An April 2004 trip
to Rouen by kjlouden
Quote: Joan of Arc sites are not the only attractions of Rouen. The capital of Normandy is a
vibrant city of color and charm (Renaissance, Medieval, and modern), and it has an
artistic and literary tradition.
We noticed the creative energy as we crossed a bridge and were compelled to stop to admire mythical statuary. A monument to the sea, the inscription refers to the ocean as "the father of adventure." This was a reminder that Rouen has had a thriving harbor since the Twelfth Century, an outlet for hundreds of years for the city’s faience earthenware, woolens, and other industries. Squares, bridges, and buildings are decorated with cherubs and nymphs, yet Rouen has made real history since the Third Century. It was made a Roman district, pillaged by Vikings, made famous by Saint Ouen and Saint Romain, home to the Dukes of Normandy, damaged by the Hundred Years’ War, occupied by English, and bombed by Allied Forces. In spite of all, the city has important monuments, a large medieval pedestrian area, an artistic and literary heritage, several museums, and colorful shops (outrageous antique shops).
A student population makes the town lively, but not as crowded as Paris. The city proper is 106,000, and the pace is relaxed with outdoor cafes, markets, squares, and quais. Part Renaissance, part medieval, a lovely backdrop invites outdoor activities. Rouen is known for its spires, an incredible number, and the city has been criticized for making those so high! It is also known for its crooked-timbered buildings, and these are "corbelled." (Each storey juts out over the one below it.) We shopped block after block of these, hundreds of them, many colorful, since the city stresses that bright colors decorated the timbers in medieval times.
One must see all Joan of Arc sites, even the modern church (Church of St. Joan of
Arc), a curious edifice worthy of a few moments’ study. (Try to explain
what the architect was expressing.) We
bought some fruit in the open-air market next to the church, the same Old
Marketplace where Joan was burned. Other sites associated with the Saint are the
Cathedrale Notre Dame de Rouen, Eglise St. Maclou, Eglise St.
Ouen, the Archbishop’s Residence, Musee Jeanne d’Arc, the keep
(donjon or tour), and the spot on the Place du Vieux-Marche or
Old Marketplace, where she was burned. Not a Joan fanatic, I enjoyed, nevertheless, the continuity of the centuries defined by these surroundings. These are sites particular to Rouen (dated in time to the English occupation), sites I couldn’t see anywhere else. But, Rouen has so much more!
The second feature is that the hotel is new--probably constructed at the same time as the
mall next to it. Every surface is fresh without age. Our room had new windows with
nice wood trim. Everything was immaculate, and the nice windows upgraded the room,
which was much larger than some I’ve seen in Europe, but still not huge. From our
bedroom window, we could see Eglise St. Sever, an attractive old church, just
across the cobblestone, and a colorful carousel in the square in front of the church.
Another window in our bath opened on hinges for fresh air, but the absence of curtains
on it created a problem. We felt compelled to cover the window with a towel when we
showered. We had simple furnishings: shelves beside the king bed, a desk and chair, and
wood closet. This hotel is suitable for people who don't require luxury or furniture. We were able to keep our room neat, and we could function.
The accommodating staff create the third good attribute of this hotel. Most speak English.
All will do whatever they can to make guests comfortable. They made us coffee by the
pot, instead of by the cup, and they let us get hot water and ice when we wanted it in our
own containers we could take to our room. Small decencies like this made us more
comfortable here than in more exclusive hotels that have no ice, only minibars, and no
coffee in the rooms.
The fourth feature is price. If you are a smarterliving.com member, you can book this
hotel through their website and receive the "significant organizational savings" rate of 39
euros. That’s unbelievable for this very livable hotel! We think we’ve found the best
deal in France!
We will stay at Comfort Rouen again. They have a restaurant open for breakfast and
again for dinner until 10pm. There is no pool that I could find, but the pool table in the
lobby might be appreciated by some. Front desk has walking maps of attractions.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 2, 2004
Comfort Hotel Rouen
20 PLACE DE IEGLISE
Rouen, France 76100
33-2 35 62 81 82
Attraction | "Notre Dame de Rouen"
The building was begun in 1145 with St. Romain’s Tower and was continued and altered
until the early Sixteenth Century. Over this span of 400 years, the style changed so that
lack of uniformity is obvious, but that is one of the main attractions of this cathedral.
Roman, Norman, flamboyant Gothic, and Late Renaissance are combined into a pleasing
symphony of styles, a UNESCO World Heritage treasure. It has been referred to as a
"fairytale of stone," an "elegant lacework," and a masterpiece of French Gothic. The
cathedral is so massive and so close to other buildings, we found it impossible to capture
a long view, so like Monet, we photographed mostly the west facade one bit at a time.
