Rouen is the capital of the Normandy region in Northern France, and like Paris it sits on the river Seine. A city that holds so much history, culture and character, if you ever get the opportunity to visit either as part of a Normandy road trip, or as a day trip from Paris it really is worth your time. I got the chance to explore, albeit briefly earlier this year when I was passing through on my way to Dieppe.
My first impression of the place as I came out of the train station Rouen rive droit, was how calm and relaxed it was for a city centre. There were people about, and plenty traffic but it didn’t have that crazy city centre atmosphere and fast pace to it. In the early spring sunshine it really was quite nice.
Grab a croissant and a coffee from the little cafe in the station (best croissant I’ve ever tasted, seriously), and head straight ahead out of the station in the direction of the city centre. Here’s what you’re going to find, and the 5 reasons aside from delicious croissants, why Rouen should be on your bucket list…
The most preserved historical city in France
What you’ll discover very quickly is how charming the place is, charming yet medieval there are over 2000 ancient buildings within the city. Around 200 of them date right back to medieval times, and are therefore protected structures.
With such vast areas of the city built this way, a wander even slightly off the main road is like wandering back through time.There are side streets, passageways, and beautifully curved roads that veer off to form a medieval maze of half timbered houses and tiny door frames.
If you’ve ever been to the famous Shambles in York, it’s like that everywhere you turn. What makes it so beautiful is how colourful it is, with all the painted wooden beams to make each one unique to the next.
The Gros Horloge
The ancient giant clock sits proudly on the archway that crosses Rue de Gros Horloge in the centre of the city, and is probably the city’s most famous landmark. The beautiful clock dates back to the 14th Century, and is the oldest working clock mechanism in France.
The street itself is so attractive, and the archway and clock combined form one of the most picturesque views often caught on camera by everyone who visits. There are nearby cafes and bakeries from which you can sit and enjoy the view while watching the world go by.
On every day of the week except Mondays, you can go up into the archway and see the workings of the clock from behind the scenes, including the clock face room and the belfry. Prices are 3.5 euros for children and 7 euros for adults. Discounts with various other city passes and tickets are available.
The giant cathedral was at one point the tallest in the world, albeit just briefly and way back in the 1800’s. Gothic in nature it dominates the Rouen skyline, and is an impressive structure both from near and afar.
Recognisable by the two towers and giant spire, it has a history full of turmoil, including being struck by lightening multiple times, fires, being bombed in the war, and the spire being blown down in the wind.
It is the resting place of Richard the Lionheart, William I, and many other French Kings and Dukes of Normandy, and yet it is perhaps most known for being the subject of so many Monet paintings.
The cathedral is free to visit, but opening times vary depending on the season. Find full details and info here.
Links back to Joan of Arc
A French heroine for her defeat of the English Army at Orleans, Joan of Arc was captured, tried and burnt at the stake in Rouen, so the city has many links back to the woman herself.
There is a plaque dedicated to her on the site she died in the market square, a chapel dedicated to her in the Rouen Cathedral, and she even has her own Church of St Joan of Arc, although this more modern structure sticks out a bit compared to the rest of the city.
The most visited spot for those learning the history of Joan of Arc is the Museum of Joan of Arc, which was where she stood trial way back when. Now the museum takes you through the story of her life, in the historical building in the Archbishops Palace.
It might have been closed when I was there, but this little chocolatier is named Les Larmes de Jeanne d’Arc, translating into ‘the tears of Joan of Arc’, and is famous for selling little bags of chocolate ‘tears’.
The Rouen food scene…
Normandy food as you’d expect is very seafood orientated, given that the region runs right along the Northern coast of France. Many restaurants and cafes are closed on Mondays, as the 24 hour way of life hasn’t quite reached here yet, but there is still plenty of choice.
As is the case in most French towns, there’s little cafes and bistros on every corner. Specialities in Rouen include a lot of seafood, fish, lobster, and moules frittes, and cheese. You have to order a camembert to devour with some bread and a glass of wine!
There’s a very popular cheese spot named Fromagerie du vieux march close to the market square, and the blue creperie so often seen on instagram is also found right in the centre near the Gros Horloge.
Wash it all down with French wine, or try the cider, fresh from the fruit farms across the Normandy countryside that surround the city.
I may have only had a short time to explore, but I could sense even from a very short trip that there’s plenty to keep you occupied for at least a couple of days as part of a bigger trip through Normandy, or day trip from Paris.
The sun was beginning to shine when I was there, and it really was the most quaint, traditionally French town. It felt like a much simpler life and was a very pleasant way to pass the time before my next train.
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