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Drop anchor in Normandy; The Great Escape Preview of spectacular tall ships festival Travel.

Byline: By Ross McCarthy

THERE are fewer more pulse racing experiences than the sight of a flotilla of tall ships sailing down a river.

And if you take a trip to France this summer a treat is in store because a whole fleet of these thoroughbreds of the sea will be coming down the Seine in all their splendour, passing under the newly built Gustave Flaubert Bridge and dropping anchor at Rouen.

It is all happening between July 5-14 when the city, for the fifth time, will host the Armada with spectators lined up on the banks of the river to watch the spectacle, while over the course of the 10 days a raft of entertainments are being laid on.

Guided boat trips touring around the ships will be available as well as the chance to go on board some of them and each night everyone will be able to enjoy a magnificent fireworks display.

Everything culminates on Bastille Day which marks the departure of the ships in a colourful parade along the Seine to rejoin the sea where some of them will travel on to Liverpool for the start of the Tall Ship's Race.

I have visited France many times over the years and explored many places although it was a long time since I had been to Rouen and my memories of this former capital of the powerful duchy of Normandy are vague.

Early holiday trips, arriving in the dark after leaving the ferry at Dieppe, parking on cobblestones next to the Seine, a hotel for the night and then, the next day, towards Paris and the South.

It had been little more than a staging post but during my recent visit I discovered this place, in the heart of Europe, which once rivalled Paris in importance, had a lot more to offer.

My route there was not via a ferry but by using Eurostar, boarding at its impressive new starting point, St Pancras.

No sooner had I finished my 'Express' breakfast we were going through the Channel Tunnel and after two and a quarter hours the high speed train was pulling into Gare du Nord in Paris.

A minibus then took our party to Rouen, halfway between Paris and the Channel and located in a meander of the Seine.

Visitors are offered guided tours of the city, which although having suffered significant bomb damage during the Second World War, has a well preserved historical centre with its medieval alleys and halftimbered houses, animated year round by numerous festivals and cultural or sporting events.

Rouen has also charmed many artists, in particular the impressionists, and at its centre is its magnificent cathedral, an inspiration for Claude Monet who immortalised its facade in a series of paintings.

Built over the course of several centuries American bombs destroyed a part of it which lead to 12 years of rebuilding but it still has its distinctive cast iron spire, the tallest in France, while Richard the Lionheart's heart is buried in the crypt.

Nearby is the Aitre Saint-Maclou, a large courtyard surrounded by half-timbered houses, dating from the Great Plague of 1348, which dealt a heavy toll on the local population and served as a plague cemetery.

In one corner there is a slightly macabre momento from the past, a glass case containing a cat's skeleton that was found in the walls.

Rouen is closely associated with Joan of Arc and in the Old Market Square a huge cross marks the spot where she was burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431 in the midst of the 100 Years' War which stands in front of the very modern St Joan of Arc's Church, its interior like a mini amphitheatre, its billowing wooden roof evoking the sea.

Shining sun-like above France's first pedestrian street is another memorable edifice, the Gros Horloge, its clock face with just a single hand indicating the hour. It was built when the town was granted the status of a city with the right to ring its own bells.

The city is a magnet for antiques lovers and is known for its fine cooking while those who come to Normandy can enjoy some of the region's excellent cuisine centred around some wonderful cheeses such as Camembert, Pont L'Eveque, Livarot and Neufchatel, and many different varities of apples.

Those looking to get away from the madding crowd can leave the city and enjoy some of the natural surroundings as well as beautiful gardens, chateaux and religious monuments.

At the Chateau de Bois Guilbert, owner and sculptor Jean-Marc de Pas has filled his extensive estate with soulful sculptures inspired by natural themes.

Some of the human figures have been posed by models while others are historical including the heads of the founding fathers of the European Parliament and there is a lute player serenading a wistful looking woman.

This is obviously a labour of love with several works in progress such as a maze-like structure which will eventually grow into a funnel, the visitor being invited to lie in the middle and gaze up at the cosmos.

North of Rouen is the Bellevue Garden at Beaumont le Hareng, a six hectacre park known for its collection of oriental Hellobores, while in contrast, near to Dieppe and overlooking the coast is the Bois de Moutiers at Varengeville-sur-mer, a house, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with an English style formal gardens.

In one of the meanders of the Seine is Jumieges which has a marvelous abbey described as 'The most beautiful ruin in France.'

One of the region's most famous produces is Calvados and those wishing to have a closer acquaintance with this apple brandy can visit the Busnel distillery at Cormeilles in the Pays d'Auge for a guided tour where it is lovingly distilled and bottled

I was lucky enough to get to taste three different vintages feeling it would have been rude not to have finished the glasses offered and that it was good insulation against the inclement weather, rain being a common occurance in this part of the world.

There are plenty of gites and hotels to stay at and if you fancy something a little bit special there is Le Petit Coq au Champs near Pont-Audemer, a pretty thatched, half-timbered hotel with a chef producing top class food.

And after sampling the delights of Normandy cuisine it might be a good idea to take a walk in the natural regional park of the Seine which follows the curves of the river and offers some some good vantage points to watch the Armada.

Getting there

Return Eurostar fares from London to Paris start at pounds 59 in standard class. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070.

Information about Normandy can be obtained at www.normandy-tourism.org and about the Eure and Seine-Martime counties at www.cdt-eure.fr and www.seine-maritime-tourisme.com. France Information Line: 09068 244 123.

CAPTION(S):

SINGLE-HANDED... the Gros Horloge and its striking clock face. SETTING SAIL... an armada of tall ships will be heading for Rouen in Normandy from July 5-14.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 28, 2008
Words:1182
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