Details of stone craftsmanship are striking on the portals. Tympana depict the Passion
and Resurrection of Christ and the execution of St. John the Baptist.
Inside, the size of the columns is also striking. I was amazed at the stone filigree of the
library staircase and awed by the beauty of the Virgin’s Chapel. Stained-glass windows
in the ambulatory include some magnificent originals (Thirteenth Century). The one of
St. Julian the Hospitaler attracted Flaubert (whose father was the director of the hospital)
and was the inspiration for the writer’s Three Tales. Books have been written
about the comments and interactions of famous people who have had connections with
Rouen’s cathedral, but famous tombs told us much of the story of Normandy.
We had just visited Chenonceau, so the tomb of Seneschal Louis de Breze meant
something to us, as he was Diane de Poitiers’ husband. (She was also mistress of Henry
II.) Rollon, first Duke of Normandy, is also here, as is Richard the Lionhearted of
England--his heart. (Actually, the box the heart was in is in the cathedral’s treasury, but
his tomb is by Rollon’s in the chancel.) We absorbed all the history we could and then
marvelled again at the size and beauty of the church. A display concerning the windows
helped us to read and admire them, and another numbered display recounts the statuary.
Most famous are the incredibly beautiful statues of St. Apolline and St. Genevieve on the
arch of the Booksellers’ Portal.
Notre Dame de Rouen is open from 8am 7 days, and admission is free.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on May 2, 2004
Place De La Cathedrale
We didn’t have to venture out of the pedestrian zone to find dozens of bakeries. Their
treats were not loaded with sugar like American donuts, so we sampled a few different
ones each day. Little fruit and custard tarts with kiwi, strawberries, and more were
delightful, but I longed for a new discovery, as I make these at home. My favorite
whimsy turned out to be green on the outside and full of a delicious dry white filling. I
had the lady pronounce the name of this bobble, but I can’t remember it. I do have its
picture here, though, and many bakeries have them.
Shops with faience--the delightful, prim-looking earthenware Rouen has made for hundreds of
years--are numerous. Their window displays are absolutely alluring, so I had to gaze at
several. Even a souvenir tile was 30 euros, and most items were closer to 100 euros. A
small candy dish for 60 was tempting, but I didn’t want to carry it in my luggage. What I
will remember most about the shops in Rouen is how captivating faience can be in those
window displays. There is something in that earthenware that appeals to a childish
Antique shops amazed us with the quality of their furniture. Elaborate desks with
intricate inlay in perfect condition looked almost like museum pieces. I didn’t pay any
attention to prices in the antique shops because I wasn’t planning to ship home
furniture, but I wished that such pieces were plentiful in this country.
Other shops offer leather, collectibles, and art. Galleries have prints of Monet’s many
renditions of Rouen Cathedral, of course, as well as his and others’ paintings of the
beaches at Deauville and Trouville. I was surprised to see stamp and coin shops in this
My one purchase, other than those I consumed with relish, was at a clothing store near
the Great Clock. I can’t remember the name of the shop, but it had in the back of the
store a large assortment of silk and linen fringed shawls and scarves for 30 and 40 euros.
The prints were beautiful, but I bought a plain shawl I could wear pronto so that I could
stay out later in this exciting city.
Shops among the Timbered Houses
The museum is housed in part of the former public hospital, where the writer’s father
was director and surgeon and where the family occupied the lovely eighteenth-century
house, the wing where successive surgeons lived. The family’s apartment is separated
from the ward by only a glass door--and this is where the author spent his childhood!
Today, medical curiosities, anatomy texts, and a nineteenth-century copy of Rembrandt’s
"Anatomy Lesson" are displayed, and we are reminded that the young Gustave grew up
with an unusual dose of reality! But fantasy and superstition are also in evidence: a
phrenology display with skull; a craniology study with the real skulls of famous criminals
(including de Sade), proving that some folks are "born bad" (a nineteenth-century
concept, now discredited); and the bucket of Franz Mesmer, who pretended to be able to
heal with a "magnetic fluid" magically transferred from the bucket.
Cartoons and caricatures are displayed. One, published in 1869, is of Flaubert
conducting an autopsy of his heroine Emma Bovary. A large series of these demonstrates
what a great stir the novel caused. (Flaubert was imprisoned for something like
"offending public decency.") These were both funny and enlightening, as they revealed
the French finally making fun of themselves for their own prudery! There are also
serious portraits and busts of family and friends and an ink drawing of the father of the modern short story, Guy de
Maupassant, a friend of the writer.
