We decided we needed a day trip more than sleep so on Monday we got up so early that when we stepped off our train in Rouen an hour and a half later, the sun still hadn’t risen.
Nor had many cafés yet opened, so we wandered around trying to stay warm until we could get ourselves inside somewhere.
The first thing of interest we noticed was the castle keep of the 13th century Château Bouvreuil. It was in this castle that Joan of Arc was held during her trial in 1431. Today the single tower is all that remains of the castle, and you can see a brand new hotel being erected directly next to it. Even without the hotel, the tower itself has been turned into one of those escape game fads, and although the tower is open to the public very little of the information and pamphlets inside had anything to do with Joan of Arc.
We knew we wanted to see Rouen cathedral, but on our walk in its general direction we passed no less than three other impressive churches. In America it is commonly said there is a church on every corner, but the same could be said at least for this region of France, only each of them are centuries old.
First we passed Saint Ouen Abbey, not even an actual cathedral although the vaults in the nave are higher than those of Rouen cathedral:
Large portions of the exterior stones of the abbey were blackened as if by some previous fire. Signs around the building warned to stay back due to danger of falling masonry, much of the statuary was damaged, and broken panes in the stained glass had allowed pigeons inside. Although the abbey has not been used for religious services since the Revolution, signs inside indicate that maintenance and restoration work are still ongoing and I was glad to discover the building is certainly not abandoned or forgotten.
By now the cafés were open and after having sufficiently warmed ourselves with coffee and croissants we headed over to the Musée des Beaux-Arts where we found admission to be free. This was about the perfect size of museum, not so small that you are in and out, but not so large that you can’t see everything either. They had a sculpture garden with a dozen pieces but most of the rest was paintings, including by famous artists even such rubes as myself have heard of, like Renoir and Monet. However it sometimes seems the more famous a painting is the less I often care for it, whereas random pieces by artists I’ve never heard of can be more emotionally powerful.
Outside the museum we found this street sign which we found humorous even though we didn’t quite get the joke. It is rather an obscure joke, and requires you to have read Madame Bovary, which I have not. You can read the explanation here. The author Gustave Flaubert grew up in Rouen, and much of Emma Bovary’s fictional story takes place there as well.
We continued on our way to the cathedral passing down many scenic streets, wherealong we saw the 14th century astronomical Gros Horloge (Great Clock), and also the Palais de Justice (courthouse) with damage still visible from WWII.
Finally to Rouen Cathedral. As with every cathedral that I’ve read about, this one has quite the history, it is worth at least going through the Wikipedia page. Viking raids, fires, lightning strikes, hurricanes, Calvinists, Revolutionaries, bombs, all have taken their toll and shaped the structure that remains today, and it is often a wonder that anything does remain today.
The tower to the right in the photo above, not very well shown in this picture, is called the “Butter Tower” since it was funded by the sale of indulgences to those who did not wish to forego butter during Lent – but also because the stones nearer the top of the tower came from a different quarry with yellow-tinted rock.
Looking at the photo of the nave above, if you think of the attached columns (the thin molded columns that surround the actual pillars) as branches, at Amiens the “branches” separate and multiply at different levels the higher you go up, as they would on an actual tree; but at Rouen every single “branch” essentially starts at the ground, making the lower pillars very busy-looking indeed. The overall effect looking down the nave is one of almost too-much-detail for eyes to take in, which the photo above illustrates well. It is beautiful in its own way, all these churches are. But I admit to preferring the cleaner aesthetic at Amiens.
And indeed in the picture below you can see that the style is different even within Rouen cathedral itself, here in the choir the gallery columns are more like Roman columns with capitals than Gothic pillars.
Somewhat uncommonly for French cathedrals of this time, Rouen has an actual tower at the crossing.
Of course, there was a very impressive Lady Chapel (chapel to the virgin Mary) behind the choir. All the ones I’ve seen so far have been very ornate but this one is huge, almost a small church-within-a-church.
Rouen cathedral is the burial place of several famous people. If you have enjoyed watching the History channel TV show Vikings then you will definitely remember Rollo, who is buried here. The historical Rollo is probably an even more interesting character than Ragnar who is the primary focus of the show in the early seasons. Rollo and his viking companions took Rouen in 876 and nearly destroyed the entire town in the process. He later expanded his raids and besieged Paris itself. The Franks being unable to best him, King Charles III ultimately settled a treaty whereby the lands Rollo had seized would be officially recognized as his own (as the newly created Duchy of Normandy), in exchange for his baptism and marriage to Charles’ daughter Gisela. Much of this is portrayed in the TV show with of course various dubious but exciting embellishments. Rollo’s descendants became known as the Normans and you can spend a lifetime studying their subsequent influence on European culture, and consequently, on the person writing this and the people reading it.
We had also heard that Richard the Lionheart was buried here. We finally found his tomb, not greatly adorned or any different from the ones around it. On closer inspection we see that it is only his heart which is buried here, his body lies at the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud.
I suppose I was expecting something a bit more grand, but even so I was not disappointed to have made the visit. Sitting here now I am unable to think of another historical figure who has thrilled as many young boys over the last 8 centuries as they read about his exploits in the story books. King Arthur and Robin Hood come to mind but they were not literally historical.
Afterwards we went to find the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, but this is getting quite long already so perhaps I will do another post about her later.
Rouen is a beautiful city nestled in between hills, and especially to see la vieille ville (the old town) with its medieval era half-timbered homes and narrow cobblestone streets is an otherworldly experience for someone from America. We didn’t see half of what we might have, and it’s a place where a car would come in very handy to visit the nearby Jumièges Abbey and the basilique Notre-Dame de Bonsecours.
In closing, here is a picture taken from the Pont Pierre Corneille, looking to the east along the Seine river at the abandoned Église Saint Paul at the foot of Colline Sainte-Catherine.