Steeped in history and old world charm, Rouen was one of the most beautiful and interesting cities that I have visited in France. It is certainly a must see destination for anyone traveling to the country.
The old historical part of the city is characterized by narrow cobblestone streets that are lined with half-timbered buildings.
They are the home to the countless little shops and restaurants scattered throughout the area. The city really reminded me of Hogsmead, the fantasy village described in the Harry Potter novel series.
Brief Historical Tidbits
The city is located in the province of Normandy in the Siene valley along the river. Its location made it an ideal spot for trade with England and the city maintained economic dominance in the region for much of its early history. Wine and wheat were among the city's exports. The city also played a major role in the textile trade for many centuries as it recieved much of the country's wool from the English.
The city was first conquered by a group of vikings led by Rollo in the middle ages (around year 841).
Several centuries later, the citizens of the city staged a revolt against their ruling class. They assassinated their mayor and pillaged many of the upperclass homes.
In the 100 years war the city fought hard against the British but eventually surrendered to King Henry V. Around this time Joan of Arc led many successful battles against the British but was eventual captured, put on trial and burned at the stake in Rouens square in 1431.
The city was eventually taken back by the French in in 1449.
During World War II, much of the city was destroyed (around 45%) and much of it burned to the ground in a fire that lasted over 48 hours. The city was eventually liberated by Canadian soldiers in August of 1944.
Among the more cheerful historical facts; in 1948 Julia Child ate her first meal in France at a restaurant in the city by the name of La Couronne. The restaurant, which still stands to this day, is located in Rouens square.
Unfortunately, I forgot about this fact when I visited the city, so I completely forgot to look for it while we were there. Luckily though, Rouen is the type of place that you want to visit more than once so I will be sure to do so on our next visit. I was able to take a photo of the old pharmacy building though (image above) which to me is a particularly interesting looking building.
Le Gros Horloge (Large Clock)
Started by Jourdain del Leche and completed in 1410 by Jean de Felain, who became the first "governor of the clock," the Gros Horloge is one of the oldest working astrological clocks in France. It is also one of the most emblematic monuments in the city of Rouen.
It sits beside a large gothic tower that was built in 1389 and rests within a spectacularly decorated renaissance arch that spans the cobblestone street below.
The clock keeps track of the days of the weeks, which are each represented by a different Roman gods, as well as the phases of the moon.
The dial of the clock is 2.5 meters in diameter and its needle is in the shape of a lamb which can be seen in the picture below if you look closely.
The clock was declared a historical monument in 1862 and it became a museum which is still open to the public to this day. My wife and I took the tour, which I would recommend doing if it's not too busy and if you are interested in that sort of thing.
The extremely tight staircases and quarters would not be pleasant if there were too many people. However, seeing the appartment of the governor of the clock, and the views of the street from the archway in which the clock sits, make the tour well worth the 7 Euros that it costs.
Centuries before the clock tower was turned into a museum, the building was also a house. There the governor of the clock lived in a tiny apartment resting above the archway. Though it is a small and somewhat cramped space, it is not without its perks. Stained glass windows that can be opened up to the street below, offer a tremendous view of the city and give the space a lot of charm.
As you make your way up the tower you eventually come to the clock mechanism which is made out of cast iron and the large bell that would chime the hour of the day.
The top of the tower eventually opens up to a wrap around balcony that provides a stunning aerial view of the city of Rouen. From here you can see the Palace of Justice, the Abbey of St. Ouen, and of course the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Heading back down the tower staircase finishes the tour of the museum. You pop out onto the street opposite of the archway. There you can tour the gift shop before heading back out into the city.
Other Sites to See
With all of the shops, churches and historical monuments in the city, there is almost too much to experience all in one day. However a few other sites that my wife and I viewed before heading home were the Palace of Justice and the church of St. Maclou.
Located in the heart of the old city sits the Palace of Justice. Though we could not enter the building it was still very much a site to behold. The building is massive and constructed in an ornate gothic architecture style.
The Church of St. Maclou was also pretty neat to see. Much smaller and much less visited than the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Church is characterized by its brilliantly white exterior.
The inside of the church was less interesting than others that I have experienced but I was still impressed by its large organ and a massive floating crusifix in its center.
After visiting the church it was getting pretty late so my wife and I slowly made our way back to our car to head home. We both agreed that Rouen was our favorite city to visit and we made a promise to ourselves that we would go back again in the near future. I would certainly recommend visiting the city to anyone traveling to France.