As I write this, evening is falling over New York City and rain clouds are setting in. Soon the city noises will be drowned out, the air will be misty, and the streets will be glazed over. The dampness in the air brings along with it nostalgia of Spring rain showers in France.
Normandy is one of the most picturesque of places that exists in this world. It’s the figurative backdrop to countless “Once Upon a Time..” stories. It’s the home of Claude Monet and his famous gardens of Giverny, and its renowned for its Camembert cheese, and an apple brandy by the name of Calvados. It’s where painters and composers, poets and authors created and thrived. France’s region of Normandy is also home to the magnificent gothic city of Rouen.
Victor Hugo once affectionately referred to the city as, “the city of a hundred spires,” for Rouen does indeed have an endless number of cathedrals, which dot the city skyline with never-ending towers and spires. The city played a crucial role throughout history, from the era of Viking exploration, to the centuries of instability and war between France and England. Rouen is sadly also where the incredible Joan of Arc met her undeserved fate. For anyone interested in a fascinating story that ended within these city walls, I’d highly suggest a read or documentary watch on Joan of Arc. As always, I’d like mainly to focus on the aesthetics of Rouen; capturing a piece of the beauty I felt while in the city, whether through architecture, food or music, and how The Archer and I experienced it.
May in France is such a gorgeous time of year. We got to experience a ton of sunshine, warmth and blooming flowers, with the occasional rain shower followed by clear starry nights. Our first days on holiday were spent in Rouen, and I can safely say that my favorite view of this particular city was through the rain.
When you arrive in the city for the first time, you feel as if you’ve stepped back into the Medieval era. The architecture is primarily made up of the most intact 15th and 16th century half-timbered houses that I’ve ever seen, with my all time favorite style of Gothic cathedrals sprinkled throughout its narrow and winding stone paved streets. Each façade has seen hundreds of years of history pass by, and holds both the light and the dark secrets of Rouen’s past.
Aître Saint-Maclou for example, was once the place where the bodies of those who had succumbed to The Plague were tossed aside, to keep those still living a safe distance away. Hauntingly beautiful carvings of skulls and swords are etched into the wooden beams surrounding the Aître. The Black Death had killed off nearly 75% of Saint-Maclou’s inhabitants, when it spread like wildfire in 1348, and then again returned in the 1500s.
A small but significant piece of intrigue and symbolism at the Aître Saint-Maclou, is the mummified black cat who hangs in a window, eternally watching over the Aître, protecting it from evil spirits. While standing in the center of a now green courtyard of the Aître Saint-Maclou, it’s silent except for a breeze that rustles through the trees which, as if standing guard, encircle the cross which stands, presumably marking the land as a forgotten yet sacred burial ground.
The tragic tale of Joan of Arc still haunts this city, like a dark shadow from centuries past, that will eternally follow Rouen’s footsteps. It’s heartbreaking, yet incredibly interesting from a historical standpoint. The Archer and I followed the tale and tried to piece together what happened, by visiting the landmarks that still remain. A good place to begin is at the ‘Historial Jean d’Arc’ which is an interactive museum located in the actual Archdiocese of Rouen. There you go through virtual reenactments of Joan’s trial, and get to hear actual testimonies and accounts of the events. The looming tower where Joan was held and tortured still remains a walk away from the Musée, and this too can be visited. In the market square, a sign marks the exact spot where Joan was burned at the stake. There is also a modern church built in her honor, with windows from the renaissance era, and a roof mimicking black flames of the fire (which I personally am not sure how I feel about, it seems somehow poor in taste).
LA LUMIÈRE & LES CLOCHES:
THE LIGHT & THE BELLS
It’s just as easy to delve into the light of Rouen as it is to delve into its darkness. The abundance of grand cathedrals and the ringing of its dozens of bells echoes throughout its cobbled streets. The constant singing of this city was, for me, one of the most memorable parts of our entire trip to France (second to our engagement of course!). Church bells are one of my favorite sounds, and I do believe that standing in the heart of Rouen at noon is the best place in the world to be for anyone who shares that same love.
Rollo, 1st Duke of Normandy (For any Vikings show fans, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is based on him) was baptized here and is buried here in the Rouen Cathedral, among countless other historical figures. Rouen Cathedral was the subject of many works of art and literature, including Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral Series” in which he painted the façade of the cathedral under different lighting conditions (including sunlight, grey weather, sunset, etc).
The entire city is so aesthetically pleasing to both the eye and the ear. For anyone visiting the city of Rouen, I would highly suggest towards the end of your stay, visiting the attraction called Panorama XXL. It is a larger than life 360 degree panoramic scene showing the city as it was back in 1431. When the Archer and I first arrived at the Panorama, we thought that we would be in and out in just a few moments, as there didn’t seem to be much to it. However, once you truly start looking at the detail of the art, as you climb the stairs to view from different levels, you begin to notice the changing of the light from dusk to night to sunrise etc etc. The sounds of daily life in a medieval city and the uplifting music is really beautiful once it all sinks in. We suggest viewing this towards the end of your stay in Rouen, as you will appreciate seeing the city you’ve already spent time discovering, how it all was back in the 15th century. The Archer and I were able to point out all of the restaurants we had been, the streets we had walked along, and the building that we were staying in, as they all predated the 15th century.
Throughout the week, open air markets are held in the heart of Rouen, where local artisans display their homemade cheese, fresh produce, charcuterie and pâtisseries. Much of our holiday was spent at sidewalk cafés, indulging in crepes and espresso. One thing to keep in mind is that restaurants in France are on quite a strict meal schedule, and meals are served at certain hours, with only coffee and sweets available in between the hours of lunch and dinner. The Archer and I tried several times, to walk into a restaurant at 3pm for lunch. It just isn’t possible, so we basically lived off of crepes the first couple of days as we adjusted to French time, as I was still on NYC time (and I don’t think The Archer minded a single bit about living off of dessert for a few days!). The best crepes that I ever had in my life were had in Rouen, and I highly suggest an order of the Belle-Hélène. Many of the city’s brasseries, which serve traditional cuisine from the region, have been open for over a century.
One thing that is certain, is that this city of light and dark is so incredibly fascinating and full of both life and death. Rouen, the home of Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary, the capital of northern France’s Normandy region, and the “city of a hundred spires,” has captured our hearts, enough so that The Archer and I plan on returning every year or so.
A Belle & A Brit xx