Rouen has a reputation for being a lively museum town. It is foremost, however, the capital of Normandy. It is secondarily the seat of the regional prefecture of Upper Normandy and the “county town” of Seine-Maritime. Despite these distinctions, Rouen has a population of scarcely 100,000, or about 540,000 if the suburbs are included in the tally. The town is divided by the Seine River into two towns that are connected by a half-dozen bridges.
The left bank of the Seine is described as a working-class town. It features a 260-foot, windowless, Archives Tower that was built in 1965 and sits in the middle of a series of buildings dubbed “county hall”. The hall itself dates back only 200 years, insignificant when compared to Rouen’s 2,000 year-old history. The left bank had its beginnings as a major Gallo-Roman town, serving as the capital of the Roman administrative centre of Veliocasses, which later became part of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis. In its more recent history, the left bank has been described as an industrial town. Nowadays, it is more heavily engaged in the tertiary and services sectors. For those who intend to see Rouen in its entirety, the left bank is seen as a nice prelude to the full tour.
The right bank of the Seine, on the other hand, is more historic, architectural, and cultural. The right side features Rouen’s best historic and architectural attractions, which boasts medieval roofs huddled together and the larger-than-life spires and towers of Notre Dame, St. Maclou, St. Ouen, among others. These churches are the “one hundred bell-towers” that Victor Hugo described. Rouen has many themes to it, but many of them seem to overlap one another. Visiting a church, for example, might send a serious tourist in search of Joan of Arc. And a tour of Rouen’s law courts might have someone thinking about Corneille, the famous 16th century French portrait painter. So patently rich in treasures is Rouen that the French author André Maurois wrote, “when the smoke cleared, it became apparent that Rouen would still have enough masterpieces to provide glory and honor for one hundred towns”.
Rouen has a rich history in literature. It was the birthplace of two famous French writers: Pierre Corneille and Gustave Flaubert. Other notable names include Maurice Leblanc, Pradon, Madame Le Prince de Beaumont, Fontenelle, Salacrou, and Saint Amant. Several more lived in Rouen, even though they weren’t born there, including Alain, Bernanos, Maupassant, Mac Orlan, and Maurois. As for writers who have passed through the town and written about it, the list is too numerous and would include the likes of Hugo, Balzac, Madame de Sevigne, Stendhal, Zola, Michelet, Nodier, Saint Simon, and Jean de la Varende.
Rouen’s main attractions are churches, museums, and old buildings of architectural interest.
The most outstanding of Rouen’s churches is the Rouen Cathedral. Built in 1882, it is the tallest cathedral in France and boasts an iron steeple that weighs 9,000 tons! At 494 feet high, it can be seen all over town. Postcard pictures of Rouen often show the cathedral in its flattering angles. The structure is supported by the Butter tower and the St. Romain’s Tower. The doorways are crafted with a stonemason’s chisel. There is also a prominent rose window that’s lit. The west front of the building is known as a “cliff of carved stone’. In the Lady Chapel, you’ll see several tombs of famous figures in Normandy’s history.
In WWII, the cathedral was almost destroyed by seven torpedoes that hit the town in 1944. It was saved only by the daring genius of local builder, Georges Lanfry. It took 12 years of work to ensure the building was safe again for worship. Today, year-round maintenance is required to keep it the “most outstanding building in Upper Normandy”.
St. Ouen Church
Not far away from Rouen’s landmark and within the bell sounds of Notre Dame, you’ll find the Church of St. Ouen. This minster is known for its famous Urchins’ Door at its entrance. In French, they call it “portail des Marmousets”. The nave measures 445 feet long. St. Ouen’s claim to fame is its remarkable design that allows substantial light to shine through from beneath the vaulted roof, while maintaining the Gothic motif that stresses purity and ethereal beauty. The interior is decorated austerely, allowing the architecture to be admired and creating an aura of peace and containment. The stained-glass windows that illuminate the nave and chancel date back to the 14th and 16th century.
St. Maclou’s Church
St. Maclou’s Church was built some time between 1437 and 1517. It is located at the end of Rue Saint-Romain in a dark corner. The church is Flamboyant Gothic and features five arches in the porch that are carved with exuberance and finesse. The doorways are decorated just as intricately, showcasing the degree of perfection obtained by the stonecutters and stone masons back in the day.
The church also has a graveyard that can be toured. This cemetery was founded in the 16th century after a plague epidemic. The buildings are supported by pillars and beams, which have been carved with skulls, funereal emblems, and gravediggers’ tools on a damaged fresco.
St. Romain’s Church
St. Romain’s Church was restored in the 1990s and is an excellent example of 18th century architecture. Inside, you’ll find a red marble tomb of the Bishop of Rouen. This religious leader was made a patron saint around 700AD after he delivered the town from the Gargoyle monster that was terrorizing it.
Church of St. Joan of Arc
The modern Church of St. Joan of Arc is located on Place du Vieux Marche. It is illuminated by the stained-glass windows that were originally from St. Vincent’s Church, which unfortunately was destroyed in WWII. The church of St. Joan of Arc is where the young shepherdess from Domremy met her end. She was imprisoned in Bouvreuil Castle on 102 Rue Jeanne d’Arc, threatened with torture at the “Joan of Arc Tower”, forced to disavow her faith in the gardens around St. Ouen’s Church, and rehabilitated in the Officalité on Rue Saint Romain. She was then burned at the stake as a witch in 1431 at Place du Vieux Marche.
Other churches in Rouen worth visiting include the Gothic and Classical chapel, which was built by the same Jesuits who founded the college that now houses Corneille High School; the Church of St. Nicaise, which is an impressive hybrid of 18th century and modern architecture; and the churches of St. Godard and St. Patrick, the latter’s stained-glass windows are considered the finest in France.
