If you are lucky enough to live on, or near, to the South coast and within easy reach of Newhaven, trips across the channel with DFDS/Transmanche, are very easy. For readers living further afield journey times will be longer, but it is worth considering a stopover in this beautiful city if you are travelling through France.
For my husband and I Rouen seemed a perfect destination for a short break in springtime. The four-hour crossing with DFDS was spent relaxing with my kindle whilst nibbling a flaky croissant and sipping coffee. We arrive in Dieppe on time and exactly 6 minutes after disembarking we are on the motorway with just an hour drive to Rouen. The wonders of sat nav have reassured us we shall be taken directly to our city centre hotel. But no, just as we think we are almost there sat nav tells us we are in the ‘vicinity of our destination’, and with that gives up. So, we are on our own for the last few yards, no map and trying to negotiate impossibly tight roads within a maze of streets in the historic ‘old town’ district. I had though a ‘city centre’ hotel was a grand idea to cut down on walking! I hadn’t factored in getting to said hotel. A few phone calls later and we manage to make it to the hotel’s underground car park – another driving challenge, which is not for the faint hearted, but we succeed in finding a spot and are soon checking in. The Hotel Mercure Central Cathedral is just what it says – central and next to the amazing cathedral that dominates Rouen.
Leaving our bags, we set off to explore as arriving mid-afternoon gives us a few hours to tick off some landmarks and get our bearings. The streets around the hotel are mainly pedestrianised and lined with a selection of tempting shops. Then there are the imposing buildings, churches and places of interest. It becomes apparent that Rouen suffered in the bombing by the allies in WW2 as ancient buildings that did survive, or have been renovated, are surrounded by the not so pretty designs of the sixties and seventies.
The fabulous Palace of Justice was largely destroyed by bombing but has now been restored to its former glory. Poignantly, you can still the scars of gun battles, that raged in the streets, in the pock marked walls of the building.
A visit to Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral is an absolute must, it has had a chequered history since its conception as a church in the 4th century and was once the tallest building in the world. It is an amazing structure, both inside and out, and for a short time was the world’s tallest building. Many of the exquisite stained-glass windows were removed during the second world war for safekeeping and now they are back in situ and are truly beautiful.
Being in France we have to stop for coffee and a pastry, and that sets the tone for the weekend – glorious French cuisine. There are plenty of dining options in the city, from haute cuisine to bistro style ‘menu of the day’ and Normandy is famous for delicious crepes, as well as many regional specialities, snails are a particular favourite, but not for me!
The next morning, we decide to shun the hotel buffet breakfast as I feel its overpriced at €17 euros per person, instead we enjoy walking a few yards away and find a boulangerie serving coffee, fresh orange juice and a croissant for just €5 euros.
We realise we can’t see and do everything in just 3 days so after some research we decide to spend the next morning at the Joan of Arc History Museum. This experience takes up a good half day and I recommend joining a tour with a headset to translate the story. This is no ordinary museum as you follow in Joan of Arc’s footsteps through the Archbishop’s Palace via a series of clever projections and 3D imagery.
After all that history it is time for lunch and what better on a sunny spring day than a stroll along the Seine and lunch by the river. It is quiet and peaceful with just a handful of restaurants and bars open this early in the season. Then an afternoon of shopping beckons and the pretty macaron shops entice us in with their colourful displays. A box of sweet macarons is a great gift to bring home.
On our second day we coaxed our car out of the garage and bravely set off for the village of Giverny and a visit to Monet’s Garden. Spring is definitely the best time to visit this unforgettable and instantly recognisable garden. The wisteria is in full bloom, peonies and iris and the last of the tulips jostle with each other for centre stage, but they are all stars in the beautiful surroundings. Take your time to explore all the small pathways, and many photo opportunities, before taking a tour of Monet’s house which is just as it was when the great man was in residence. At €9.50 for adult entry it is great value for money and a good tip is to buy your tickets online as queues can be long.
When you are ready for some refreshment you will find a selection of pretty cafes and bistros just outside the gardens. The floral displays continue through the village of Giverny and the whole place is dedicated to artists and the impressionists. I can recommend driving 4 kms outside the honeypot of Giverny for lunch in the village of Vernon. If I have one criticism of the gardens, it is the crowds, so come early if you can, the gardens open at 9.30am.
Our short trip had come to an end but what a lot we had packed into our few days. Of course, there is so much more to see in and around Rouen as Normandy has some great attractions, but for us the ferry home beckoned.
The DFDS network includes a passenger and freight service between Newhaven to Dieppe, which has four daily sailings and is operated by Transmanche Ferries. Prices start from £49 each way for a car and two people. For details of ferries Newhaven – Dieppe with DFDS see www.dfdsseaways.co.uk
Finally, Normandy Tourism has a wealth of information.
For escorted tours in this area Silver Travel Advisor recommends Riviera Travel