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Discover the Charm and History of Rouen

A row of timbered buildings that house cafes, some with umbrellas and outdoor seating
A line of historic restaurants and cafes, on the Place du Vieux Marché in Rouen, France

Many people visit Paris, but do they come to see Rouen? It's about two hours by car or train (sometimes as little as 1.5 hours or less, depending upon the time of day), northwest of Paris. We spent 2.5 days there on our way to the Normandy beach sites, discovering that the charm and history of Rouen made for a delightful stay. We were glad we lingered there before moving on to Bayeaux.


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History in Architecture


Rouen, though smaller than Paris, actually rivals the larger city for the number of houses on the nation's historical list.


Timbered Houses


Most notable among the historic architectural delights are a plethora of timbered houses.

These structures amazingly survived the bombings of WWII and the ravages of time, with many dating from before 1520. They appeared not only in the "old town" but in other areas. I particularly liked the area surrounding Place Barthélémy, in front of Saint Maclou Catholic Church (a tourist site in its own right). We came across an art class diligently sketching scenes there, and I made a promise to myself to sign up for an art class on a future trip.


Among those timbered house (and something not to miss, even if just for the perfect photo) is the Gros Horloge. Located on rue du Gros-Horloge, it is a 14th century astronomical clock. They do give tours of the interior, but if you are just walking by, be sure to glance up at the underneath of the archway on the street.


Gothic Flamboyance



Saint Maclou, along with the Palais de Justice in Rouen, are examples of what French scholars called the "Flamboyant" style of Gothic Architecture. While I'm no scholar of the Gothic style, I did immediately notice the more-intricate stone work and plethora of stone archways that make up its famous "portal" consisting of 5 archways.

Travel tip: If you plan to visit the inside of Saint Maclou, be aware it is only open on select days. As of this writing, that is Monday, Saturday and Sunday.

Ask me how I know on that travel tip. Sigh.


Aître Saint-Maclou


As with most historic churches, Saint Maclou has its original cemetery nestled in its immediate vicinity. Unlike most churches, it has an aître. Aître is derived from the Latin word, atrium. Over time, the word has morphed from the Roman's usage of meaning an inner courtyard surrounded by a gallery supported by columns to (in church terms) meaning a particular type of cemetery.


For Saint Maclou, it literally was a ossuary. It was desperately needed in the mid-1300s as plague and war caused an increase in deaths at the same time the original church cemetery had reached capacity.



It's a quick (and free) visit to see the aître, with its wood-covered walkway with several stations of explanatory displays and courtyard walls embellished with reminders of death and the tools of the trade. In the 1600s, a school for poor children was also added to one of the floors (they removed the bones) and yet educational and funeral activities co-existed for over 100 years. Imagine playing in the courtyard, staring at the macbre skulls and other decor of the bone galleries.


If that's not your thing, fear not! The Aître-Saint Maclou has embraced a more modern version of "gallery." It houses two arts galleries (The Fire Arts Gallery and the Telmah Gallery) and the Cafe Hamlet.




The Palais de Justice


The Palais de Justice was heavily damaged in 1944 during WWII. While currently still in operation as a courthouse some of the most interesting things are on the outside of the building.


For one, the gargoyles. I always thought they were a bit frightening, but not these!

A close up of some of the side of a Gothic building featuring a happy stone gargoyle
One of many gargoyles on the Palais de Justice

And then there's the war damage from two days in April 1944. It was left intentionally unrepaired, as a way to honor the many residents accidentally killed by American and British forces who were bombing to make a dent in German-entrenched positions prior to the Normandy invasion. Some parts of the damaged walls of the Palais de Justice have been patched with Legos. It was disconcerting to me for a few seconds, but as I reflected on it, it seemed appropriate as a remembrance of the past and a declaration to move forward.


The Palais de Justice is free to the public.



A Stunning Cathedral

The Rouen Cathedral, formally known as the Cathédrale primatiale Notre-Dame de l'Assomption de Rouen, might be less-famous than the one in Paris, but it holds a prominent place in history, art, and architecture. One of the oldest Gothic cathedrals in Europe (construction started in 1202 or a few years earlier, depending upon who you ask), it's also famously been the subject of more than 30 of Monet's oil paintings from the 1890s. Monet was able to paint from the point of view of what was the Finance Office, opposite the cathedral on the square (currently the tourism office). He apparently worked on several canvases at once, switching back and forth as the light shifted. For those of us trying to take photos from the square, it's tough to fit it all in.


The cathedral has been ravaged by Vikings, a misplaced Allied bomb in WWII, hurricanes, and sadly, Protestants. Yet it still stands, with even one of its glorious rose windows from the 1500s still intact. One of the most interesting architectural features is its three towers--each built in a different style. When you get there, don't forget to walk around the building, as there are beautiful photos to be taken of some of the towers from a different angle, and some windows and architecture that are stunning. I could do an entire post on the interior and the history of this site, but that's for another day.


