Thatched Roof Circuit in Normandy

Thatched roof cottage at Vieux Port, Normandy
  Norman rusticity is an iconic part of the myriad charms of Normandy and France. Few aspects of the French Hexagon attract the visitor’s attention as much as the appeal of simple life in the countryside of Normandy, replete with its own identity, cuisine, culture, way of life and economy. That is one reason why we offer our Private Normandy Villages Tour, An important facet of that appeal is the rustic architecture of Normandy. If you wanted to find an architectural style that has less in common with contemporary urban architecture in the West, you would be hard-pressed to find something so different and at the same time so appealing. Picture the difference between sky-scrapers and thatched cottages of only one or two stories. It is an architecture that uses the most abundant building material available, thanks to the Rouvray Forest, large remnants of which still blanket much of Upper Normandy and the Ile de France. It provided cheap beams of wood for what is called half-timbered buildings. The beams provided the skeleton of the structure and you filled the spaces in between with whatever was available, often stones, bricks, or simply mud, even cloth. If you were building one and you had means, you might make the foundations of stone and cap it with a tiled roof.  
Substantial thatched roof dwelling, near Aizier
  If you were poor, you dispensed with the stone foundation, or maybe replaced it with wood or ceramic tiles, and you substituted the tiled roof with something that costs much less, and which you could gather yourself in the abundant marshes of the vast near-by Vasnier wetlands west of Rouen: reeds that you cut in long bunches and tied together to compact them to the point that they provided both thermal and waterproof isolation. That you were poor did not by itself mean that your thatched roof cottage was a less comfortable dwelling. People living in them today extol the many virtues of the thatched roof, claiming that they keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Many swear that they sleep far better under a thatched than under any other sort. Their main worry today is the scarcity of artisans who know how to replace thatched roofs. As resilient as they are, they need to be redone about once every hundred years, and the number of workers skilled in making or repairing thatched roofs has diminished drastically over the centuries. The appeal of thatched roof cottages was strong enough to capture the imagination of one of France’s stars of sophisticated elegance, Marie Antoinette. When she responded to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s appeal for a return to simple living, she dispatched her favourite architect, Richard Mique, on a mission to study Norman peasant architecture and to recreate a Norman village within the park of the Petit Trianon in Versailles. That became her private Disneyland of the time, and it can still be seen, mostly intact, at the Domain of Marie Antoinette: It is currently being restored and visitors to her domain will soon be able to enter them. The next time you travel through Upper Normandy, consider a detour off the A13 super highway and drive to Notre Dame de Bliquetuit and then to Vieux Port, where you will be charmed by many thatched roof dwellings, especially in the region between Vieux Port and Aizier, where there is a remarkable concentration of them. This exploration can easily be combined with other sites of interest in the neighborhood, such as the great abbey at Jumieges, Honfleur, or Rouen itself  
The church at Jumieges Abbey
  You might plan to spend the night in the region. In Jumieges there is a perfectly comfortable yet inexpensive four-star hotel, Le Clos des Fontaines. Within a short walk from it, you can dine at a pleasant country inn, the Auberge des Ruines, although it is now closed for the winter and reopens in May. The Seine River meanders through much of Upper Normandy, and the method chosen by most travelers to cross it is usually one of the many bridges, some of which charge a toll to cross. Unless you are a local, you probably will not be aware of the fact that local taxes support a free method of crossing the river: ferries, of which there are several at different points of the river. If you are near Jumieges, instead of driving to a bridge such as the one at Brotonne, you can take the free ferry, with your car, at Jumieges. It is a lot more fun, takes about ten minutes to drive onto and another ten minutes for the crossing and it is one of the many compensations for all the taxes you pay when you are in France. There is absolutely no charge, and there is a crossing about every half hour during most of the day, until night falls.         S.A.    


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