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, every half-dozen years, vast numbers of tall ships gather on the Seine at Rouen for a fabulous, joyous armada.
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!
Dates for your diary
Armada Festival Masive gathering of Tall Ships with much nautical fun and entertainment to be had. 6th to 16th June 2019