From monks to Satie

Had a lovely breakfast and very interesting chat with Veronique this morning re the gite. She wasn’t surprised. We also found out that Veronique and Georges are Belgian. Veronique followed Georges to Africa where he worked in various countries. They have four kids who wanted to settle down so they bought this place and Veronique has turned it into a B&B. She is obviously a very hard worker but she also knows what her guests are likely to find comfortable and welcoming. We have been invited for a drink tomorrow evening before dinner.

Eventually we set off for the Abbey Le-Bec-Hellouin, just the other side of Bernay and nestled in a valley of the Risle River. So beautiful and peaceful. The Abbey was originally one of the most important centres of intellectual learning in the Christian world. Lanfranc, an early abbot, became the right hand of Will the Conq.

Le-bec-Hellouin chapel

Le-bec-Hellouin chapel

It suffered a lot during the French revolution so most of the original 11th century buildings are just little piles of nicely placed rubble – including a row of carefully exhumed sarcophagi, presumably once home to dead monks – but the whole place exudes such a feeling of peace and tranquillity that it doesn’t really matter. It’s more the place than anything built there.

As you stroll around the grounds, carefully dodging the occasional white robed monk, nature seems to welcome you. Cuckoos call from across the valley, the stream burbles along. Outside the austere chapel is a little sign declaring it a ‘zone de silence’.

The day was, for some reason, quite hazy so the woods beyond the Abbey were not looking their best but they did lend a sort of Hansel and Gretel air to everything.

After a long stroll we popped into the Creperie Rabelais en Touraine for a couple of galettes, a jus de pouvre and a Pelforth Brune. This last is a tasty, malty, dark beer.

Slowly walking back to the car via the church we were struck with how lovely the village was. People may think Beuvron-en-Auge is the prettiest in France but I don’t know. I reckon this place comes very, very close.

In the centre of the village is a small green divided into the Place William and the Place Mathilde which is a lovely tribute. Of course we read about the Abbey in our trusty Rough Guide but nothing could prepare us for the vision on leaving town: thatched roofs each with a line of bulb stems sprouting along the peaks – probably tulips and definitely odd. Have never seen this anywhere before. Pity the flowers weren’t out, it would have looked truly amazing.

And now for our worst stretch of driving! Following the Risle wasn’t bad but it’s when you hit Pont-Audemer that you suddenly realise you’re on the outskirts of a very big city (Le Havre) and very close to a huge motorway (A13 to Paris). I blame these extenuating conditions for our less than salubrious detour through the industrial heartland of Northern Normandy. Still, we didn’t get lost and soon reached the awful outskirts of Honfleur

Maybe it was the hazy day or maybe it’s just me but Honfleur was ghastly. Drab half-timbered buildings line car strewn lanes meant for people and horses. Always in danger of being a motoring accident can guarantee my having a bad time!

But (and this is a VERY BIG but) the Satie Museum more than compensated for it. Erik Satie was a surrealist who was born in Honfleur in 1866 and his house has been fitted out like a surreal journey into his mind. Utterly bewildering but strangely familiar. According to Cocteau, at Satie’s birth his cradle was surrounded by French and English fairies.

The interactive Menage by Patrice Ferrasse

The interactive Menage by Patrice Ferrasse

Lots of fun surprises like the self powered carousel which plays a lovely, joyful tune (Menage by Patrice Ferrasse) and the white room which sent a shiver down my spine when Gymnopedies started on the piano.

Apparently Satie, when writing music, would substitute the standard Italian terms like piano, pianissimo, dolce and mezzo-forte with others of his own invention like while watching oneself approach, with a fear of the obscure or astonishing and convenient. He said “Like money, [the piano] is pleasant only for the person who handles it.

As you pay your entry fee, you are supplied with headphones which pick up narrations in the different rooms which adds to the overall surrealist experience. This is a place where nothing is really linear. Definitely a highlight for me of our Normandy trip! The stroll through the house ends with a sit down in a little Paris salon, as excerpts from his stage/dance works are played on a little screen. All truly wonderful and very imaginative. I’d like to think that Satie would have approved.

Leaving this wonder world we once more found ourselves party to the choking confusion of traffic. We went to the church of St Catherine, notable because it is made entirely of wood and has two naves. Wood because stone was hard to come by and awfully expensive in the mid 13th century when the north nave was built so the town decided to pull down a forest and employ the ship builders to construct a temporary church. It was never changed. I think a better story would be that the ship builders thought they were building a ship and were stopped halfway up the hull which became the roof.

The church was added to when the south nave was plonked alongside in the late 13th century and of course they used the same methods. The result is that it looks like two upside boats on lots of wooden posts. Incidentally, the reason for the two naves is unknown. A guess, courtesy of the pamphlet, is an increase in sailors to Honfleur meant they needed to double the size of their church…so they did…literally.

It’s quite a nice looking church (though the wood makes it a bit dark inside) but the cigarette smoke from the local gang outside the main door tended to spoil it a bit. Actually Erik Satie learnt piano from Vinot, the organist here.

An odd, and completely unexplained feature of the church is the detached belfry. This is across the square from the entrance. Very strange. Love to know why. I’ve searched the Internet but can’t find anything other than the fact that it exists. Maybe if someone reads this who DOES know, you could tell me!

The standalone belfry of St Catherine's

The standalone belfry of St Catherine’s

We then walked round the old harbour part of Honfleur which was once the only Honfleur – I’m sure it was quite lovely then! Bought ice cream then returned to the car.

We decided to take the quickest route back to Orbec so hopped onto the sleek, new-looking motorways (A29 & A13) where our little Clio managed to get up to 140! Getting to the turn off to Lisieux, we discovered it was actually a toll-way. But for €1, who’s going to quibble, particularly when the Ponte-de-Normandie (the brilliant new bridge into Le Havre across the Seine) is €5 each way!! Okay, it looks fantastic but I have to say this seems a bit steep. Not that we care…we just drove under it then away from it.

Back at Orbec we went to the local deli and bought some ham and potato salad – not being very hungry – and retired to our room.

We no longer have the place to ourselves! There are two new lodgers upstairs in the Spring Room.

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