs of the pretty bits.

Caen has two abbeys, the Abbaye aux Hommes (men’s abbey) and the Abbaye aux Dames (women’s abbey). Both were completed in around 1060, shortly before the Norman invasion of England. This is the Abbaye aux Hommes, which has now been extended to include the Hôtel de Ville (town hall).

Unfortunately we weren’t able to go inside the Hôtel de Ville or the Abbaye, because there was a mariage taking place in one and a funérailles taking place in the other.

This is a statue of Louis XIV in one of the main squares in the city. Personally I find it a little bizarre that the French have so many statues of their royalty everywhere, considering that they sent them all to the guillotine over 200 years ago. I think this was a hasty decision they now regret, which is why they take such a keen interest in the British royals. Olivier drinks out of a “Will & Kate” mug at work, and now all his colleagues want one too. Not even kidding.

The square is also home to various modern sculptures. I’m not sure what Rodin would make of these.

In the tiny, winding side streets, shops and cafes can be found in buildings which were once clearly town houses with stabling underneath.

I wouldn’t mind living here…

These are two of the oldest surviving houses in Caen, and probably the most extreme mix of ancient and modern, literally under the same roof.

This post would not be complete without a photo of the remains of the formidable Norman château

…and a view of the city from its ramparts.

Having completely tired ourselves (not to mention Papy) out, we returned to the apartment for another, well-earned drink.

Papy then showed us some of his holiday photographs. He has just returned from a European cruise, and was quite critical of the other passengers who were more interested in third helpings of Austrian cake from the all-you-can-eat buffet than the cultural day trips. (I decided not to mention that my parents recently went on a cruise, and raved about the all-you-can-eat buffet. They did enjoy the day trips too though! And anyway, who isn’t partial to a bit of cake? Ahem.)

When Papy showed us his photos of Syria in 2009, however, I got the impression that a cruise might just be a little, well… tame, by his standards. The pictures from Syria were beautiful, and it was pretty sobering to think that almost none of the monuments he saw and photographed four years ago still exist today. Caen may have its fair share of ugly 1960s architecture (which I decided not to document for your viewing pleasure), but the fact that so much of its ancient architecture has survived for so long is quite incredible.


3 thoughts on “from ancient to modern

  1. Pat(ricia)

    Thanks for sharing so much of your trip – I feel like I’m on a day-tour enjoying the sites. And I have to say this: your blend of historical information is just the *right* amount in my opinion, salted as it is with the images, and your personal feelings and thoughts of the company you are visiting with. Just the right amount of zest. Excellent! 🙂

  2. pépère the cat Post author

    Thank you – it’s great to get some feedback. I’m aware that people who like posts about baking might not be so interested in posts about history, and vice versa, so it’s good to hear that I got the balance right with this one!


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