May 22, 2021
The reopening of museums, combined with a three-day weekend, enabled Natasha’s and my visit to a new city. We decided on Rouen, a city that particularly thrived in medieval times, just a couple of hours away on the train. Unbeknownst to us, however, an upstairs neighbor had planned to host another noisy party until 2AM the night before our train ride. As a result, it was a very bleary-eyed Dave and Natasha that arrived at Gare Saint-Lazare on Saturday morning. Happily we had acquired tickets through the SNCF “Oui” service, and finding the right train platform for the “grand lignes” was not too challenging. A few minutes before departure, the gates opened, and our mob moved aboard the train cars. Natasha and I climbed to the upper level of a two-deck car so we could watch the world flashing by. We were not aboard a TGV, but our train was still able to maintain quite a good speed to the northwest, following the course of the Seine River. We departed Paris at 8:38 and arrived at Rouen Rive Droite just after 10 AM.
Trundling down Rue Jeanne d’Arc to our Air BNB was no problem; the road is a main artery of the historic city center. We liked the distinctive facade for the train station, and we had tantalizing hints of Rouen’s major tourist sites as we passed Square Charles Verdrel. We arrived at our housing at Rue Ganterie just in time to meet our host and her son, who familiarized us with the place we were staying.
Natasha was ready to start our adventure once we unpacked a few items from the backpack. We headed west on Rue Ganterie in hopes of second breakfast at Hygge, a restaurant that offers quite a few gluten-free options. It didn’t take long before we discovered a recurring theme; the historic center of Rouen is filled to the brim with half-timbered buildings! After months of “Haussmann” structures in Paris, we were delighted to be surrounded by something very different. In the early nineteenth century, Paris would have looked quite a lot like Rouen, but in many respects the Second Empire replaced all those street fronts with new structures. To our dismay, Hygge had not reopened in time for this holiday weekend.
Instead we continued south past the restaurant to the Place du Vieux-Marché (old market). This bustling square was thriving with people at the sidewalk cafés; I think all of France has been waiting for the opportunity to return to them as the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed.
The historic market square is really distinctive in appearance. Those half-timbered building fronts (some long-standing and other less so) really set Rouen apart from Paris. The center of the square is dominated by the Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc, a church that opened its doors for the first time in 1979. Natasha and I were both charmed by it. After a steady diet of Gothic churches, I was delighted to see a truly original architecture, as though a medieval Norse carpenter had envisioned a whale beached in the square! The adjoining shopping area had been constructed to match, and we encountered a few folks handing out flyers along with the crowds of shoppers. We parked ourselves at a café to enjoy a coffee or a drinking chocolate and watched the world go by.
We passed southeast from the Place du Vieux-Marché to Place de la Pucelle. Natasha guided me to Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde after reading one of the information boards. The structure was initiated at the close of the 15th century (around the time Columbus sailed). In the early 16th century, its interior courtyard was sculpted with a bas-relief celebrating the diplomatic success of the “Camp du Drap d’or,” a 1520 meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. It was nice to see a monument devoted to peace rather than to war. I also peeked around the corner to see the Protestant Temple Saint-Éloi, which could benefit from a powerwasher!
As we continued northeast along the Rue de la Vicomte, we felt the walls closing in around us. It is not an optical illusion; the upper levels of the half-timbered facades are closer together than they are at street level. It does give one the sense that they’re toppling toward you.
We turned right from there to join the busy foot traffic to the southeast on Rue du Gros Horloge. After we crossed Rue Jeanne d’Arc, we could see the Renaissance clock tower for ourselves (my first sighting of it was a photograph print on the wall of our Air BNB). Its clock movement dates from 1389, though it was electrified in the 1920s. Léon-Jules Lemaître painted some lovely Impressionist images of the Gros Horloge in the nineteenth century.
As we continued along the Rue du Gros Horloge, we heard church bells announcing noon, and their source was obvious. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen was the tallest building in the world when its spire was completed in the late nineteenth century. I will have more to say about it in a later post, but for now I would just like to say that the massive facade of that church and of its towers are ornate. I can see why Impressionist painters would find themselves fascinated by the play of light across its surface.
We passed around the north side of the church to do a little bit of gift shopping, passing by the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, which has not reopened along with other museums in the city. At Place Barthélémy we took in the fine view of Église Catholique Saint-Maclou, and then we passed north along Rue de la République to find a sushi place for lunch (quite near Royal Donuts, which is definitely on my itinerary!). We stood in the doorway of Moshi Moshi to protect us from a sudden rainstorm. When our food was ready, we walked west along Rue de la Chaine to reach our Air BNB in a lovely shopping district.
Time for a nap!