Rouen, stretching beside the Seine, is Normandy’s cultured, historic, gastronomic, vibrant capital. Monet’s canvases of the cathedral have made it the best-loved building in town, but many other glories stand out, including fine museums and the church dedicated to tragic visitor Joan of Arc.
The Seine was key to Rouen’s development into one of France’s greatest ports down the centuries. Romans and Vikings gave prominence to this part of the Seine Valley. When Vikings settled and became Normans in the 10th century, Rouen became Normandy’s capital.
English medieval history is closely linked to Rouen. The Anglo-French kings kept a deep affection for the city. William the Conqueror often held court here. Richard the Lionheart was crowned Duke of Normandy in town, and left his heart to the city… as would Joan of Arc, much against her will, when, in the second half of the Hundred Years War, English forces occupied much of northern France, including Normandy and its capital. After Joan had inspired a lightning series of successes against the English army south along the Loire, she was captured by Burgundians and ransomed off at vast price to the English. Joan was tried by French churchmen in English-ruled Rouen in 1431, ending up on the funeral pyre here in 1431. A new museum in honour of Joan of Arc d’Arc, Historial Jeanne d'Arc, opens in Rouen in 2015, housed in the Archbishop's Palace, just next to the Cathedral. Further well-established, excellent museums cover different periods of the city’s history and focus on its strong artistic and craft traditions.
In medieval times, lords and the prosperous merchants of the city, as well as commissioning fine homes for themselves, supported the building of great religious buildings. Lined up in a row going from east to west through the centre of town is a string of tremendous church edifices – Saint-Ouen, Saint-Maclou, the cathedral, and the contemporary church to Joan of Arc. Victor Hugo famously described Rouen as the city of ‘a hundred spires’. In addition, don’t miss the Gros Horloge (a magnificent monumental town clock), the splendid Gothic Law Courts (Palais de Justice) and look out for the Aître Saint-Maclou, with its carved skull and crossbones counts among the most startling medieval cemeteries in Europe.
Rouen’s historic quarters are packed with tempting shops and restaurants. There are also glorious weekly markets. This being a university town, there is plenty of buzzing nightlife too.
Back with the Seine, having been somewhat neglected in modern times, attention is now turning back to the river. Increasing numbers of initiatives have been created to open the riverbanks more and more to visitors. The Panorama XXL is the latest grandiose new cultural attraction. In addition, from 6th to 16th June 2019, vast numbers of tall ships will gather on the Seine at Rouen for the Armada Festival.
- Panorama XXL This Seine-side giant rotunda features huge circular paintings created by the German artist Yadegar Asisi. Unique in France, the current exhibit is Gothic Rouen as it would have looked in Joan of Arc’s day.
- Historial Jeanne d'Arc Rouen honours the martyr Joan of Arc with this important new state-of-the-art museum. The setting is appropriate, given that the Salle de l’Officialité was where Joan was tried in 1431, when the English ruled Normandy, although it was French clergymen who condemned the Maid of Orleans to death. The same chamber witnessed her posthumous rehabilitation at a second trial, held in 1456, when the French authorities were firmly back in control of Normandy.
- Notre-Dame Cathedral This exceptionally complex church is renowned for the juxtaposition of all the periods of Gothic, especially on the facade, which the artist Monet painted time and again, reflecting its glory in different lights. The interior is packed with religious and artistic points of interest. The archbishop's palace and further Gothic buildings attached to the cathedral have also survived, adding to the fascination of this historic quarter.
- Le Gros-Horloge This massive clock tower makes one of the most remarkable sights in Rouen, straddling the main shopping street through the centre of town. Take a journey through time by visiting the inside of this tower.
- The Church of Saint Joan of Arc Completed in 1979, this striking modern church rises over the Place du Vieux-Marché, where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. Although the architecture is boldly contemporary, it was designed to display glorious panels of 16th century stained glass rescued from other Rouen churches.
