Packed with medieval history but with a buzzing contemporary vibe, Normandy’s regional capital is a stunning destination for a city break. Easily reached by car from the Channel ports, by train from Paris, and by river cruise along the Seine, it’s many attractions are matched by the glorious surrounding area.
It’s not every day that you sit down to dinner in a medieval cemetery. But then Rouen’s Aître Saint-Maclou is no ordinary burial ground. Surrounded by an ossuary gallery – a repository for storing bones – this extraordinarily tranquil spot is one of just four to survive in France. And it’s a must-see for any visitor to this captivating city.
Far from being macabre, the Aître Saint-Maclou is a classic example of how Rouen uses its rich history to educate, entertain and enthuse 21st century visitors. And when your city has connections to Joan of Arc and Gustave Flaubert, Claude Monet and the Impressionist artists, you have plenty of material to work with.
Rouen was ravaged by the Black Death in the mid-14th century. Already weakened by the ongoing battles with England in what came to be called The Hundred Years War, the city struggled to keep pace with the mortality rate. The Aître Saint-Maclou helped solve the problem. First as a mass grave, then with the addition of a galleried ossuary where bones could be stored in the roof trusses.
Atmospheric half-timbered galleries
Street children and beggars began to congregate here and traders set up fruit stalls. In 1778, the Aître closed as a cemetery and morphed into a location for charity-run schools. Walk through the galleries today with their ornate carved columns and you can almost hear the shouts of Rouen’s poor children at play. Come back in the evening when the site is closed to casual visitors to dine at Café Hamlet within those atmospheric half-timbered galleries.
Saint-Maclou was one of many pleasant surprises when I made a long overdue return to Rouen as part of a touring holiday by car. The Radisson Blu Centre proved a great base with its underground car park and popular restaurant. It’s easily accessed off the perimeter road and an easy walk to the historic centre through a network of pedestrian streets.
I clearly remembered the flamboyant carved façade of the city’s cathedral. Or did it just seem familiar from some 30 paintings made by Claude Monet in differing lights? Many were painted from an upstairs room in the former House of Exchequer. It’s now the Tourist Information Office – at the corner of the pedestrianised square in front of this towering Gothic monument.
Take advantage of one of the free telescopes around the square for a close up view of the west front that Monet would surely have envied. Then head inside to see a monument to English king Richard the Lionheart. His body lies in the Plantagenet necropolis at Fontevraud, but his heart is buried here in Rouen.
Medieval buildings and historic landmarks
The half-timbered buildings were certainly familiar to me in the streets behind the cathedral that lead to the Church of Saint-Maclou. But twenty years on from my last visit, they seemed brighter and better maintained, clearly the result of ongoing restoration. I walked beneath the colourful facades of 14th century houses. Indulged in a scrumptious cake at Dame Cakes by the cathedral. And wandered through the lofty interior of Saint-Ouen Church.
Like many French cities, Rouen is dotted with churches. Some are big, some small, and some utterly unique like the Joan of Arc church in the Place du Vieux Marché. A peasant girl from the Vosges, Joan claimed that God had instructed her to support Charles, heir to the French throne, against the English. But she was captured by their allies, the Burgundians. She was tried in the Archbishop’s Palace at Rouen and condemned to death.
Joan was burnt at the stake in the Old Market Place in 1431. Today a modern church built in 1979 stands next to the covered market at the place where she breathed her last. Unprepossessing from the outside, the church is a different story inside. It is dappled with colour from a multi-coloured wall of brilliant medieval stained glass.
Discover Joan’s dramatic story at the immersive experience that is the Historial Jeanne d’Arc. A digital journey through a second trial that took place here in 1456 in the very spot where she was tried the first time. Headsets provide the commentary in English from an array of ‘talking heads.’ As you move from room to room, you really get the feeling that you are in on the decision that was made to pardon the ‘Maid of Orleans’. Absorbing and instructive with no previous Joan knowledge necessary.
Museums and monuments
Wander the streets to take in other monuments. You can’t miss the Gros Horloge, an enormous 14th century clock. It has one of the oldest clock mechanisms in Europe. La Maison Sublime is the oldest Jewish monument in France. Walk or cycle along the quaysides beside the Seine. Bowse Rouen’s rich offering of high street retailers and specialist boutiques, liberally dotted with tempting places to eat and drink.
But leave time too for some of the city’s eight free museums. I loved the eclectic mix on display in the Antiquities Museum. It includes a Roman mosaic, an Egyptian mummy and Greek pottery. And the Natural History Museum boasts one of the most diverse collections in France.
But top slot for me goes to the Impressionist collection within the Fine Arts Museum. Works by Monet, of course, but Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley too, who all painted in the city and surrounding area. One of the most important Impressionist collections outside Paris, it is a highlight of one of France’s most delightful cities.
Further information from www.rouentourisme.com
Beyond the city centre
A few days at your disposal? Follow the meanders of the Seine to east and west, by car or maybe by bike. Heading east, the Route des Abbayes links ecclesiastical gems such as the Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Jumièges. 30 km from the city centre it hosts contemporary art exhibitions amongst the ruins. And Saint-Georges de Boscherville has lovely terraced abbey gardens. And buy seasonal fruit, jams and jellies along the Route des Fruits between Duclair and Notre-Dame de Bliquetuit. Here the microclimate favours all manner of orchard fruits.
Head east for the ruins of Château Gaillard. The strategic fortress was built by Richard the Lionheart on a hilltop beside the Seine at Les Andeleys, 40 km from Rouen. Another 30 km brings you to Giverny. Here you can visit the legendary house and garden of Impressionist supremo Claude Monet. Walk amongst the flower beds and spend time in the house he shared with his wife and children. Stroll around the famous lily pond that featured in so many vast canvasses painted towards the end of his long life. Try to visit early or late in the day, or outside peak season, to enjoy this magical plot without the international crowds.
For a different kind of Norman countryside, drive east from Rouen for 35 km. Pass through a glorious beech forest to Lyons-la-Forêt, an enchanting village of half-timbered and brick houses. It is deservedly classified amongst Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Find out more at www.lyons-andelle-tourisme.com