There is much more, altogether eleven rooms, most of them medical in nature. One
room is set up as an apothecary with old "remedies" displayed in Rouen faience, which is
alluring, even in this setting. Other rooms deal with infant mortality, outdated birthing
methods and midwives, and revolutions in medicine in the Nineteenth Century.
We exited to the garden and enjoyed the display of 100 medicinal plants, all labelled.
We agreed that a guided tour with question-and-answer session would have been a better
approach to education on this major literary figure. I have pieced together a perspective
on the mind of Flaubert from my own observations in Musee Flaubert, but I
would have liked a more intense presentation, more like the guided tour of Hemingway’s
house in Key West.
We arrived at 1:15 and had to go find coffee for forty-five minutes, since the museum is
closed from noon until 2:00 p.m. It is a little walk from the other sites in the center of
the old town.
Museum of Flaubert and the History of Medicine
51 Rue de Lecat
To go where no architect has gone before!
I call it bold to fashion a church to remind us of a self-serving witch-hunt. No visitor can ever forget how the roof gently swoops down almost to the ground directly behind the spot on the marketplace where the 19-year-old girl was burned in 1431. Step back to the street and view the roof in proportion to the aluminum "stake" (cross), and you will see low, lateral flames moving horizontally at first to cover the tinder, Joan (the cross) still tall and athletic above it.
At this point, you will forget that she "heard voices," the most common excuse for discounting her. (After all, you will be seeing flames!) The artistic statement had to be bold to shock us from our twentieth century lethargy about young women, who are killed every day for no reason at all and then sometimes rationalized into oblivion!
"Leaping flames" above the marketplace.
Some yard sale and craft vendors had tables to the left of the cross beside the covered section of the market, and above their heads, the roof leaps up into a row of higher flames that could destroy the body.
In the indoor market, one can buy fresh fruit and food items the populace in Joan’s day might have bought here, but nobody can look up without being reminded of the young woman’s sacrifice. Looking to the center of the roof, one sees Joan’s medieval cap -- or is it a swirling, consuming fire?
Yes, the architect Arretche claims that he had "nothing particular in mind," but so did Hemingway when asked if Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea) carrying his mast up the hill resembled Christ with his cross. In both cases, the artists responded appropriately, for the final product of art is in the mind of the beholder. It is for us to communicate to the architect that his art has been successful.
"Voices," you say!
Films about Joan used to focus on the "voices" that told her to fight the English occupiers in Orleans. These experiments in staging fell short of expressionistic art and reeked of an uncomfortable spiritualism. I remember seeing them when I was a girl, unable to identify with a young woman who thought of nothing but fighting for her country’s reunification because of voices she heard. Now I hear voices, too, and I smirk at the mystification Hollywood attributed to the mundane metaphor.
The French National Heroine
In her day, the English occupied everything northwest of the Loire River, and everyone in the country seems to have been confused, worn down by many decades of fighting already in the bloody Hundred Years War. Nobody knew how to "take" this girl who heard voices. Even Charles, then Dauphin, when she went seeking him in Chinon, was hesitant to trust her to guard his passage to Reims so that he could be crowned Charles VII there (where all French kings were crowned). Adding to his, the rightful king's confusion, his mother proclaimed him illegitimate to weaken his claim to the throne. He had Joan questioned for about two weeks by theologians from the University of Paris, hiding in Poitiers since the siege of Paris and its occupation by the English. What a blundering, blubbering lot they must have been, those "intellectual" clergy who were still arguing about how many angels could fit on the head of a pin! (The nature of Metaphor eluded them.) They conferred with the Pope at Avignon about Joan, and they finally pronounced her "orthodox." (I guess this means they believed her voices were holy ones!)
No thanks from Charles!
So, she led the army that defeated the English for Charles at Orleans (suffered an arrow in her shoulder), drove them almost out of France, and escorted him safely to his coronation. He, a coward, owed his throne to her. His payment consisted of pronouncing her and her family "noble," but then he let her be sold to the English, knowing they would kill her. (Some accounts say he wasn't aware of the plan; others say he was.) He apparently didn’t want to have around this human reminder of what he couldn’t accomplish for himself.
The miracle of Hollywood.
What’s really miraculous is that the film industry has had so much trouble simply letting us empathize with Joan. The Church of St. Joan of Arc accomplishes more in an instant of viewing than the older films ever conveyed. They left us "troubled" about those voices, but the scene at the church reminds us of what is important to remember: a young girl was burned here! It isn’t about holy voices anymore; it isn’t even about Joan. It’s about us. How we perceive her is an indication of how western culture is maturing, and how we protect and preserve our young is the greatest measuring stick of any culture. Hollywood couldn’t quite put it in order, but Rouen has – "in one fell swoop," so to speak, one swoop of that roof. Again, Andre Maurois’ "combination of orderliness and fantasy" rings true for Rouen.