Considered the gateway to the Atlantic for Paris, Rouen is the fifth largest port in France. The city has the third largest river port and ranks among the leading ports in the world in wheat exports. Since the days of the Dukes of Normandy, to the Renaissance and modern times, Rouen has relied on the Seine River for its wealth. Even with suburban sprawl over the centuries, the old harbor remains the center and heart of the city.
Rue du Gros Horloge
Rue du Gros Horloge is the busiest street in Rouen. It is significant because it was the first pedestrian precinct in France. It is lined with beautiful vernacular architecture, including the most popular attraction in Rouen – the Great Clock, which stands at the base of the belfry.
The Law Courts are inches away from Rue du Gros Horloge and can be entered via Rue des Juifs. While it may not be as exciting to tourists as some of Rouen’s other attractions, the Law Courts are the pride and joy of residents. The main courtyard was once the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in the 12th century. Nobody knows how or why it was destroyed, but it was discovered from archaeological digs. The courtyard boasts a huge staircase along with pinnacles and bellcotes that are richly decorated. When the assizes are in session, you can tour the Public Prosecutors’ Chamber, which has coffered ceiling “of terrible beauty” – or so thought Michelet, the French historian.
Rouen has several worthwhile examples of vernacular architecture. One of them is the Bourgtheroulde Residence whose structure is immediately recognizable by its two magnificent friezes. Other examples include the elegant buildings that house the Town Hall, the Exchequer opposite the Rouen Cathedral, the fountains such as the St. Mary Fountain, the stunning private mansions on Place Rougemare, and the half-timbered houses found all over town. Unfortunately, since 1850, several vernacular structures have been either demolished or recoated and re-plastered on the exterior. In the past couple of decades, Rouen has attempted to restore a number of these buildings. Today, Rouen’s town center has recovered much of its 19th century charm that it had lost.
The Art Gallery is among France’s most prestigious art museums. The collections include 7,000 drawings, 3,000 paintings, and 400 sculptures. The gallery is noted for its significant representation of Gericault, a French artist who was born in Rouen.
La Secq des Tournelles Museum
The La Secq des Tournelles Museum has over 12,000 decorative or utilitarian wrought-iron work, covering the period from the 12th to 19th century.
The Ceramics Museum is located in the old Hocqueville Residence. On display are splendid pieces of “old Rouen”. The collection is most famous for its quality pink and blue pieces.
Rouen’s Antiquities Museum displays masterpieces that were once found or used in old churches, abbeys, and private homes from the French Revolution and 19th century periods.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is famous for inspiring 19th century French novelist Flaubert with the idea for the parrot in his book, Un coeur simple.
The Education Museum is better known for the building that it occupies – the Four Aymon Sons’ House. It is a remarkable half-timbered residential house.
Pierre Corneille House
A number of well-known writers were born in Rouen. One of the city’s best known is Pierre Corneille. The poet and dramatist lived in a tall, narrow, stone-and-timbered house on Rue de la Pie, which is now used as a museum dedicated to him.
Gustave Flaubert Apartment
The French novelist Gustave Flaubert was born in the same hospital his father worked as a senior consultant. He lived with his father in an apartment, which is now occupied by the Museum of Medicine.
There are no real boundaries of Rouen’s suburbs. Each official body has a different total of its own. The population of Rouen’s metropolitan area ranges from 400,000 to 700,000. Suburban Rouen is highly-industrial. Most of the suburbs are dominated by a few companies. Notable industrial businesses include the refinery at Petit-Couronne, the car plant in Cleon, the fertilizer plant in Petit Quevilly, and the Papermill in Saint Etienne due Rouvray.
Many of the suburban buildings erected in the 19th century and demolished were restored in the 1990s. One example is the factory built by Louis Fromage, the same factory that produced the first elastic fabrics. Today, it is used by the Normandy College of Architecture (known as école d'architecture de Normandie in French). Other restored buildings include the Notre Dame de Bondeville, the old mills by the river banks of the Robec and Aubette, and Petit Quevilly’s Foudre factory.
Other suburbs of Rouen include Barentin. This city is known as “a museum in the street” thanks to Mayor Andre Marie. During his office, close to 300 statues were erected in Rouen, including the statue of Rodin, Lebourgeois, Bourdelle, and Janiot. Andre Marie later became a government minister during the Fourth Republic.
Cantelou, Croisset, Bonsecours, Ry, Blainville-Crevon, Martainville-Épreville, and Petit-Couronne are a few other suburbs. Cantelou is the place where 19th century French writer, Maupassant, wrote his novel, Bel Ami. The novel describes Rouen as a youthful and industrial city, descriptions inspired no doubt by his own eyes. Croisset, meanwhile, was the place French novelist Gustave Flaubert spent most of his life. All that remains of the large family house he used to live in is a summer home and garden. Bonsecours is perched atop St. Catherine Hill, east of Rouen. It is a residential suburb and the starting point for pilgrimages to Notre Dame. Beyond Bonsecours is a countryside used by people on another “pilgrimage” to Ry and Blainville Crevon, a pilgrimage that retraces the footsteps of Delphine Couturier. Delphine was the wife of a man by the name of Delamare, whose tragic fate inspired Flaubert to write his novel, Madame Bovary. Martainville-Épreville is home to the Martainville Castle and houses the Museum of Norman Traditions and Arts. And, of course, Petit-Couronne is known as the country retreat of dramatist Pierre Corneille.
“Castle of Martainville.” < http://www.speedylook.com/Castle_of_Martainville.html>
Gaudez, René, Hervé Champollion, and Angela Moyon. Tour of Normandy. Rennes: Éditions Ouest-France, 1996. ISBN: 2737317185.
“Pierre Corneille.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Corneille>
“Rouen.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rouen>
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