As we wrap up our travels through the Middle Ages of France I woke up on a beautiful spring morning to make the hour plus trip to Rouen. Rouen is located due west of Paris in Normandy and like Paris it is situated on the River Seine. My friend Ileana has become as enthralled with these trips as I am and once again graciously served as my chauffeur. The road to Rouen is one of the most heavily traveled in France as it is the road to the UK but also to the rest of beautiful Normandy and some rather historic sites along the way including Monet’s Giverny.

The area in and around Rouen has hosted many rulers over the years. The Vikings settled here in 841, in the 10th century Rouen became the capital of the Duchy of Normandy and in 1419 it was captured by Henry V of England. For all of this history Rouen today is primarily known for two things – the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake and the cathedral that Monet famously painted over thirty times in various light, seasons, and weather.

Arriving in Rouen was far different from our arrival in Orleans. Immediately upon arrival you are greeted by a fantastic section of the city that is still in its medieval surroundings. Houses dating back 500 years line the streets and when you look up all you see are church spires. Being Sunday you also hear a fair number of church bells ringing as you walk throughout the city. Cobblestoned streets, medieval homes jutting out and ancient cathedrals makes Rouen one of my favourite visits thus far. The only thing marring this otherwise magnificent city is the Vieux Marche in the city center. This is the location where Joan was burned at the stake but is now marked by a tacky aluminum cross and hideous church built in her honour. As it was so open there was an abundance of sunshine and enticing restaurants. I promised Ileana we could eat there only if I could keep my back to those two eyesores.

After walking through the Vieux Marche as quickly as possible we soon found ourselves under the Gros-Horloge, a guilded lead clock that as been here since the 1400’s. The first thing you notice about this beautiful clock is that there is no second hand as minutes were apparently not considered important to a primarily agricultural culture. The clock does, however, display the various phases of the moon.

Continuing down the Rue Gros-Horloge we came upon Cathedral de Rouen. Most of the church is currently covered in scaffolding (a danger when living in a country with a history going back over 1000 years) but I was still able to get a sense of the square and the facade of the cathedral that Monet would have seen as he painted this beautiful cathedral. Since I have also seen most of the Monet paintings at the Musee D’Orsay and the Musee Marmottan I had a very good sense of the beauty of this particular location.

After wandering the streets and churches of Rouen we were hungry. Ileana insisted we needed a place that served pommes frites, I insisted we sit in the sun and in a place where I could not see the church and cross in Vieux Marche. After some searching we found a wonderful restaurant in the square that served the most amazing croustillant de camembert I have ever tasted. Three courses later we rolled ourselves out of the square to go search for the Donjon Jeanne d’Arc where Joan was reportedly tortured as they tried to get her to confess to a ‘relationship with the devil.’ She would not do it though and despite lack of a confession Joan was told that she had been sentenced to burn at the stake. On May 30, 1431 Joan was killed in the Vieux Marche facing the cathedral that she had never been allowed to worship in and clutching a cross that a passerby gave her as she was tied to the stake.

As for Monet, Normandy is a favourite with all painters but none more so than the impressionists. The light, the various weather patterns and its proximity to Paris (as well as its proximity to Monet’s home at Giverny) made it quite popular. Today was as perfect a spring day as you could hope for and a wonderful day to visit Rouen.

Like most of France Rouen did not go untouched during World War II. In 1940 the the city was heavily bombed and almost half of it burned to the ground as the German Army would not allow firefighters to put out the fire. The
German Navy also used a chateau in the city as headquarters during the war.

A beautiful medieval city with tremendous history, people, food and character Rouen is definitely one of my more favourite stops on these trips.

This now wraps up our time in France during the middle ages. We are now moving into the Renaissance and the end of the 100 Years War.

Next stop – Tours