If the voice is Dustin Hoffman, it must be real!
The most recent film about Joan that I am aware of is the 1999 BBC production
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc that characterizes the voice as
"Conscience," the character played by Dustin Hoffman. We were lucky that it was broadcast two nights before we flew to France, and I’d advise renting it before any trip to Rouen. This casting proves that the film industry’s former effect was to make us discount the French National Heroine because of their overwhelming "spiritual" voices. Dustin we believe! This is different. And who could we believe more evil and self-serving than John Malkovich as Charles VII? It may not be great art, but the film follows suite with the new perspective on Joan that Rouen initiated.
Renovated Market Square.
Other aspects of the church and the Market Square, where it is located, support the same theme of new perspective, the working of art and artisanry on ancient and even modern history. The stained-glass windows in the church are from sixteenth-century St. Vincent’s church, bombed during WWII. The lawn is strewn with stones, used by visitors as handy benches, and these are the foundations of the Church of the Holy Savior, where Pierre Corneille worshipped.
Corneille was the author of El Sid, and his birth house is marked above the doorway one-half block down Rue de la Pie. Opposite the church conglomeration on the other side of the square, medieval crooked-timber buildings have been placed, moved here from other neighborhoods, and they in turn renovated. Among them is the oldest inn (auberge) in France, La Couronne, 1345.
Rouen is adept at re-ordering our memories.
While some purists may not appreciate the rearranging of the physical world in order to
create an artistic affect or a memory, it goes on all the time. We must appreciate that
Rouen is competent at this staging, and we must pay attention to it if we want to know Rouen. At least in all the moving, they haven’t totally forgotten where they put Joan’s ashes -- the sign on the bridge to St. Sever says "pres de ici" ("near to here"). There, you see? Everything is filed and labeled!
I immediately knew I’d consult my old history text (an English history) as soon as I got
home, and I expected that in the story of Rollo, I would discover much about the
beginning of the ancient province of Normandy, so important in the forming of both
England and France. I found even more.
"Go forth and Multiply!"
Rollo was a Norwegian Viking. Histories of these people surmise that a reason for their
raids over Europe from Russia to Italy may have been overpopulation of the narrow
fjiords, for they were polygamous pagans who multiplied like rabbits. Anyone who has
ever wondered why so many European royalty are related might be satisfied with the
answer that the Vikings--swarthy, ruthless, conquering--set out to rule the globe. A
partial family tree reveals only some of their influence on the English royal bloodline beginning with the Norman kings and continuing through the Plantagenet dynasty via
Mother of the Henrys.
Matilda, known as "Mother of the Henrys," was descended from Rollo. She was
daughter of Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy, wife of Emperor Henry V
of Germany, and mother of Henry II, first Plantagenet King of England, Duke of
Normandy, and father of Richard, the Lionhearted. Her bones have been gathered from
Le Bec-Hellouin and are also reposited in Rouen Cathedral. Note that she
was wife of the German Emperor Henry V, so a German line, too, would have
been connected to Rollo had not Henry V been the last of the German Salian Dynasty.
Through her son, Henry II, by her second marriage, she passed on a few of Rollo’s genes
to the Plantagenet Dynasty.
Tudors and Stuarts.
Next up on the English throne were the Tudors, and the first of them, Henry VII, married
Elizabeth of York, a Plantagenet, in 1486. In his attempt to strengthen the Tudor
claim to the throne by linking it to the previous kingship line, he passed a drop of Rollo’s
blood (via Matilda’s descendants) on down to Elizabeth I, who takes us to 1603. Then
through Mary, Queen of Scots, great-granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (the Plantagenet in the Tudor line) and her child, James I, the
Stuart dynasty still has a speck of Norman/Viking blood pulsing in royal veins until 1714.
That’s enough geneology for me, so I won’t try to link the House of
Hanover to Rollo, but I’ll bet a molecule of Norwegian Viking is in Elizabeth II.
The real mystery to me is no longer the origin of English kings, but why on earth I want
this brutal, uncivilized, overgrown, red-haired pillager of beautiful Normandy to have
sired all the kings of England! I also wonder why the sculptor rendered him in such
sweet, delicate white likeness, far different from what skimpy reports tell us
of his appearance.
"Pay me and I’ll leave you alone."
