Western Europe #03 – Rouen

March 02, 2019  •  5 Comments


Western Europe #03– Rouen

This is part 3 of a trip we took through Northwestern Europe in August of 2018.

Full Trip Map
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Map for this trip segment
26 Map Bayeux to Rouen26 Map Bayeux to Rouen

Rouen, France

After our moving visit to the American Cemetery and the city of Bayeux, we drove on to the city of Rouen where we would spend the night.  Rouen sits on the banks of the Seine River in northern France and is the capital of the Normandy region. In its day, it was one of the most prosperous and largest cities of medieval Europe.  Among other things from the 11th to 15th centuries it was one of the capitals of the Anglo-Norman dynasties, which ruled both England and large parts of modern France.  But now it is one of the most interesting cities in the area to visit.  As of the 2011 census the population of the larger metropolitan area was 655,013, with the city proper having an estimated population of 111,557 making it around the same size as West Palm Beach Florida or Billings Montana.

It is thought to have been founded by the Veliocasses tribe of the Gauls who controlled much of the Seine River Valley at the time and later became part of the Roman Empire.  Starting around 841 AD, those pesky Normans invaded and kicked out the Romans and in 912 AD made Rouen their capital of the Duchy of Normandy.  During this period many local Dukes made Rouen their home – including William the Conqueror.  Interestingly enough, during the 12th century, Rouen was the site of a yeshiva. During that time there were around 6,000 Jews (20% of the population) living in the city.

But all this ended in 1204 when the French invaded, took the place over and annexed it to the French Kingdom.  As was typical of the time, after the take over, the French King (Phillip II Augustus) demolished the Norman castle and replaced it with his own, the Château Bouvreuil.  Of course the Norman castle he demolished had been built on the site of the previous Gallo-Roman amphitheater.  So, what goes around comes around.

In the late 13th and 14th centuries the city peasants became unruly and assassinated the mayor in 1291 and basically pillaged the city. But, Philip IV put down the rebellion and re-imposed order along with revoking the city's charter and the lucrative monopoly on river traffic they had.  But by 1294 he was quite willing to allow the Rouennais to repurchase their old liberties.  

In 1306, he decided to expel the Jewish community, then numbering some five or six thousand. And in 1389, another urban revolt of the underclass occurred. It too was suppressed with the withdrawal of Rouen's charter and river-traffic privileges once more.

But things didn’t settle down even then.  In 1419, as part of the Hundred Years’ War, Rouen surrendered to Henry V of England who promptly annexed Normandy once again.  But Rouen did not go quietly: Alain Blanchard hung English prisoners from the walls, for which he was summarily executed.  Canon and Vicar General of Rouen, Robert de Livet, became a hero for excommunicating the English king, resulting in de Livet's imprisonment for five years in England.  And, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen on May 30, 1431. The king of France Charles VII recaptured the town in 1449.

During WW II, the Germans used Rouen as one of its head quarters.  Then on D-Day, the allies heavily bombed the city causing quite a lot of damage, including almost destroying the famed Cathedral.

The main tourist section of town is centered around the Notre Dam Cathedral and extends to the west down Rue de Gros Horloge to the Joan of Arc Plaza (about 8 blocks), northeast to the Saint Quen Abbey Church (about 4 blocks) and south to the Seine River (about 4 blocks).  Our hotel was ½ block from the Joan of Arc Plaza but all of the main attractions were well within walking distance – even in the rain.

01 Map Rouen01 Map Rouen

A Bavarian building interloper building along edge of Joan of Arc Plaza
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Halfway between the Cathedral and Joan of Arc Plaza along the pedestrian only street of the same name is the The Gros Horloge (Great-Clock).  It is a fourteenth-century astronomical clock mounted in a renaissance arch over the street (Rue du Gros-Horloge).  The mechanism is one of the oldest in France with the movement made in 1389. Construction of the clock was started by Jourdain del Leche but he didn’t know how to finish it.  So the work was completed by Jean de Felain, who became the first to hold the position of governor of the clock.

It was originally constructed without a dial, with one revolution of the hour-hand representing twenty-four hours. A facade was added in 1529 when the clock was moved to its current location.  The mechanism was electrified in the 1920s and it was restored in 1997.

