If you are packing things and planning a trip to Northern France, there will not be a shortage of breath-taking landscapes on your route: a coastline consisting of steep rocky beaches, a main theatre of operations during WW II accompanied with some fascinating sand lines in places, beautiful nature, delicious cuisine, and friendly locals. However, the main jewel of the region that is worth giving a stay for a couple of days is the capital of the region, Rouen. Probably, it is not the most famous destination among tourists visiting France, the city definitely is one of the most overlooked ones and actually is pretty much off the beaten track, which actually makes it even more attractive for those who are looking for a chance to immerse into the local culture and be a witness of a true French atmosphere. Situated on the banks of the most well-known and probably the most significant French river, Seine and in 1.5 hours of travel from Paris, the city is being resided by circa 110,000 people and has roots going into antique times and throughout history, especially during Medieval Age has been of significant importance to France and surrounding regions and countries. The city center has been kept very pedestrianized, and little of the outlook of neighborhoods has changed during the last centuries. Being home to some very memorable churches, historical monuments and boasting a huge number of fachwerk (timber-framed) houses that have witnessed a lot of history happening around, this city is willing to share those stories with its visitors. For the tourists who actually prefer cities that have found harmony with nature, Rouen has a lot to offer, with its gardens and hills covered with forests surrounding the city and creating amazing panoramic views over the whole city.
This historic city has gone through many dark pages in its history, the most recent being WW II that had left its traces all over the city, with Palace of Justice being one of the most harmed buildings surviving the war that still even today carries the scars of the war as evidence of things that had happened. Constructed in the old Jewish quarter of Rouen and being the largest civic gothic building of France, the palace serves as an impressive example of an eclectic architectural style called Style Louis XII completed in 1507 with decorative spires, gargoyles and a balustrade on the roof and put into service as the residence of Normandy Parliament is the point where traditional gothic elements were meeting elegancy of Renaissance and can serve as the commencing for the trip discovering magical corners of Rouen.
The most notable feature of Rouen that rightfully earns the city name of “Gothic Eden” is the majestic cathedrals scattered all over the city, and some of them are to be described below.
The Rouen Cathedral
One of the most astounding churches of Europe, a very classic example of ecclesiastical Gothic architecture with elements of early and neo-gothic styles dating back to XI century is located in the heart of the old city and simply makes anyone seeing it after turning in from the last corner leading to the square located in front of the church by its glorious and majestic exterior and sense of admiration grows after each step approaches the visitor to the church and countless sculpture installations carved in the facade become visible adding magnificence to the cathedral. The church has been the tallest building of the world during 1876-1880, the year when another legendary cathedral, Cologne Cathedral, was completed. As of today, the Cathedral is the tallest among all churches of France and the 7th tallest in the world. The first church has been established here already by the 4th century and continuously improved through the generations, and the current building was ground broken and consecrated in the presence of legendary Norman king William the Conqueror. Fans of “Vikings” TV series, this one is for you: Rollo, who was an actual historical figure has been baptized and years later, after his death, buried in the Cathedral, which also houses the remains of his wife, Poppa and his son, William, the duke of Normandy. A place worth visiting and share your emotions and impression with fellow fans of the series. The embalmed heart of the hero of many legends, tales, and a mighty English ruler, Richard the Lionheart, is also buried in the Cathedral. The building has also been a central theme for a whole series of paintings of some of the most prominent artists of history, the most famous belonging to French impressionist Claude Monet, which consists of 20 paintings made between 1892 and 1893, depicting the western facade of Cathedral in various times of the day and year and reflecting the changes occurring in its appearance under different light conditions.
Church of St. Ouen
One of the most individualistic churches of its period, we could say, is Church of St. Ouen. Being completed in 1537 in classical gothic style, with an unusual lantern-style tower built right in the middle of central crossing in Flamboyant style, a feature more relevant to English churches and having gone through additional construction of Western Tower in Neo-Gothic style between 1846 & 1851, now is a prime mixture of different architecture schools and allows to observe the development pattern of gothic art in the region. The abbey is a home for one of the most well-known organs in the world and arguably is the biggest organ to have ever been constructed by a person, having such an elegant outlook and even more charming sounding that has been named as “Michelangelo of an organ” by of the most prominent organists and composers of mankind, Charles-Marie Widor.
