20 Aug 2014
|We left the hotel in Caen a little later than anticipated, as our bags are starting to get quite heavy and we have lots of souvenirs to send home. We got a couple of boxes to send from the post office in Bordeaux, but had not had the chance to pack them and send them back to Australia before now. At least, not in a town big enough to have a post office remain open during the summer vacation period in France.
We had planned on going from the hotel to the large castle in Caen, then to the Abbaye-aux-hommes, but had to forego this as we'd taken longer than expected. We went straight to the abbey, as there was an English speaking tour starting at 11am. We got our tickets for this straight away, as the previous time I'd come to Caen, the tours were only in French, and didn't run until after I'd left town. They also closed the church completely outside of services and tours, as there had been some vandalism inside the church.
The tour itself was fantastic. Tess and myself were the only ones on it, as the other 12 people who arrived at 11am were French speaking, so they went on their own tour. The young girl who took us said she spoke 4 languages, and sometimes had trouble focussing on which one she had to use. I'm so jealous, as I can barely converse in two. Some would argue, one.
She took us into various parts of the Abbey, the first of which was the equivalent of a school. The monks in the Abbey had to remain in silence, in all but 2 rooms of the abbey This was one where they did not. It was where they could discuss and debate the scriptures. The monks were Benedictine, and had some very strict rules to follow. Of course, they had an Abbey because of William the Conqueror. Before he fought the battle of Hastings, William was the Duke of Normandy, and wanted to marry a distant cousin (5 times removed apparently) called Matilda. William was considered a bastard, and his father had died whilst he was quite young. His mother was considered inappropriate for William's father as she was from a lower class, so they weren't allowed to marry. This made things difficult for William growing up, as although his father had prepared everything for him to take over as Duke, others did not want it, and tried to assassinate him. He moved a lot whilst he was young. Matilda, was of a good blood line from Flanders.
William asked the pope for permission to marry Matilda, as the rules at the time said you needed to be 7 times removed before you could marry. William proceeded with his plans, and the Vatican said the only way he could be excused of this, would be if he built a church each for both he and Matilda. He picked Caen, which until that time, was an insignificant town. The two churches were built on either side of his castle.
The Benedictine monks that used the abbey aux hommes had difficulties and eventually had to flee during the period of the 100 years war. Many years later, there were some nobles who wanted to join the monastery. However, they were not allowed to keep their fortunes, nor were they allowed to experience comfort, so they put their money into rebuilding and enhancing the abbey.
The tour guide was fantastic at pointing out, how these monks kept to their strict guidelines, but would somehow bend a rule here and there. For example, in the lecture room, everyone was expected to stand. However, they had long flowing robes when they went into this room. The senior monks installed a little shelf, that was just high enough so that they could sit on it, whilst still looking like they were standing. This apparently, was allowed, as they did not want to damage the holy robes which they wore.
In the sacristy, the monks installed mirrors, which were forbidden in the church scriptures. Vanity was to be frowned upon, and looking at yourself in a mirror was the height of insolence. However, the monks installed 6 mirrors in the sacristy. They reasoned that the room was very small, and the only way to make it seem spacious and peaceful, would be to use mirrors to make the room look larger. They also used paintings above the very beautiful and ornate wood working, to paint a balcony, to give the appearance of more space. Lastly, above the mirrors were the image of Jesus and Mary. It would be acceptable to look into the mirror to see yourself, if Jesus and Mary were looking down on you.
Lastly, as I just mentioned, there was lots and lots of woodwork. The work itself was amazingly detailed, and the craftsman who did it, worked in the abbey for over 50 years, and he died when he was 70! However, the woodwork was there for an ulterior motive. It was not there to be an example of worshipping god. No. The monks were not allowed to have fireplaces to keep warm. They were to experience only the most basic amenities, and heating wasn't one of them. However, they did decide that by using wood to show iconography of their faith, it would justify them using it for insulation in the stone building.
We went through several rooms more, which had amazing paintings, and more and more of this hand crafted masterpieces of wood sculpting. We were also told that nowadays, as the town hall (equivalent of) uses the premises, and because every wedding in France must go via the state and the church, the abbey gets used for 16 weddings every weekend.
We got taken through the very pretty cloister. The cloister gets used nowadays for wedding pictures, but in the time of the monks, it was used as a garden, where they would grow medicinal herbs and other things. It was also a time for them to reflect with nature and its relationship to the heavens, however as the cloister means to “close off”, they could not see any outside people in this area. We were also shown a really, really funky bulletin board. It showed every duty that needed to be completed, and all the times of the day that it needed to be undertaken. They would simply put a wooden nameplate to each task, and refer to this wooden roster, to see what work they had to do each day. It looks so much better than anything I've seen on a fridge.