The Renaissance facade represents a golden sun with 24 rays on a starry blue background. The dial measures 8 feet in diameter. The phases of the moon are shown on a ball (the oculus) at the top. It completes a full rotation every 29 days. The week days are shown in an opening at the base of the dial with allegorical subjects for each day of the week.

Gros Horloge Astronomical Clock
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Carving along the underside of the Gros Horloge clock arch
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Rouen Architecture

Rouen has some quite nice attractions and is just a marvel to walk around browsing the little shops and observing the medieval and Gothic architectures.  Many of the streets are wide enough for vehicular traffic but are now pedestrian only while others are not much more than a narrow gap between rows of buildings.  But wherever you go in this section of town you are engulfed in what is called “Half Timber” style architecture.  Many of these are authentic with rough cut exposed beams.  However, on closer inspection, one discovers that on some of these buildings the “half timber” beams are not beams at all but are just painted on the side of the building. 

Another interesting thing about the buildings is that the faces of the buildings along the street are not vertical.  They actually lean out over the street a bit as they go up, thus adding some extra floor space to the upper stories.  And each building does not necessarily lean at the same angle as its neighbors.   At one time, this practice got so out of hand that buildings on opposite sides of the street actually touched each other in some places – which could make the view out those upper story windows somewhat interesting.  But, that practice was curtailed and now the “lean” is limited to a more modest amount.  What’s amazing is that you don’t really notice it until it is pointed out to you.  You just sort of figure that the buildings have settled at odd angles.

Buildings lean out as they go up
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Some streets are just a narrow gap between buildings
Narrow street of half timber buildings, Rouen FranceNarrow street of half timber buildings, Rouen France

Some buildings added to the idea of a lean by also making each higher floor larger than the one below it
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Half Timber Architecutre
Vertical half timber house, Rouen, FranceVertical half timber house, Rouen, France

Some of the now pedestrian only streets have lovely and quintessentially French cafes with alfresco seating (not so popular in the rain)
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But, the rain can be dealt with in other ways for outdoor seating
Rainy day on Rue du Pere Adam, Rouen, FRRainy day on Rue du Pere Adam, Rouen, FR

Notre Dam Cathedral de Rouen

So, let’s take a look at the Notre Dam Cathedral.  OK, where have I heard that name before?  Didn’t we just see the Notre Dam Cathedral in Bayeux, not to mention Paris? Well, yes we did, yet here is yet another one.  This one is quite impressive with its two mis-matched square towers flanking the front façade and intricately carved stone work adorning the entire structure.  They say that this is one of the most exquisite pieces of purely Flamboyant work existing. As with most Cathedrals of the area, it is a combination of mostly Gothic style although other styles have crept in as the construction spanned many decades during which styles changed. 

Front of Notre Dam de Rouen
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One of the features added rather late in the construction is the right tower (as you face the front).  This is the magnificent and lofty Tour de Beurre which translates to the “Butter Tower” and is one of three mighty towers that make the cathedral of Rouen one of the country’s most stunning.  This tower is distinctly different than its mate on the other side.  It is a luxuriant example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture with pinnacles, gables and statues on every side topped by a intricate crown of open stone-work.  But why is it the Butter Tower?  Well the story goes that in the Middle-Ages the consumption of butter was banned during Lent.  But, for parishioners who hoped to escape this inconvenient religious rule - after all what good is a good French croissant without the use of butter? -  permission was given for them to keep on eating ‘fat’ in return for a donation of six Livres Tournois (about $85 to $100).  This form of “paying for your sins” was approved the Pope and thus the tower was funded.

Along with the town itself, this building has had its share of bad luck over the centuries.  In the late 16th century it was badly damaged during the French Wars of Religion by the Calvinists.  It was struck by lightning in 1625, 1642, and again in 1822 which destroyed the Renaissance Spire.  A hurricane got to it in 1683, the choir burnt in 1727, and the bell broke in 1786.  During World War II, the cathedral was bombed by the British when seven bombs fell on the building, narrowly missing a key pillar of the lantern tower.  The bombing damaged much of the south aisle and destroyed two rose windows. One of the bombs did not explode.  A second bombing by the U.S. (before the Normandy Landings) burned the oldest tower, called the North Tower or the Saint-Romain Tower. During the fire the bells melted, leaving molten remains on the floor. In 1999, during Cyclone Lothar, a copper-clad wooden turret weighing 26 tons broke and fell partly into the church and damaged the choir.  Yet, there it still stands.

