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.
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. When the city was rebuilt, its inner core of streets, north of the river, were turned 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, and the effect is enhanced by the fact that they’ve recently, at long last, got round to restoring the riverfront. 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.