I had never heard of the 2,000-year-old city of Rouen prior to our latest trip to France. I’m glad I stumbled upon this cobbled old town where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake so I could learn more about its history and significance to the Normandy region.
It was a perfect day trip from Paris – after a few transfers I arrived at Paris Gare Saint-Lazare and caught the 1. 5-hour train ride to Rouen’s main station. The Rick Steve’s self-guided tour on my Kindle offered the perfect option for wandering around town at my own pace. I never felt unsafe as a solo female traveler and thoroughly enjoyed my day. Here were a few of the highlights!
Place du Vieux-Marche
I began my morning at Place du Vieux-Marche, a quiet market square that is surrounded by half-timbered buildings. I guess I don’t know that it’s always quiet, but it was still waking up in the morning when I arrived, offering me a peaceful moment to eat my croissant while reading about the area!
After walking around the covered stalls, I made my way to the front of Joan of Arc church where a large cross marks the site where 800 people suffered the town guillotine during the Revolution.
Joan of Arc Church
Joan of Arc church sits in the center of the square and has a really incredible architectural design. You can just make out the exterior in my photos above (the black ship sails hovering behind the carousel), which carried into the swooping wooden ceilinged interior.
There’s a lovely garden to one side with paths that lead around to the entrance. Along the way is a plaque marking the actual location of Joan’s demise in 1431. There are beautiful renderings of her in different mediums both inside and outside her namesake church as well as in other churches and businesses around town.
I found the various depictions of her interesting – sometimes she is shown as a warrior, acknowledging her role in rallying French soldiers to drive out the English, and sometimes she’s depicted in child-like innocence, honoring her 19-year-old youth and current canonization as the patron saint of France.
(If you need a history refresher: Joan of Arc was 13 when she first heard heavenly voices instructing her to save France from the English toward the end of what is now know as the Hundred Years’ War. King Charles VII believed her, armed her, and sent her off to rally the troops. She joined them in battle, including her famous role in liberating Orleans, but lost her reputation for invincibility when she was injured trying to re-take Paris. She was captured by the English, turned over to the French who tried and sentenced her for being a witch, and on May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake in Rouen).
These pictures of the inside of the church simply don’t do it justice – it was incredible. Very simple and clean lines, lots of bright wood, and an entire wall of floor to ceiling stained glass windows.
Large tour groups started to arrive as I was walking around so I stayed along the walls and out of their way, taking it in from every angle before continuing on my own self-guided walking tour.
Rue du Gros Horloge
Exiting the church and turning to the right, I caught the main pedestrian street through old town. According to my guide, 50 percent of Rouen was destroyed by Allied bombers during WWII but the historic core survived and Rue du Gros Horloge has been the city’s main shopping street since the Middle Ages.
I spent quite a while wandering this street because I never knew which way to look – down at the cobble stones, along the half-timbered store fronts, or up at the clock tower, signage, and art installations!
One shop I had to check out was Auzou, where I purchased the chocolatier’s ‘Joan of Arc tears,’ which are delicious cocoa powder covered almonds. I bought a few other snacks to take back to our hotel for Brian since he was at his work conference all day. The building itself dates from pre-1520 as evidenced by the higher floors leaning out into the street – this architectural style was then prohibited as it was believe to block the breeze and create stagnant, disease-riddled air.
I arrived at the former city hall and its circa-1528 Renaissance clock just as the workers were closing up for their lunchbreak. I was unsuccessful at convincing them to let me climb the 100 stairs to the top before they headed out. It wasn’t a terribly clear day so I’m not sure what sort of views I would have had from the top anyway – maybe next time!
Instead, I set my sights on some shops farther along the street, including several with beautiful flowers for sale. Spring was in full swing about town as well – I stopped to take photos of the towering blooming bushes at several of the parks and church gardens.
Notre-Dame Cathedral of Rouen
The pedestrian walkway opens into a huge square and in the middle sits the soaring Notre-Dame Cathedral of Rouen. I was intrigued by the mismatched spires and the incredible state of the statues all around the gothic exterior. It was apparently also intriguing to Claude Monet, who painted 30 depictions of the cathedral in different light.
The interior was similarly impressive with a four-story ached arcade leading to the nave, carved stairwells, a massive pipe organ, and various stone alcoves each dedicated to a different saint. I found the one honoring Joan – one of the stained glass windows overlooking a carved statue of her burning features a rendering of her capture.
Palais de Justice
Rouen was a regional capital during Roman times and the Norman capital during the ninth century (another fact I didn’t know until my visit!). Today it is France’s fifth largest port, Europe’s biggest food exporter, and remains the capital of Normandy.
Although you can’t enter, the parliament building is quite impressive and takes up several city blocks. Its history is unhappy, however – the building sits on what was the city’s Jewish quarter from the 10th to 14th century at which time the Jewish people were expelled from France. Their homes were destroyed and the land was taken by the city for its parliment building.
Aitre St. Maclou
My final stop was Aitre St. Maclou, the plague cemetery that is now a small courtyard park. During the Middle Ages, two-thirds of the community died and were buried here in a mass grave. I had to really look for the alleyway leading me to this spot and lucked into a tour group that had just turned off the main road, catching my attention and helping me find my way!
The courtyard itself is not much to look at today – if I hadn’t know what I was looking for, I would have walked on by. My self-guided tour was very helpful and directed me to the more intricate details of the buildings around the square that recall it’s past life – skulls, crossbones, gravedigger tools, and other cryptic carvings adorn the half-timbered walls!
There were many other recommended sights and sites in Rouen, but I only had one day and these were some of my favorites.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention my quick stop for lunch at Creperie le St. Romain by Notre-Dame Cathedral. I had to pull out my rusty French – neither the menus nor the servers accommodated English! – but I was able to successfully order a delicious crepe and brut cider to wash it down. My tiny table was right inside the door, and I enjoyed people watching until I was ready to finish my walk and return to the train station.
If you’re looking for an interesting but low-key day trip from Paris, I highly recommend Rouen. It was very easy to access by train and safe and easy to explore solo on foot. I definitely benefitted from the self-guided tour in my travel guide and would suggest splurging for an actual guide to make the most of all the history surrounding you.
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