Church of Saint-Maclou
A widely renowned church a few hundred meters away from Rouen Cathedral is has gained fame for its very typical gothic aesthetics and for crown shaped five gabled arches on the western facade. Refined Spiers, elaborate stone net ornaments, biblical insets at the entrance, and flying buttresses above the aisles that are attached to the west wall featuring a rose window add majesty to the exterior of the church. The tympanum is decorated with a sculpture of a scene of Heaven and Hell, Christ standing in the middle and stretching his towards people surrounding him, those to the right heading to Heaven and those at the left heading to eternal suffers of Hell. The interior decorations are impressive but macabre, referring to the past of the church linked to the Black Death Pandemic. As the church is not as widely renowned as Rouen Cathedral, a visitor will enjoy complete silence inside, which will help to feel the aura of Medieval Age and feel the spirit of the past flying around.
Strolling among these landmark buildings of Rouen, you will eventually stumble upon Gros Horloge, 14th-century astronomical clock installed on a Renaissance arch on the same-named road, rue du Gros-Horloge. Having the oldest mechanism in France, it is perhaps the most massive such mechanism still existent. The mechanism has been installed into a gothic belfry, a bell tower constructed and incorporated into the arch. The main part of the clock represents a sun with 24 flames made of gold, lunar calendar, and a weekday indicator is also part of the clock. An elegant mixture of golden and dark blue tones creates an elaborate view when looked at and transmits the visitor seven centuries back to the past. The belfry is open to visit, and for admirers of ancient mechanisms, the inner view would be a deliquiate gift.
Walking through the arch and continuing your way towards city center will eventually bring you to Old Market Square, where you will find yourself surrounded by motley timber-framed houses, yellow, red, white, orange, and with timber of all shades: brown, black, burgundy and red. The sight will be a pleasure and delight to your sight and a true fascination to admire having your cup of tea in one of the typical local cafes around the square where you also will be able to observe the life of Rouennaises passing by. The square is almost widely known for the fact that it was served as the place where Joan of Arc, a legendary French heroine of the Hundred Years’ War was executed, a special plate commemorating this tragic event and a Joan of Arc Church being built not far away in 1979 which resembles a dragon by its shape.
Museum of Fine Arts of Rouen boasts a very rich and impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, and decorative art. Initially founded by Napoleon in 1801, it moved to its current building in 1888, which was specially constructed and designated for this purpose. Artists whose charming works are proudly displayed in more than 60 rooms of the permanent exhibition cover the time span between the 16th and 20th centuries and include some notable names such as Rubens, Caravaggio, Velazquez, de Champaigne, Sisley, Delacroix, Monet, Vuillard, and many others.
Eating in Rouen would definitely turn into one of the best experiences you’ll ever have, and there is even no doubt about it!
Definitely, the best things to try out in local restaurants are crêpes, salted, and sweet ones. A good apple or pear cider from the local manufacturer would be a great addition to the meal. You could taste a salty crêpe with fried eggs and bacon, and for dessert, try one with chestnut cream for the desert, a mind-blowing experience. And do not forget about tasting local cheeses with some wine, camembert, pont-l’évêque & neufchâtel being the most popular and delicious ones. The old town has a lot of beautiful old, local restaurants hidden among the streets that remind fairy tales, try visiting some of them. The banks of Seine are quite picturesque, and wandering along them would become a favorite memory for you. Moreover, you can try buying some fresh food from local stores, the biggest one being at the Old Market Square, and having a break on the bank of Seine or in Jardin des Plantes de Rouen, a fascinating botanical garden not far from the center of the city. Another memorable place to take some pictures and have all this majestic medieval city under your feet there is a panorama a bit further to the outskirts of the city, which is called Colline Saint Catherine, a truly jaw-dropping sight awaiting you there.
From my personal experience, I feel like it would be worth telling that trying to get into some wine stores in the Old Town could be a fancy thing to try, with some of them having cellars filled with rare and almost unique alcoholic drinks to find and see, some of them impressing by their age, quality and respectively with their prices. Around the Christmas & New Year a skating ring under open-air is installed right in the center of Old Market Square, which could be a fun activity to do and blend into locals and share some positive energy & vibes with them.
A city tremendous enough to attract the attention of a genius mind like Monet will definitely write up in your mind as one of the coziest and beautiful memories you’ll ever have.