A full view of the front of a large gothic cathedral which has two stone rectagular towers on either side of the front. They are done in different architechtural styles. One pointed at the top. The cathedral has three porticos at the bottom between the towers. Above that is seen several smaller towers and one larger metal topped tower looms over the back.

Disney-esque light show


Rouen's tourism office runs a spectacular light and sound show twice a night during the high and border shoulder season. Projecting from the former Finance Building, the show is interactive via a QR code prominently displayed. They show we saw had various themes, including a battle between pirate ships and a surreal part with people floating every which way.


We were there in September, staying right on the square. Bonus, easy access to the square. Downside, being right on the side of the cathedral meant there was no avoiding the sound. But who sleeps before 11 PM when you are in France anyway?



Sidewalk Cafes and Historic Restaurants

I have found the smaller cities and towns in France have delightful cafes and restaurants, with less of noise, pollution and hustle bustle but all of the gastronomical delights and often musical talent you'd find in a large city like Paris. Rouen was no exception, and that is with us "limiting" our stay to the historic quarter.


A night time view of a cobble street with light cafes on both sides. Some people side having drinks at tables.

One of our favorite places to eat was Le Saint-Romain or Crêperie le Saint Romain, located on rue de Saint Romain. It's not far from the cathedral and nestled in the historic area among (and in) timbered houses. Run by a lovely couple, the cafe features traditional sweet crepes but also gallettes--savory crepes made with buckwheat flour. We ate here twice so that we could try both dessert crepes (after eating lunch elsewhere) and gallettes. I had the Galtiflette, a house specialty gallette with lardon (bacon/pig fat), potatoes, emmental and fromage de Reblochon, and onions. While it was wonderful, the favorite was a traditional crepe with chocolate and orange flambé.



A rectangular gray slate on top of which is a range of cheeses, meats, pickles, and nuts.

We also enjoyed Au P'ti Verdot on rue du Pere Adam. It's a wine bar, but our late dinner appetites were more than satisfied by their great charcuterie and wine selection. We tried pont-l'évêque and livarot cheese, tapenade d'aubergines, and jambon speck. Accompanied by champagne Brut Richomme and a kir blanc. Best of all: food in Rouen is SO much less expensive than Paris.


Another place we visited twice was Le Fournil du Carre D'Or, on rue Saint Nicholas. This is a boulangerie that offers artisinal pasteries and baguettes for a quick takeaway or to enjoy (if room) at their outdoor tables for customers. For breakfast, we enjoyed a pain chocolat, espresso, and an orange juice for 3.40 euros. Think of this place as artisan fast food place with a limited selection, sometimes just what we wanted when starting an early day of walking the town.


Church Joan D'Arc


Rouen has a surprisingly beautiful, if eccentric, modern church to honor Joan of Arc. From the outside, you might not know it's a church. The neighborhood to the back of it is the featured photo at the top of this post.


Some say it's the ugliest church in Europe, but they are likely stunned at how different it is from what is typically seen. The stained glass was saved from a 15th century church and repurposed here. The ceiling reminded me of an overturned boat. Overall, though it is modern, the atmosphere is sacred and serene.


The outdoor has a long stretch of covered walkway. With its unique roofing, it reminds me of a dragon tail.

A wall that zigzags across one side of room, each panel of which contains stained glass surrounded by wood.



Shopping


Rouen has everything you'd want in or near its historic district. From quirky curiosity shops mixed in with modern upscale stores, you can break up the historic visits with some shopping therapy.


The glass store front of a curiosity shop, with a large pink rabbit figure outside the door on one side and an open sign on the other.

Where We Stayed

looking over a railing out at a historic city square with a cathedral
View from our room

When we leave a city, I always ask myself if I'd stay again in the same lodging. The answer here was YES.


We stayed in a small boutique hotel right on the Cathedral square--The Cardinal Hotel. In fact, it's the ONLY hotel right on the square. The convenience to all we wanted to do was outstanding. It ranks as a 3-star hotel (but that's because it's missing amenities like a gym and full restaurant) but has a 4.5 ranking on Google. We were almost never there except to sleep and eat breakfast, and after walking all day, who needs a gym?


It was a typically small European room but we had windows that opened in two directions, one looking right at the Cathedral. Our room had comfy beds, a good modern bathroom, and an optional breakfast buffet. Being a petite hotel, there's a chance that upon arrival the receptionist might be upstairs making up beds. Just call the number they have posted for her cell phone and she will be with you in a minute.


Yes, those morning bells from the Cathedral start their chiming at 8am. Not eight rings, but bong, bong, bong for seemingly endless counts and with urgency, as it to say "you don't need caffeine, you have me and you better not miss a moment of what Rouen has in store today!"




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