Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Rouen City Walk

Rouen Cathedral - Summer Light Show
When visiting any new city it is worth seeking out the tourist information centre to see if there is a published walk that will take you all around the major sights or points of interest.  We have been to Rouen a number of times but not for many years so we wanted to pack a lot into our time here.  The tourist information office in Rouen is directly opposite the Gothic cathedral.  The cathedral is surely the centrepiece of this remarkable mediaeval city and has survived Viking invasion and World War II.  The first occasion it was destroyed entirely and rebuilt, while on the second it sustained a lot of damage but you wouldn't know such is the fantastic restoration.  The frontage is full of the most exquisite detail that no camera can properly capture its majesty.  We spent a lot of time admiring the frontage before going inside.  It is as grand inside as it is out and a few interesting features to point out are the tombs of Richard the Lionheart and Rollo, founder of the Duchy of Normandy in 911.  There is also an interesting set of photos detailing the damage sustained by the cathedral in the War and how it was restored.

Grand Clock
Before moving on it is worth looking at the building that the tourist office is in.  This was once the House of the Exchequer and it was from here that Claude Monet painted his series of Cathedral scenes in the 1890s.  We used the route as a guide rather than following it religiously partly because it seems to be two loops from the starting point of the cathedral.  Thus we followed the next part back to front and headed down through the pedestrianised streets towards the Great Clock for which Rouen is so famous.  On the way we detoured one block to take a look at the huge Palais De Justice, a large edifice that no doubt has played an important part in a good many lives in this area even if a lot of people don't wholly know what goes on there.  

Over the course of the week we stayed in the city we probably passed the Great Clock at least half a dozen times and it looks just as good at night lit up as it does gleaming in the sunlight during the day.  The clock itself is a slightly strange mix of Gothic belfry, Renaissance archway and clockface and an 18th Century fountain.  It seems to sit so well among the surrounding buildings in this busy street.  We continued down through the pavement cafes between all the people gossiping and drinking coffee and wine before crossing the appropriately named Rue Jeanne D'Arc, by far the most person associated with the city.  Jeanne D'Arc is better known as Joan of Arc, a slightly mythical and unlikely heroine who led the French Army to victory over the English during the Hundred Years War.  She was subsequently captured by the Burgundian Army, allied with the English, and handed over as a prisoner.  Rouen was still under English control at that point in the war and it was here that she was brought, declared guilty of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

Historic Quarter
We took a short detour down a beautiful and quiet street full of atmosphere and lined on either side with half timbered buildings which characterise much of the historic quarter of Rouen.  We wandered round to find the Hotel De Bourgtheroulde.  Apparently this old building hosts two sculptures representing the Triumph of Petrarch and the other the episode from the Field of the Cloth of Gold that relates the diplomatic meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francois I of France in 1515.  Sadly the sculptures weren't visible from the street although we did enjoy the intricate detail of the building, which now serves as a luxury hotel.

The square where Joan of Arc was burned was just around the corner and it was here that we headed next.  The market square is now dominated by a modern church designed in a shape that is meant to evoke the flames that consumed her.  It is a very effective if slightly gruesome design.  Inside are some stained glass windows that were moved here from a nearby church that was largely destroyed during World War II.  Luckily the glass had been removed from the church ahead of hostilities and was thus spared the destruction of the original church.  Around the church were a number of market stalls and cafes but strangely it was quite quiet when we passed by.  I have a feeling that a weekend day would have been a lot busier.

St Joan of Arc Church
Our route now took as through a meandering look at the tight knit streets in the historic quarter.  We were already needing some refreshment though and we soon came upon a rather quirky little cat cafe.  These establishments have become quite popular recently but I have to confess it was the first time I have ever been in one.  The premise is that people call in for their cuppa and share the experience with a number of cats that are only too willing to offer their devotion.  At least that is the theory - in this particular establishment the cats kept us more entertained by staying out of our way high up on the various pieces that had been put there to keep them entertained.  Various perches, walkways and cushions kept them just out of reach as they looked down us disdainfully...

