“Erm, excuse me? How do I get out?” Not exactly the kind of question I usually find myself asking in art galleries, but then again, Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts isn’t exactly typical of its kind. Sure, its in a fancy building with two wings, au style Louvre, and its curators may well have had its Parisian cousin in mind when they planned its layout, arranged more or less chronologically and grouped in schools. Unfortunately, what they hadn’t foreseen was that the majority of visitors would come here looking for the impressionist works hidden in room 30 of the second floor. And since the quality of the other stuff is pretty variable, it can feel at times like you’re being held to ransom: you’ve got to endure the misproportioned Jesuses (or Jesi?) and blurry apples just to make it to Monet, Sisley and co.
But the really bizarre thing about the Musée des Beaux-Arts was how empty it was. I was there in the early afternoon on a Saturday in the school holidays, and there were more people eating their sandwiches on the benches on the square outside than looking around the gallery. The guards/ guides had a selection of books, iPods and sneaky ways of getting three of them in the same room so that they could have a chat, just to pass the time. Now you don’t see that in the Louvre, do you? As for getting out… Let’s just say it wasn’t as easy as you might have thought…
I’ve also realised that I’m becoming a bit of a Dutch fan too… This is a bit weird, since the thing I really like about Rubens, Jordaens (and not ‘Jordan’s’, the breakfast cereal, as my spell checker would have it…) etc is the complete opposite of the Impressionists. With the Dutch guys it’s how vivid everything that they paint is: even when it’s a really murky indoor scene, the faces are always beautifully lit and kind of pull you in. That and all of the little details: it can be a massive painting with twenty odd figures in it, yet each of them has their own expression that suggests a personality, and they’re often doing something completely unrelated to the main image. I’m just impressed that they could think of ideas for them all, let alone paint it! With the Impressionists it’s how they turn all of those blurry blobs into an actual picture. There are two completely different Monets at Rouen: one is a pale pinky morning scene over the Seine, all fuzzy outlines that form into the kind of idea of a misty morning, whilst the other is the rue Saint Denis in Paris on a festival day, which just looks like a load of red and blue blobs until you actually step back into the next room. I love them both. (Special mention for the Caravaggio as well, and the slightly scary yet beautiful Jeanne d’Arc hearing voices).
Feeling a little shell-shocked by this whirlwind tour through about 6 centuries of art, I stumbled out into the sunshine, only to discover an enormous group of zombies, ghosts, witches, men in dresses and people with assorted ‘scary make-up’ walking down the street. It appears that Rouen has some kind of Halloween parade thing… Oh, and there was a brass band too: not sure if was related. I just hope the zombies didn’t end up in the photos of the couple who had clearly just got married at the town hall…
Having escaped into a blacksmith’s museum (impressive collection of locks and keys, scissors and waffle irons, and a cool staircase even if it didn’t have steps more than halfway up (I think the point was to admire the banister…) and done quite a long detour round what was admittedly a very nice, peaceful garden behind another massive Gothic church (they have a cathedral! How many do they need?!) I was in need of sustenance. So what did I choose for this pre-Halloween week? A Réligieuse, of course!
They’re pretty common: basically a little profiterole on top of a big one, with glazed icing and whipped cream, so it looks like a chubby little nun. Well, it doesn’t really, but it’s a nice idea. It’s one of those things that I always fancy and then there’s always something more exciting/ exotic/ interesting that I choose instead. But I’m a bit behind with the Great British Bake Off, so in my world I’ve just watched a group of people competitively make Réligieuses, so I thought it was about time I ate one myself.
Not a bad decision either. I went for a coffee one (they come in coffee or chocolate, although I did once see a bright pink one somewhere: strawberry?), which meant that not only was the icing coffee flavoured (although not very strongly: it was more like very sweet, very milky coffee than an espresso!) but the crème pâtissière filling was too! They had also been pretty generous with the filling, and the chou pastry was nice and crisp. My only objection was to the Chantilly cream stuff, which was a bit thick (in the Bake Off they assembled the nun then piped around her neck, whereas this one had clearly been piped and had her head stuck on afterwards) and was a bit solid and generally a bit weird. Oh, and how do you go about eating her? Head first? Body first? And once eaten does she become a martyr..?