Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My pilgrimage to Rouen and that Joan of Arc fascination

My pilgrimage to Rouen and that Joan of Arc fascination
by rick olivares

The train ride from Paris St. Lazare station to Rouen is at most 1 hour and 24 minutes (and costs 50 Euros two-way). While going through the five stops in between stations (Mantes-La-Jolie, picturesque Vernon, Gaillon-Aubevoye, Val-de-Reuil, and Oissel — the train ends at Dieppe), I thought back to my younger days when my mother gave me this book of saints. 
There were about 10 saints featured in that children's book and one of them was Joan of Arc or Jeanne d’Arc (as she is called locally), the patron saint of France. 

I was fascinated with her story - a peasant girl who was supposedly told in a series of visions of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret to drive out the English and bring the uncrowned king Dauphine Charles to Reims for his coronation. Joan led the French, who had only known one defeat after another at the hands of the English and their Burgundian allies for years, to a great victory in Orleans. The French pressed the English and their allies winning more battles at Jargeau, Meung-sur-Loire, and Beaugency. They also inflicted a huge defeat on the English at Patay after which the Burgundian-held city of Auxerre surrendered without a fight. 

It was incredible that the Dauphine hand over his army to a peasant girl who knew nothing of military strategy. If you think about it, the French were in desperate straits. They had tried everything in trying to push back the English from French soil to no avail. 

Her subsequent capture at Compiegne and burning at the stake at Rouen greatly saddened me. Since the time I first read about her, I had this enduring fascination with St. Joan and her life. I devoured every bit of literature and saw ever film and documentary that was produced about her. And obviously, it was a lifelong dream as well to visit Orleans and Rouen, the two sites most associated with her outside the village of Domremy (now called Domremy-la-Pucelle) in the Lorraine region of France that is her place of berth.

And that dream became a reality a few months ago. 

Due to a hectic schedule, Orleans wasn’t in my itinerary, but Rouen in northwest France, was part of it. A day before, I went to the World War II battlefields in Normandy. With Rouen nearby, I knew had to comeback the following day.

Instead of taking a tour from Paris, I figured I could do it on my own. I have always had a good sense of direction and never get lost. I am adept at map reading that I sometimes joke that I’d make a very good commando.

I took the train from Paris St Lazare station to Rouen in Normandy. By train, it takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes; by car, double the travel time. I actually had only six hours as I had to return to Paris to meet up with my family (we were going back for a second day to the Louvre). Cut the travel time and I had only three hours on the ground in Rouen.

I was excited to go to Rouen. If I didn't have a short time frame, I would have enjoyed it more. And I wouldn't have taken a cab. From the train station, the first landmark I came across was the old tower of Rouen Castle where Joan was imprisoned during her trial. Seeing it up close, whatever elation I felt dissipated. In its place was a profound sadness. One I had not felt in a long while.

If you look at the tower, it has slits for windows. How on earth did the air get in there? It must have been oppressively hot and left one claustrophobic. And it is said that the guards took liberties with Joan and that leaves her even in a more depressing state.

From there I walked, first to the ancient Rouen Cathedral that was built in the 12th Century and contains several tombs including Richard the Lionheart (his tomb contains only his heart  while the rest of his remains are buried in an Abbey in Chinon, France). King Richard is another of those medieval figures who I read a lot about and just being inside the Cathedral gave me goosebumps. 

You know the feeling — reading about a historical figure who made a huge impact on the world and one who is centuries dead — it gives me goosebumps.

The Gothic Church is magnificent and I went inside to pray for a while.

With the clock ticking, I made my way down to Jeanne D'Arc Museum where I went to watch a short documentary about her. The city of Rouen makes no bones about its being a famous place (aside from being the old capital of the Normandy region that was once the seat of old Anglo-Norman kings who governed England and France). From ice cream carts to stores, images of the Maid of Orleans are everywhere.

Hurriedly and excitedly, I went to the village square (Place du Vieux-Marche) where she was burned not once but thrice by the English! The area near the site is filled with restaurants and an open area for people to lounge about. I started to scratch my head — where was it?

Then I found the site that is marked with a massive iron Memorial Cross. Beside that is a garden with a sign that marks the exact spot where St. Joan was burned at the stake. 

When I got to the site, that wave of sadness I first felt at the tower? It had now enveloped me. When a flame sings my skin, I immediately retract myself, how much more when you cannot move and are burned to death? The pain must have been excruciating. It took a while before I could have pictures taken of in the area. I sat down and felt bad. I said a prayer for St. Joan then sat down for a bit.

I guess it is much like what I feel when I visit battlefields or burial sites knowing the amount of human sacrifice for an ideal. While at Normandy for the battlefield sites and cemetery, I was overcome with emotion, knowing thousands perished in the pursuit of freedom and the battle against tyranny. I felt the same way at Corregidor as it was mercilessly bombed by the Japanese during World War II.

And here at Rouen, after a near-lifelong dream to visit Joan of Arc’s death site, I found myself feeling sad.

I placed flowers at the garden then left. 

My tickets from Paris to Rouen and back.

The tomb of Richard the Lionheart

At the Jeanne d'Arc Museum

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