Walking Street
We meandered through the city streets enjoying the ambience of the old half timbered buildings and the eclectic shop windows.  Some of the stuff on offer was quite surprising with junk shops in particular catching our eye.  without really realising it we were slowly looping back towards the cathedral and the other part of the loop that leads around the eastern half of the old quarter..  We passed by the Palais de Justice and the Parliament of Normandy.  It has served as the latter since the 1500s and is beautifully decorated but it is perhaps the very obvious damage from World War II shells that are the most surprising feature of the building not least because of the sheer number of them.
Cat Cafe

The route took us down the north side of the cathedral through perhaps the most delightful of all the streets in the city.  The cafes and bars here are particularly inviting and we took note of a couple that we revisited later in the week.  The prices are a bit steep though so be warned!  Also along this street is the museum devoted to Joan of Arc telling the remarkable story of her short life.  The exhibition recounts her trial through its fascinating twists and turns.  The outcome was never in doubt but getting to the verdict was more problematic than you might expect principally because of the way that Joan conducted herself.  It is a very interesting way of handling her life rather than the more traditional types of exhibition.
St Maclou

Behind the cathedral and across another main road is another incredibly ornate and beautiful church, this time the church of St Maclou, a flamboyant edifice that was started in 1436 but not completed for almost 100 years.  Although the structure has lasted remarkably well history hasn't been completely kind to this church.  It suffered significant damage in World War II, had many of its statues inside removed during the French Revolution and lost much of its internal furniture during World War II.  Nevertheless it is worth pausing to enjoy the intricate stonework of the frontage as we did before moving on.

We took a route along a street that had a stream running though it in a culvert.  It was tastefully done and the water was clean and fast moving which seemed to provide a completely different ambience from any old pedestrianised street.  The buildings were still half timbered but we were clearly moving away from the historic quarter now because they were interspersed with the odd more modern one presumably replacements for ones destroyed in the war.  We looped around at the far end so that we could enter the gardens at the rear of L'hotel De Ville.  This beautiful little oasis was worth lingering over with some interesting statues and planting arrangements.  Of particular note is a stone that was placed here in 1911 to celebrate 1000 years since the founding of the Duchy of Normandy by Viking settlers.

Window Shopping
The church next to the gardens is astonishing in scale - this is the Church of St Ouen, built as an abbey church for a long lost Benedictine Order.  It is similar in scale to the nearby cathedral and in any other city would surely be the centrepiece rather than a supporting act in ecclesiastical terms.  The main tower is rather reminiscent of the one you can see at Ely Cathedral in England.  It took a long time to complete, finally being finished in the 15th Century.  The west facade wasn't completed though until the 19th Century and looks rather grubby compared with the cleaner lines of the rest of the church.  Next door at the front is the grand looking Hotel De Ville, with an eyecatching statue of Napoleon astride a horse rearing up.  He certainly looks the all conquering hero in this pose.

Hotel De Ville Gardens
The last part of our walk took a loop around the neighbourhood that starts climbing the hill that forms the side of the Seine valley.  The main reason for following this route is to take visitors to the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Antiquities but we were out of luck because both were closed as was the Rouen Dungeon housed in the only part of Rouen Castle that still exists.  Not on the official walk but worth a mention as it is across the road is the rather fine looking Rouen Rive-Droite Railway station which was completed in 1928 and is a magnificent monument to railway travel.

St Ouen Church
We headed back down the hill from here back to the Cathedral stopping briefly in the garden at the front of the museum.  A lot of care and attention had gone into this particular garden - it is obviously one of the jewels for the city authorities.  The museum at the back looked interesting as well but sadly we managed to find it closed on the day we visited.  Do you spot a theme?  A lot of places are closed in August that's for sure but you also have to pay attention to the days that places are closed - a lot of museums close at least one day per week and it's usually a weekday rather than a weekend one. 

Rouen Rive Droite Station
No matter that so many places were closed - you would be hard pressed to include most of them on this walk.  The Joan of Arc Museum is a must as is a visit to view inside the cathedral but other than that you would probably need several days to do the place justice.  Rouen is certainly a fascinating city that is worth lingering in - this walk will help you see most of the main places worth seeing.  Make sure to allow cafe time too - watching the world go by with a cold beer or a coffee is fascinating too!
Hotel De Ville and Napoleon