Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy, is one of France’s most ancient cities. Standing on the site of Rotomagus, built by the Romans at the lowest point where they could bridge the Seine, it was laid out by Rollo, the first duke of Normandy, in 911. Captured by the English in 1419, it became the stage in 1431 for the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, before returning to French control in 1449.
After bombing during World War II destroyed all Rouen’s bridges, the area between the cathedral and the quais, and much of the left bank’s industrial quarter, the city was rebuilt, turning its inner core of streets, a few hundred metres north of the river, into the closest approximation to a medieval city that modern imaginations could conceive.
Rouen today can be very seductive, its lively and bustling centre well equipped with impressive churches and museums. North of the Seine at any rate, it’s a real pleasure to explore. As well as some great sights – Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, all the delightful twisting streets of timbered houses – there’s history aplenty too, most notably the links with Joan of Arc.
While Rouen proper is home to a population of 110,000, its metropolitan area holds five times that number, and it remains the fourth-largest port in the country. The city spreads deep into the loop of the Seine, with its docks and industrial infrastructure stretching endlessly away to the south.
Cathédrale de Notre-Dame
Cathédrale de Notre-Dame
Despite the addition of all sorts of towers, spires and vertical extensions, Rouen’s Cathédrale de Notre-Dame remains at heart the Gothic masterpiece that was built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The west facade of the cathedral, intricately sculpted like the rest of the exterior, was Monet’s subject for more than thirty studies of changing light, several of which now hang in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Monet might not recognize it today, however – in the last few years, it’s been scrubbed a gleaming white, free from the centuries of accreted dirt he so carefully recorded.
On summer nights, colours inspired by Monet’s cathedral paintings are projected onto the building’s facade in a thirty-minute light show known as La Cathédrale de Monet aux Pixels, transforming it quite magnificently into a series of giant Monet-esque canvases. Inside the cathedral, the ambulatory and crypt hold the assorted tombs of various recumbent royalty, such as Duke Rollo, who died “enfeebled by toil” in 933 AD, and the actual heart of Richard the Lionheart.