Lastly we were taken into the council chambers, which was a building that the monks had originally planned to destroy. You can see from the outside a door which leads to nowhere, as the monks had the staircase dismantled, but never continued beyond this (The French revolution intervened). We also witnessed a room under the abbey, which had a cider press.
The monks were allowed to eat bread, fish, and water, and any of the herbs etc they grew in their garden. They used the medicinal herbs frequently, as their diets left them suffering malnutrition. They were not allowed to eat apples. However, they were allowed to turn the apples into cider. How this fit with their Benedictine values, I am unsure. It was however, a very large and sophisticated press, which was powered by a donkey that would walk in circles to power the device.
At this point, our guide told us she had finished the tour, and would need to leave as she had to attend a meeting. However, I still hadn't been in the church. So I asked her, and she said anyone can go into the church now, it is not part of the tour any more. I was cursing myself a little, as I had really only wanted to go into the church for a single reason. I could have saved 90 minutes and got us moving towards Amiens faster! In retrospect though, it was an entirely worthwhile tour. I am incredibly glad that I got to go in and learn more about their lives, and what the abbey means to Caen.
We went into the church itself, which was in honour of St Steven. The sole purpose for wanting to go here, was inside the church, was the tomb of the man who built it – William the Conqueror. Unfortunately for William, the only thing left of him inside the tomb, is one femur. Our guide told us that after his death, his tomb was pillaged, and the bones were taken and scattered around Caen. They do not know where. Nor is there any records, which would show people what he looked like, only that he was known to be very tall for the day (about 6' 2”). I was very happy to be able to walk in and see the resting place of one of histories most notorious and illustrious figures.
Outside the abbey, I took a look at how it was constructed. I knew from the appearance that the bottom levels were Romanesque in style, and that the Benedictine monks had expanded on this during the 11th century to add Gothic elements. The tour guide said that there was a “lantern”, which was over 100m tall. This was an area which allowed natural light into the abbey. However, the lantern was burnt down during the 100 years war, and never rebuilt. There is now a stone replacement, only 40m tall.
Given the abbey is still standing today is a bit of a miracle in itself. During WW2, the abbey was turned into a hospital. The patients and refugees there were so frightened it would get bombed, that some of them cut themselves with a knife, and used their blood on white sheets, so that they could put a red cross on the roof, hoping that it would save them from attack. It did.
Not the same can be said for the Chateau Ducal, or as it is now called the Chateau du Caen. This was the castle that belonged to William the Conqueror, and later his descendants. Tess and I went to visit this after the abbey, as we found the post office didn't open for another 90 minutes. We drove ourselves right into the chateau thanks to our trusty GPS. This was OK, as lots of other people were parked in the area. We hopped out of the car, and made a bee-line to the front of the castle, so that we could climb the walls and walk the ramparts. This was actually pretty cool, and made for a very good substitute for Carcassonne.
The front of the castle had a draw bridge, a moat, and on certain parts was very high above the ground level. So much so, that you could see over the tops of the buildings and into the canal which came through the middle of town. This must have been a fantastic observation area, to see if an attack was incoming, when it was built. After walking these walls, I took Tess over to the rear of the castle, as there was some very special archaeological findings here. The findings were the residence of William the Conqueror.
Although the walls are no longer in existence, you can see the foundations of each of the walls, and you can see where the rooms etc would have been. Tess and I went up to the very top level of the rear walls, via a very modern ramp and then a lift, to see this from up above. This perspective paints a much better picture of the size, and shape of his home, when he lived here (he did live in England for a large part!). Over beyond what appeared another moat, was an incredible keep, or “Donjon”. This keep was demolished during the French revolution, as part of a national decree to remove such buildings. It is a terrible shame, as the size of it, would look tremendously impressive if it were to exist today.
After our castle walk (we didn't do the fine arts museum, not enough time!) we headed back to the car, and I tried to drive us out of the castle grounds. There was a road that we came in on, and it had another road which extended beyond this to another gate. Naturally, I thought this was the way to exit. To get to it, I had to drive around a gardeners truck, who had parked half on the road. When I got to the second gate, I could see that on the outside of the castle grounds, was a series of bollards, which prevented me from going anywhere. So, Tess suggested I reverse all the way back up to where I was and go out the other gate.
I half agreed. I reversed for a short portion, but couldn't see the gardener nor all his tools properly. So I did a small “u-turn” over the road and a little bit over the lovely manicured lawns. I thought I would make a hasty getaway as it was slightly embarrassing. What was more embarrassing was when the security guard came over, hands on hips watching me complete the U-turn, shaking his head in bewilderment at my stupidity. Oh well, you win some and you lose some.
I got us back to the post office, where we sent off to parcels home. (Hope they arrive safely mum!) With Caen behind us, it was off to Amiens.