Thursday in Normandy
This was a wonderful last day for the Northern France part of my adventure.
We drove to Honfleur, which is a charming coastal village. We saw one of the few remaining all wooden churches in France and then went to the Eugene Boudin Museum. Eugene Boudin is Honfleur’s most famous painter who is also important because he inspired Monet to start painting outdoors. Then we had free time to roam the city, which is described as follows:
Honfleur is a city in northern France’s Lower Normandy region, sited on the estuary where the Seine river meets the English Channel. Its Vieux-Bassin (old harbor), lined with 16th- to 18th-century townhouses, has been a subject for artists including Claude Monet and native son Eugène Boudin. Nearby Saint Catherine’s Church is a vaulted wooden structure erected by shipbuilders beginning in the mid-1400s.
There are restaurants situated one after the other around two-thirds of the harbor. Very narrow streets, lined with cobblestone (as has been true of everywhere we’ve been in Normandy and part of Paris), there are lots of ancient buildings. A number of them around the harbor are covered with slate tiles to protect them from the damp.
I walked through beautiful paths lined with flowers, saw graceful fountains and lots of ship motifs on the buildings (since it used to be a very important commercial port). The day started rainy, windy and cold and quickly became just lovely, warm with a nice breeze. After walking for two hours, I picked up a salmon sandwich and soda at a store and sat by the harbor to have my lunch. By the time we were supposed to be back at the bus, I was anxious to sit on something other than concrete!
We drove to Versailles Palace which is gilded with real gold. Louis XIV considered himself the sun king and that theme plays out through the entire enormous palace, which has 700 rooms. All of the doors are gilded in gold with intertwined L’s for his name and etched suns. The palace is made of marble from many different countries, there are colorful pictures and murals that cover the walls and the ceilings- predominantly depicting Louis and his glories, accomplishments and wars won and different Roman gods. The walls of his rooms are lined with silk.
Some stories about Louis XIV. He became king at age 5 and reigned for 72 years! He was a handsome man with great legs (!) who loved to dance. He had several mistresses who bore him at least 11 children, but he outlived his children and his grandchildren. Louis XV was his great grandchild and became king upon Louis XIV’s death.
Louis XIV established an elaborate court etiquette that had the aristocracy, including rebel princes, vying to participate in his rising and retiring. The greatest honors bestowed on nobility involved watching Louis XIV wake up (as the sun rose), take a bath, relieve himself (you had to be in the most intimate circle to have this honor!), get dressed, eat his meals, play games and dance at parties. If you didn’t come to the evening activities, you would get a letter from the king that sent you to prison.
Louis was meticulous and his extensive gardens are designed in geometric shapes. The gardeners would mow the lawn and then use scissors to make sure every blade was even. If even a weed appeared in the garden, whoever was responsible would have his hand cut off.
Louis XIV wanted orange trees and so hundreds were planted in pots and in the winter they were brought into the palace, watered and kept in good condition before they could be taken back into the Orangerie. There were also greenhouses in which flowers of every color were raised in pots. When Louis XIV entertained, if the visiting female liked pink, for example, Louis XIV would send out the word and in 24 hours all of the flowers in the gardens would be pink.
Each room in the Palace of Versailles takes your breath away with its grandeur, the rich colors of the wall hangings, the murals, the statues, and furniture of the day- its opulence. The Hall of Mirrors has the original mirrors along one wall (no one in France had ever seen mirrors larger than a small compact. Louis XIV sent artisans to Italy to learn how to make the mirrors-) and many chandeliers that were lit with hundreds of candles and reflected off of the mirrors. Just incredible.
Louis XIV always had a favorite mistress, who would sit on his right during dinners while the queen sat on his left. The king’s first true love was Mazarin’s niece, Marie Mancini, but both the queen and the cardinal frowned upon their relationship. Louis XIV was ultimately directed into a marriage that was a political, rather than a romantic, union by wedding the daughter of Spain’s King Philip IV, Marie-Thérèse, in 1660. The marriage between the two first cousins ensured ratification of the peace treaty that Mazarin had sought to establish with Hapsburg.
Marie-Thérèse gave birth to six of the king’s children, but only one, Louis, survived past the age of five. Louis XIV, however, had a healthy libido and fathered more than a dozen illegitimate children with a number of mistresses. Mistress Louise de La Vallière bore five of the king’s children, only two of which survived infancy, while her rival Madame de Montespan, who eventually became the king’s chief mistress, gave birth to seven of the monarch’s children. Louis XIV eventually legitimized most of his children born to mistresses in the years following their births.
Madame de Pompadour was the long-standing mistress of King Louis XV of France. Even when she was replaced by younger women, she continued to be his closet political advisor- so she was incredibly powerful. But that is another story.
Jumping over Louis XV, who wasn’t very remarkable and reigned only a short time, let’s talk about Louis XVI. He was the king during the American Revolution and sent Lafayette and troops to assist the colonies because he hated England and he wanted to establish good diplomatic relations with the emerging country.
He was married to Marie Antoinette when he was 14 and she was 13. She was an Austrian princess who was driven to France and at the border, they removed all of her Austrian clothing, took away her Austrian puppy, dressed her in French clothing and had her bid goodbye to her friends and family.
She never wanted to be Queen, nor did she want to live in Versailles. Louis XVI built her a small cottage and farm, where she lived and liked to herd the sheep. She never said “let them eat cake” nor was she responsible for putting the country into debt with any extravagances. But the people needed someone to blame and they hated her for being Austrian.
Louis XVI had actually signed an agreement to support the French revolution, expecting it to result in a King and an assembly that co-ruled. However, Marie Antoinette wanted them to go to Austria so that her family could protect them. Unfortunately, they were stopped and put in prison and ultimately beheaded.
Please google: photos of the interior of the palace of Versailles to get a sense of the opulence. Again, I’ll send my photos when I get back to Madison.
We drove back to Paris and had a lovely final dinner together tonight. Tomorrow, very early, five of us will take the train to Avignon where we’ll begin the next adventure: the South of France.