Our second stop in Normandy was, Rouen, a city of about 110,000 people on the Seine River and the birthplace of French President Francois Hollande. Rouen has been the capital of Normandy for many centuries, including during the Middle Ages when the various kings of England held Normandy as part of their inheritance from William the Conqueror.
We discovered a beautiful city with great old architecture and, in the summer at least, a grand café atmosphere. The density of old buildings was a treat after our time in Caen, where nearly the entire city was destroyed in the Battle for Normandy; Rouen, in contrast, appears to have been spared the worst of the damage. (I know, weird that a city called Rouen wasn’t ruined in the War. But then the people of Angers weren’t angry all the time either so apparently you can’t figure out these French.)
The main sight in Rouen is the Notre Dame Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece started in the 12th century and made famous by a series of paintings by Claude Monet. Monet painted the same scene of the church facade in a variety of weather conditions and at various times of the day; as Mark said when we first saw it “It’s strange to see something for the first time that you’ve seen so many times before.” Beyond the stunning facade is the Butter Tower, a 250-foot tall spire that was allegedly financed by selling indulgences allowing people to eat butter during Lent. And inside the Cathedral you can find a tomb with the heart of Richard the Lionhearted, King of England who died in France trying to secure his Norman ancestors’ claim to Normandy. The rest of him was buried elsewhere but his lionesque heart was here.
There were several striking churches in Rouen besides the Cathedral, though oddly they were mostly closed when we tried to go inside. The one exception was the strange Church of St. Joan of Arc. It’s a 1970s building with the exterior sort of in the form of a fish and from the outside it’s pretty much as unattractive as that makes it sound. It’s in an historically important spot, though, on the very site where Joan herself was burned at the stake as a heretic by the occupying English in 1431. Notwithstanding the strange exterior, though, the interior is … OK.
That was it; a quick two-day stop in a beautiful Norman city, definitely a worthy substitute for our planned trip to Ireland. From here it’s back to Paris and then on to the U.S. for a little visit.