Rouen is the biggest city in Normandy and is a peach of a place to visit. Once parked, it’s eminently walkable; and with the elegant cathedral, old buildings and attractive shops I’m sure you, like us will find plenty to do.
Rouen has a superb market square that has been on the go for around 1,000 years. There’s a market every morning (with the exception of Monday), and the place was a mass of colour when visited with bright freshly cut flowers and equally fresh locally grown vegetables. There are tall half-timbered houses that surround this historic square and it was a chilling thought, as we join the bustle of shoppers that Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in this very square. A few ancient stones mark the spot, and the modern church (aptly called Ste Jeanne d’Arc)—with its 20m cross—serves as an enduring memory to this famous martyr. The museum on the square gives an eloquent description of her short life with wax figures, taped commentary “from her friends and associates.” But I guess the stunning part of the exhibit is a small, apparently inconsequential drawing of the woman (doodled by a clerk at the trial). This, apparently, is the only contemporary drawing of Joan.
The streets of Rouen are a pleasure to wander through as those in the centre are pedestrianised and the narrow routes, lined with tall half-timbered houses house some quality shops and dinky bistros and cafés. On a good summer’s day you may have to run the slalom of tables and chairs and resist the exquisite smells and tempting array of food that the outside diners are enjoying. This is a city with a great ambiance and a whole bundle of history. It has attempted to tastefully merge new development amongst the old historic buildings.
The cathedral that dominates the town is particularly impressive from the shady banks of the Seine (an area that we found easy for parking). Check out the spectacular carvings around the North entrance (angels and monsters abound), and in a mirror position on the south side the 14th-century Portail de la Calande, which is absolutely rammed with fascinating sculptures. The inside of the cathedral is subtle and understated, with its finally ribbed slender pillars seemingly going upwards forever to support the structure of this mighty building, and directing our attention to the myriad of colours projected through the stained glass windows. Booksellers’ staircase (an exquisitely sculptured staircase, that would not be out of place in a scene from Romeo and Juliet) and the choir’s misericords are, as is usual in magnificent cathedrals, full of surprises.
Morbidly I always “enjoy” inspecting the fine tombs with their elaborate carvings and grandiose testimonials to the greats (or generous benefactors). Rouen gave me plenty to explore.
Make sure you see the 14th-century clock in Gros-Horloge Street, and enjoy the gloriously Gothic Palais de Justice. Time just flew by in Rouen.