Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Morning in Mantes

1st sights of Mantes-la-Jolie: a blocky factory with two tall smokestacks. Shanties by the side of the railway. A freeway. The trees are green not with leaves but with moss and algae. The factory building turns out to be the electric company. Another nuclear plant? If so, it’s not the usual design. They might be turning oil, not atoms, into electricity there. More industrial territory. Rust. Litter. Not very jolie at all!
Maybe it’s just this grey tail-end of winter, no leaves anywhere yet and no sunshine that makes it all so ugly. The weather people said it would be nice out today, adding to the disappointment that it isn’t. That and the industrial corridor approach to the city mean I get off on the wrong foot for my little day-trip to Mantes.
Fortunately, French railway stations are always right downtown, or just next to downtown, so you’re not starting off in the middle of nowhere. This one is a short walk from the center of things. I kind of want a coffee, it being chilly out and the hour of the usual mid-morning coffee break. But I also want to get going, stretch my legs after more than an hour on the train. The lack of any enticing spot to indulge my coffee craving means it’s time to walk around.

Not much is happening this March Wednesday. There’s a market going on in one of the central squares: a few greengrocers and all kinds of cheap polyester clothing. I would pick up a scarf, because the wind is rather biting and expecting good weather I left my wooly one in my room, but nothing interesting is on offer.
So how about the town? There’s a nice tower, or the remains of one, in the old town. The 16th century Tour St Maclou is all that is left of an 11th century church. The signs say there used to be a herring market out front of it, too, the fish brought upriver on flat-bottomed boats. No herring today.
At the bridge over the Seine there’s a great view of the cathedral, the front left quarter draped with scaffolding, the newly cleaned towers rising above the town. Flanking the bridge on tiny patches of lawn are the Dogs of Mantes. Man’s best friend, symbol of fidelity, the dog has been the symbol of Mantes since the 15th century. This is what Henri the 4th said about it: «Messieurs de Mantes, je n'avais aucune inquiétude pour vous, bons chiens reviennent toujours à leurs maîtres». (Good Sirs of Mantes, I had no worry for you ; good dogs always return to their masters). I’m not sure I’d be thrilled to be the dog of the masters!
The larger-than-life statues are good, solid, happy dogs. They look like a labrador on the left and a bloodhound on the right, ready to go for a walk. On a leash.

Across the water, the gardeners are out in force in the riverside park, picking at the newly installed pansies and fertilizing the hedges. The paths are bare, the birds are just arriving, and the skate park & playground empty. Prepared for spring. Come on, already.
On the river, the barge Gymkhana motors past, putting up a nice white foam at its prow. A man is hosing the deck with river water. His green Renault is loaded for the trip. He’s headed east. Upstream, or down? Hard to tell – his wake is the only disturbance on the water.
A flower tossed in the river drifts ever so slightly east, then stops, undecided.
Another barge, the Lem. This one has a white car and a large black dog. Also heading east. Upstream, I think. Must be. On the train we kept the river to our right, and and going east is going back to Paris.
Alas, the riverside path on this side doesn’t go all the way to the next bridge, and I have to –the horror!- backtrack. There’s a rule against that, but the undergrowth is wet and impenetrable.
This river is a regular barge highway. Here’s the rusty Ponto, hauling sand, attached to the Mechta, more sand. Followed by the newer River, whose cargo is covered. Both feature living quarters (which is apparently standard), but neither hauls a car.
By 11:15 the sky is visibly blue, though not exactly clear. Vague shadows appear. There’s hope for a beautiful afternoon.
Finally, a barge headed west comes by. There must be some, eventually; they can’t all pile up in Paris. It’s the Nagaizamo, nearly illegible with rust.

The cathedral, Notre Dame de Mantes la Jolie. The multitude of saints above the triple double-doors are all wonderfully intact, except for their heads. These were all knocked off in the Revolution. It’s an anonymous pageant that plays out on the tympan.
Inside, empty but for the echo of a lone man on his phone. How a voice can fill these lofty spaces.
The windows are interesting, all different periods and styles. The west-facing rose window depicts the Last Judgement, but the figures are so small and complex that from the nave you can only appreciate the mass of color. The panel says that during one of its restorations, panels 4 and 8 were switched. Just in case you thought they got the story wrong (though who can tell, without a telescope?)
Most of the other windows date from the latter half of the 20th century – world wars being rather hard on all that glass. Some are abstract, some are traditional scenes from the bible, either in contemporary styles or mimicing other periods. Some of the portraits in the Navarre chapel might be originals, but there’s nothing that says one way or the other.
Outside again, there used to be a castle here, “much appreciated by kings and nobles”, providing protection from the Normans. I can’t find anything of it now except for the signs and the park, currently closed for repairs.
Looking toward the river, now there’s a barge. Big as two of the others together, the Smack, loaded with 10 red containers, a blue one, and a green one. At least, that’s what I can see from here. Plus a car and a motorcycle.
Time for lunch. Back later.

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