Caen, Capital Of Basse Normandy

The fighting of 1944 inflicted severe damage upon Caen, the capital of Basse Normandy and the town where I am currently staying. Much of the central area is taken up with uninspiring architecture from the post war period. I knew all this by simply reading my Rough Guide to France and an early morning run around the race course that is sandwiched between the city centre and the suburb where my hosts live did nothing to dispel the words of the guide book writer. Bland & white albeit quite imposing structures (very similar to the ones that make up the collège back in Falaise) dominate. Yesterday afternoon however, I did get a chance to see the city centre at close quarters and it revealed more than just the dreamscape of a 1950s brutalist architect. There is an old part to the town which appears to have come through the Second World War unscathed. On the western side of the central area the hôtel de ville looks out along a large formal garden and attached to its side is the former Abbaye des Hommes which makes for an interesting contrast of architectural styles. The abbey buildings are now part of the town hall itself so those of you concerned about the apparent lack of separation between the church and the state in this corner of Caen can rest assured that this isn’t some hotbed of anti-revolutionary fervour. The neighbouring Place St. Sauveur sits like a widening megaphone pointing away from the administrative centre towards the more commercial parts of town. Which is where we headed next. I was accompanied by Christel, the teacher at the collège back in Falaise and her teenage daughter, Nolwen. Shopping was on the latter’s mind and as we wandered she would occasionally venture into a shop to explore. This actually worked quite well as it gave Cristel and myself an excuse to simply stand in the street and ponder the surrounding area. As we made our way further and further east, the older buildings became fewer and fewer but the busy atmosphere of a partially sunny Saturday afternoon compensated for any intrinsic lack on interest in the buildings and places we were passing. We paused for coffee in the expansive Place de la République and then continued towards the Port de Plaisance on the eastern side of town. Caen is joined to the sea by a navigable 20 km long canal although the largest crafts that appear to make it as far as the centre of Caen nowadays are modest sailing ships including one that belonged to Jacques ‘Commandant’ Cousteau which boasts a strange tubular metallic sailing system that it permanently moored at one end of the inland post area. Having never seen anything quite like it before, the famous French mariner’s innovative invention clearly never caught on.
By this point our walking had slowed somewhat to a wandering pace and we gradually made our way south, past the corner of the race course where I had jogged earlier in the day and up the hill back to the house. The evening was spent once again back in Falaise with the family of the teacher who organises the exchange on the French side of the channel and my colleague from England who is staying with her. The 30 kilometres main road from Caen to Falaise is one that I and getting to know very well indeed…

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