- Tour Jeanne d'Arc This imposing tower is all that remains of the mighty castle French king Philippe Auguste had built in Rouen after he had booted Platagenet King John of England out of France at the start of the 13th century. When English forces were back in control of Normandy in the second half of the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc was held in this fortress and threatened with torture.
- Church of Saint-Maclou This gem of Flamboyant Gothic architecture rises just behind the cathedral. The church stands in one of the most beautiful historic quarters of Rouen, characterised by magnificent timber-frame houses.
- Aître Saint-Maclou A parish cemetery was created here during the Black Plague in 1348, but later, buildings went up around it to serve as ossuaries for the large number of bones from the cemetery. The buildings’ beams, carved with skulls and cross-bones and grave-diggers’ implements, clearly indicate the former uses of these startling halls set around a courtyard tucked away close to the church of St-Maclou. This unique place is now occupied by the Regional School of Fine Arts.
- Abbey Church of Saint-Ouen (14th and 16th centuries) A Gothic church on the scale of a cathedral, this place is named after one of Rouen’s most inspiring bishops, from the 7th century. The Benedictine abbey here functioned for around 1,000 years, but the Revolution put an end to its importance. In the church’s sober, soaring interiors, appreciate some fine stained-glass windows, the organ and the choir screen.
- Palais de Justice (Law Courts) A wonderfully ornate Gothic buildings, this is one of the finest, most important expressions of civic architecture of the Middle Ages in France.
- Maison Sublime Excavations at the Palais de Justice in the 1970s revealed the remnants of the oldest Jewish building known in France, dating back to the Middle Ages. The vestiges, in Romanesque style, are the only example of a medieval rabbinic school remaining in Europe. The name derives from an inscription found on the abode, declaring ‘Let this abode be sublime.’
- Musée des Beaux-Arts: (Fine arts museum) This major fine arts museum is one of the best in France. Its fabulous works by Impressionists such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Degas draw the crowds. So do works by earlier ground-breaking French artists, among them Poussin, David, Delacroix, Géricault and Corot. The institution also prides itself on its international collections, including works by Veronese, Velasquez, Caravaggio and Rubens.
- Musée de la Céramique This exquisite museum recalls the fact that Rouen produced some of the finest ceramics in France over the centuries. Along with traditional collections of plates and bowls, marvel at pottery shoes and even a ceramic violin.
- Musée de la Ferronerie (Wrought iron museum) / Le Secq des Tournelles Set out in imaginative fashion around the deconsecrated Gothic church of Saint Laurent, this unique collection comprises 12, 000 wrought-iron object of every description, going from signs, keys and tools to surgical instruments and jewellery.
- Musée des Antiquités Housed in a former monastery, rich regional collections of archaeological and historical finds from across Normandy are displayed here. The museum also holds interesting pieces from cultures much further afield.
- Musée Flaubert et d'Histoire de la Médecine (Flaubert Museum and History of Medicine) Fans of the great 19th century Norman author, Gustave Flaubert, can visit the apartment where he was born, to be found in a historic hospital where his father practised medicine.
- Musée Pierre Corneille The birthplace of the poet.
- Museum d'Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) One of France’s most substantial natural history museums, this place holds a staggering 800,000 objects and shows, among other things, how such a natural history museum has evolved through time.
- Musée Maritime, Fluvial et Portuaire Right beside the Seine, on the north bank just west of the historic centre, this museum focuses on the importance of the river in Rouen’s history. Themes such as river trade, riverboats and bridges over the Seine are covered. Admire the large model of La Dauphine, a boat used by the Florentine explorer, Jehan de Verrazzano, who worked for French king François I. Verrazzano left Normandy, with a crew of Norman sailors, to become the first European navigator known to have discovered the Bay of New York, back in the 16th century.
- Public gardens and promenades
- Jardin des plantes (Botanical gardens)
To travel around Rouen, leave your car (see the list of car parks in Rouen) and enjoy public transport (bus or métro). Unless you opt for a bike rental from Cy'clic, available at key points in the centre of town!