Vikings conquered with terror. When they killed a man, they burned his living wife on
top of his body. They could sack a city at night and get away in their state-of-the-art ships
before anyone could be organized to go after them. After doing this repeatedly, they
asked their victims to pay them to go away, and all the victims had left was their land.
This is how the Danes got the huge stretch of land called the Danelaw (northeast of a line
from London to Chester) from King Alfred in England, and it’s how Rollo got Normandy
from King Charles the Simple in France. Rollo’s ancestors had sacked Rouen in 841 and
Paris in 845. Forty-some years later, they threatened Paris with 700 ships and a force of
40,000 warriors. At this point, Charles the Fat gave them silver, bribing them to go away,
and he also gave them permission to pillage further up the
Seine--Normandy! In 911, Rollo forced the Treaty with Charles the Simple that
handed over Normandy to him. One tale has it that when asked to kiss Charles’ feet in
return, he sent one of his warriors to do it, and the warrior made such a violent mockery
of it that he knocked the King out of his chair so that all had a good laugh at the giver of
Even today, I believe we can see in Rouen remnants of the northern conquerors: the
harbor that is still fondly regarded, the monuments to the sea, the fine woolen industry,
corbelled timber homes, and a disregard for what is Parisian. Alfred the Great of England
and his progeny were able to reconquer the Danelaw there only by long planning
and ingenuity, but France had no monarch so strong, wise, and revered. The church had
more success with subduing the Vikings in Normandy than did any central government,
and so Rollo was baptised in Rouen, but still prayed to pagan gods and offered them human
sacrifices. Fighting feudal lords were far enough from any central government that
many "situations" degenerated into total anarchy, such as questions of whether underling
knights should be able to build those early Norman castles we love to visit. Lords
sometimes let knights build castles to bribe them into military service. In this way, the
lords paid homage to their Dukes (Rollo and his heirs) when called upon for service, and
many a castle privilege had to be given away to bribe knights into fighting with William
the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066. (Pre-feudal "loyalty" of a subject to his
king had evaded the Viking Normans!)
Fate dressed in Norse clothing.
England had thought they had driven out some and subdued the remainder of the northern
folk, and they had stopped the invasions for 80 years! But the Anglo-Saxons were
so apprised of William’s fierceness, they didn’t put up much of a fight at the battle of
Hastings in 1066. Besides, 25% of them were Dane by now! (They must have regarded their invaders as Fate, a force that
couldn’t be stopped and "still crazy after all these years.") Even by this time, one
and a half centuries after Rollo took over Normandy, the Normans still had no laws when
they invaded England. All they had was ruthless fierceness and great ambition. In
England, they didn’t luxuriate in the isolation that had sustained them on the Norman
coast, for the English embrace their conquerors! Land exchanged hands, and immediately
Anglo-Norman feudalism began as an absolute necessity to restructure the monarchy that
had been deposed. The Anglo-Saxon kings had been the best England would ever see.
(Alfred was the only one ever to be called "the Great"!) Now the institution of kingship
was forever damaged, no longer resting on the ability of the king to win over his subjects with his wisdom, ingenuity and concern for his people. Now a land-based contract could
be broken by either party, but most likely by the king, with fiefdoms used for bribery and
intimidation. The decline of the English monarchy was underway.
Normandy always means so much!
Not quite this much ran through my head as I was regarding the tomb of Rollo or
Rollon--but close! Both in Normandy and in the Loire Valley, we can’t escape the
inroads of English history into French and vice versa. (No wonder there is so much to
"put in order" in Rouen!) Walking the streets there, one senses all this historical
significance and cross-referencing. I’m not sure how the arrangement of scenes
accomplishes it, but the historical narrative plays on the visual imagery and that on the
memory. Street scenes and sites of Rouen encapsulate multiple time periods and various
peoples, and though others may do the same, Rouen is different.
This is Normandy.
This province thrills history buffs with rich implication, all so familiar, all a part
of patterns we’ve learned. From shop windows to beach scenes, cathedrals, and harbors,
we somehow already know Normandy in multiple dimensions, only manageable when we
contemplate them one at a time. Here, that’s difficult, because everything has so
much significance--from medieval to twentieth-century, artistic, political, historic!
Not just once, but every time Normandy has figured in history, it has been the
key to unlocking a huge event that determines the future of several nations.
Normandy is never just a place. All over this province, from D-day beaches to the
tomb of Rollo, the visitor is intensely engaged with significance and meaning. (Rest
assured that planners have an even greater job of sorting and categorizing all that is Norman.) It’s so important, yet Rollo wouldn’t kiss a king? No, he had in mind to
reproduce a few!
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