Regional capital of Normandy, historic Rouen is a favourite stopover for river cruise boats. Gillian Thornton explores on foot.
One of the many delights of river cruising is being delivered right to the heart of the action. No tendering to shore. No coach ride from a distant dock. Just walk down the ramp and more often than not, you find yourself within easy walking distance of a city’s key attractions. So it is in Rouen. Standing on the Jeanne d’Arc bridge – more about her later – I watch as passengers from some of Europe’s leading river cruise operators disembark for their day ashore, the spires of the nearby cathedral easily visible over the rooftops.
A guided excursion will show you the key sites, but it’s easy to do your own thing here too. The historic centre includes a large pedestrianised area and the Tourist Office on Place de la Cathédrale can provide free maps, walking routes and insider advice. Rouen offers new delights round every corner with its half-timbered medieval properties, grand public buildings, and historic monuments, all well signposted, so whichever way you to choose to explore, here are my personal Big Five to ensure you sail away with a true flavour of what this welcoming city has to offer. But don’t be surprised if you want to come back by train or car to explore the city in more depth!
Not only should you not miss it. You can’t miss it! Begun in the 12th century on the site of a 4th century basilica, this towering Gothic edifice was damaged by Allied bombing in 1944, but has been – and is still being – beautifully restored. The ancient Dukes of Normandy were laid to rest in the choir which also contains a statue of Richard the Lionheart, whose heart was buried here, his body being interred at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.
Overlooking a large pedestrianised square, the cathedral’s densely carved facade is an absolute stunner. Take advantage of the free telescopes on the edge of the square to take a close-up view of all the medieval figures and symbols. But best view of all is to be had from a meeting room above the Tourist Office where Claude Monet painted 11 of his 28 studies of the façade in various light and weather conditions. Ask at the welcome desk and if the room isn’t occupied, staff will give you a privileged peek.
Historial Jeanne d’Arc
You don’t need any great knowledge of Joan d’Arc to enjoy this excellent attraction which examines the legend of one of France’s most iconic women who was burnt at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Take a digital journey to the heart of her story in the atmospheric surroundings of the Archbishop’s Palace adjacent to the cathedral and decide for yourself whether the teenage peasant girl from the Vosges was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.
Jehanne – or Jeanne – d’Arc claimed that God had instructed her through divine visions to support Charles, heir to the French throne, and rise up with him during the Hundred Years War against the English. Joan was instrumental in relieving the siege of Orléans in 1429 and in the subsequent coronation of Charles VII, but in 1431, she was captured and found guilty of heresy by pro-English Burgundians who feared her military successes and ‘divine’ endorsement of the French king. Fast forward to 1456 and ‘The Maid of Orléans’ was pardoned in a second trial. Spend an hour at the Historial – headsets available in English – and you’ll feel like you took part in it.
Old Market Square (Vieux Marché)
Poor Joan met her grisly end in the Old Market Square which today is surrounded by inviting cafes with terrace tables that overlook the foundations of an ancient church, the covered market, and landscaped gardens. Amongst them stands the St Joan of Arc Church, built in 1979 and free to enter from 10-12 and 2-6 except Friday and Sunday mornings.
Its sweeping concrete curves are not to my taste, but step inside and lines of seats curve round the floor beneath a glorious multi-coloured display of Renaissance stained glass from the former Church of Saint-Vincent. Don’t miss the contemporary bust of Joan complete with battle helmet, the young heroine who never grew old.
The Great Clock (Grand Horloge)
Whether you choose to go inside the monument for the 40-minute tour with audio-guide or simply want to walk underneath it, you shouldn’t miss the Great Clock, fully restored in 2006, and one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The belfry is Gothic, the archway and clock face Renaissance, and the fountain beside it from the 18th century. One of the oldest clock mechanisms in Europe, the clock didn’t stop once between the 14th century and 1928.
But to me, one of the best things about the Grand Horloge is its position in an eclectic architectural mix of half-timbered facades, slate tiles, and ornate Renaissance carvings. So have your camera or smartphone in hand and be ready to look up as you pass the small shops and cafes. You don’t see one of these on every high street!
Fine Arts Museum
Opened in 1809, Rouen’s Fine Art Museum is one of seven city museums that are free to enter, and certainly the most interesting one for overseas visitors. The collection covers all periods from the 16th to the 20th century and starts with an impressive selection of religious art – paintings and sculptures, drawings and decorative objects – before moving on through artists such as Velazquez, Rubens and Delacroix.
But it is also home to the most important collection of Impressionist works outside Paris. Rouen’s half-timbered buildings, dramatic architecture, and busy riverbanks were a big drawn for the Impressionist painters in the late 19th and early 20th century. Claude Monet lived east of the city at Giverny, location for his famous garden and lily pond, but contemporaries such as Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley all painted in Rouen and have works exhibited here. The museum is free, so if you are short of time – or just want to see this key part of the collection – you don’t need to dent the holiday budget.
For further information and inspiration, go to www.rouentourisme.com
Call 0800 412 5678 to talk to one of our Silver Travel Advisors about river cruises that visit Rouen.