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July 20, 2010

Rouen, City of Art and History

At only an hour and a half from Paris by car and one hour by train, Rouen is known to be the place where St Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) was burnt. The old city center and museums can be seen in a day trip from Paris.

Once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of Medieval Europe, it was one of the capitals of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of modern France from the 11th century to the 15th century. Unfortunately a great deal of Rouen was very badly damaged during the second world war, but extensive reconstruction has taken place to rebuild the medieval old town. Rouen also contains a number of noteworthy monuments including an impressive cathedral - famously painted by Monet on many occasions. 

Places to visit
The Cathedral:  Damaged several times during the centuries, the present building was built in the 12th Century. Last time it was damaged was during the bombing in April 1944 and came close to complete collapse. Happily the cathedral was saved and has undergone major renovations since that time.  Covered in lacy Flamboyant Gothic stonework, Rouen cathedral is dominated by three towers: the Tour Saint-Roman (c.1145); the Tour de Beurre (15th century; 151 m/250 feet) and the Tour Lanterne (1876), which contains a carillon of 56 bells, utilizes 740 tons of iron and bronze, and rises to almost 150m (500 ft). Inside is the tomb of Richard the Lionheart which contains his heart.
From the Cathedral walk to the church of St Joan of Arc via the Rue du Gros Horloge. The old city center of Rouen has beautiful half timber buildings. You will walk under the Great Clock which is housed in a Gothic Belfry with a Renaissance archway. It is spectacular. The astronomical clock and the phases of the moon date from the early 16th century.

The Church of St Joan of Arc is a modern church built on the site where Joan of Arc was burnt in 1431. The large cross stands on the exact spot with the church next to it. Its strangely shaped slate tiled roof is supposed to represent the flames.  It is quite a contrast to the wood and timber buildings on the other side of the square.
Another beautiful gothic church is the Church St.-Maclou which was built in 1432. A block east is the Aître St.-Maclou, a somewhat curiously decorated cemetery dating from the Great Plague in the 14th century. Have a look at the buildings to see carvings evoking death and the mummified cat.
Walking back to the cathedral take the Rue Rollon to have a look at the Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice), the largest civil Gothic building in France. It was constructed during the late middle Ages. It has been restored since the war but certain parts have been deliberately left exposed as a testament to the bombardments the city suffered during its liberation by the allies.

If you have time, visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Art), which features a collection of sculptures and some excellent canvases by Velazquez, Delacroix, Sisley and Monet (including paintings of the Cathedral Notre-Dame in Rouen).

Eating
You can’t leave the city without tasting a crepe (French pancake).  Sharing some delicious crepes with friends and family around a bowl of cider is part of the Normandy experience. Various creperies offer dishes combining traditional galettes (salty pancakes) and crepes with tasty compositions, sometimes quite surprising.

Jeanne d'Arc
I can’t write about Rouen without talking of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), a heroine of France and a Saint. Bornt in 1412, she was a peasant girl who led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years' War, claiming she had visions from God that told her to recover her homeland from the English domination. She was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, tried by an ecclesiastical court, and burned at the stake when she was nineteen years old.  Twenty-five years later, on the initiative of Charles VII, Pope Callixtus III reviewed the decision of the ecclesiastical court, found her innocent, and declared her a martyr. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.

How to get there: By car, take the motorway A13 from Paris. It takes about 1h30. By train, several trains depart from the St Lazare Station in Paris for Rouen on a daily basis. Tickets cost around 20 euros and can be purchased at the station immediately beforehand.

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