When I was a student on study abroad in 2004, I spent a night in Chartres so that I could see the famous cathedral. I’d seen photos of it in humanities class at CSF (that mention may bring some nostalgic commenters out of the woodwork) and had harbored a persistent desire to visit ever since. Chartres cathedral, properly Notre Dame de Chartres, is much like France in general: it does not disappoint. Approaching it from the northwest by train was exciting–you can see it from a long way off, surrounded by fields of grain in the region called “France’s bread basket.”
Today I went with 4 students to see my friend Nicole and spend the day in Caen, in the Basse-Normandie region (lower Normandy, on the west coast of France). We left Cité U. at 7 am to get an 8:00 train from Gare St-Lazare. I was worried that we’d be late; in the end we were on time but the train was late! The weather in France has been very stormy the past few days and there were problems with loss of power on some lines. I’m not sure if that was the case on our train but in the end we were delayed about 45 minutes. The delay did not stop the students from sleeping through almost the entire train trip. I don’t blame them–trains are very relaxing! Nice big seats, quiet, pretty scenery.
One of the many things we learned a little about today was Vatican II and the liturgical reforms involved in it–such as moving the altar closer to the congregation and turning it around.
Now back to base (well, London base) after another great day touring around with Annabel. We went by bus to the City with our first stop in Spitalfields to see the medieval charnel house recently excavated there. No bones, but foundation, walls, etc. that you could walk right into through an unassuming grey basement entrance. English Heritage employees were on hand to explain the site’s history: the charnel house was probably built by a bishop’s wealthy patron in the period of famine after the Little Ice Age and before the Black Plague (i.e., early 14th century). At the time it was near the 12th-century St. Mary’s priory and hospital (contraction of “hospital” is where the first part of “Spitalfields” comes from) and stored remains from the churchyard so that graves could be re-used. The archaeologists found many bodies but presumably they are stored/catalogued elsewhere. It was amazing to see something so old and exciting to learn about it.
For dinner last night Annabel, Robert, and I went to Brixton Market. They live in Brixton, a diverse section of London that apparently has not always been a peaceful place to live but that has become fashionable in recent years. Brixton Market is “famous” according to Wikipedia and was voted the best local market in England (or some such) last year, but it is the opposite of a tourist destination. The market space looks very ordinary, kind of like the flea market on Eisenhower Pkwy. for those of you that know Macon. You would expect to buy cheap phone cases and flip-flops there. But when we arrived last night it was full of young hipsters, music playing, and a dozen or so (is it possible?) small restaurants of every description: Japanese, Mexican, barbecue (American-style BBQ in London!), burgers, Italian, Thai, etc.
Yesterday afternoon following an excellent Eurostar experience I arrived at St. Pancras station in London and met my very own Native Tour Guide, Annabel! (See “Annabel’s Travel Blog” over there in the sidebar? You should read that blog. Also her recipe blog and her sermons. Multi-talented, that Annabel.) We have known each other online for probably 10 years but this was our first face-to-face meeting and she and her husband Robert have been kind enough to let me stay at their apartment this weekend and show me the sights. Today we took a bus tour around London. Protip: take a public bus instead of a tour bus; sit up top of a double-decker one for best photos. Prepare to swing around a random, unassuming corner and have the Houses of Parliament jump out in front of you. We got off our bus near St. Mary’s Hospital where the media vans are all staked out awaiting the birth of the future monarch. No sign of Their Royal Highnesses; my hosts are betting that Kate will have the baby elsewhere and the St. Mary’s thing is a decoy for the press.
Spoke to a Parisian friend by phone today as we discovered this week we will not get to see each other while I’m here. That is a huge bummer but we have made a date for next year AND she gave me a bunch of recommendations for restaurants, parks, museums, etc. that are interesting but less touristique than what I’ve been doing so far. I suspect that as soon as a guidebook says an area is “less touristy” than other places, that area is immediately overrun. Anyway, it was splendid to be able to talk to her. We have also been trading text messages which is fun. It is so nice to be in the same time zone for a while! She is off for a much-deserved vacation soon and I get to hold down the fort here in Paris for a few more weeks.