But it has also had its claim to fame.  It was declared the tallest building in the world between 1876 and 1880.  The cathedral's gothic façade (completed in the 16th century) was the subject of a series of paintings by Claude Monet, some of which are currently exhibited in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Intricate stone work over central portal
Doorway Arch, Cathedral Notre Dame RouenDoorway Arch, Cathedral Notre Dame Rouen

Upper portions of central section boasts dozens of religious figures (albeit with a few missing heads)
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“Z” stairway in the left transept
CrisCross stairs, Cathedral Notre Dame Rouen, FRCrisCross stairs, Cathedral Notre Dame Rouen, FR

The inside is as intricate as the outside
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In several towns in France, the central cathedral becomes the screen for a laser lightshow in the evenings.  We were informed of this by our hotel clerk when we arrived but didn’t think about it.  In our youth, while in college, we supplemented our meager income by doing psychedelic lightshows in rock palaces and rock concerts in the Boston area.  After all it was the mid to late 1960’s.  So we were quite used to flashing strobe lights, swirling colored fluids projected on the walls and wild colored lighting.  But we figured that even though it was drizzly it would probably be more entertaining than sitting in a hotel room.  So, we went on over to the Cathedral and set up the camera gear as a crowd gathered. 

The show was actually quite spectacular.  Some of it used the architecture of the building as scaffolding for projected images reminiscent of medieval times in history.  At other times in the show the front of the cathedral was more of a screen for love story.  The show was accompanied by a musical score through a high class audio system.  All in all it was really a wonderful show.

Waiting for the Laser show to begin
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Candles projected on alcoves in the cathedral walls
Laser Light show, Cathedral Notre Dam Rouen, France #1Laser Light show, Cathedral Notre Dam Rouen, France #1

Painted in pastel Laser colors
Laser Light show, Cathedral Notre Dam Rouen, France #2Laser Light show, Cathedral Notre Dam Rouen, France #2

I have no idea, but it is interesting
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Part of the love story
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Medieval scene
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Laser Lightshow Video 1 (if reading in email, click on image to see low res video online)
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Laser Lightshow Video 2 (if reading in email, click on image to see low res video online)
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Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc lived from around 1412 to 1431.  So, to put this in perspective she died 60 years before Columbus landed in North America.  She is considered one of the most enduring heroic icons of France, right up there with Napoleon Bonaparte.  Her claim to fame stemmed from her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years' War.  To cement her legend in history she was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. 

Born to peasant parents, Joan claimed to have received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria instructing her to support Charles VII and free France from English domination late in the Hundred Years' War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief army. She gained prominence after the siege was lifted only nine days later. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII's coronation at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.

However, the Brits were not amused by this upstart female teenager giving them a whooping and in May of 1430 she was captured by a group of French nobles allied with the English.  She was later handed over to the English and put on trial by the pro-English bishop Pierre Cauchon on a variety of charges.  After Cauchon declared her guilty she was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, dying at about nineteen years of age.

But that wasn’t the end of her story.  Twenty-five years later, in 1456, an inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Callixtus III examined the trial, debunked the charges against her, pronounced her innocent, and declared her a martyr.  She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. Joan of Arc is one of the nine secondary patron saints of France and has remained one of the most popular figures in literature, painting, sculpture, and other cultural works since the time of her death.

Inside the keep of the old Rouen Castle next to the Cathedral is the Tour Jeanne d'Arc.  This is where Joan of Arc was brought in 1431 to be threatened with torture and is a very well done exhibit where the viewers move from room to room as a group.  In each room through an audio and laser-visual projection we are led through a reenactment of the inquisitorial court hearings on how the original trial of Joan was conducted.  Again, quite well done.

If you go to Rouen, be sure to take this in.  It is an especially a good way to spend a rainy couple of hours.

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I hope you enjoyed reading about the American Cemetery and Bayeux leg of our NW Europe trip,  Please check out my other travel blogs under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .


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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website. 

          https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/nw-europe-2018-08  (all images)

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Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.





Jim Colton(non-registered)

We are planning how to allocate our time in Normandy in September, particularly between Bayeux and Rouen. Your comments and photos are very helpful in doing so. Thanks for giving us some details so we can work all this out.

Jim Colton(non-registered)
Great description and photos of Rouen and highlights thereof. We will definitely add this to our trip next year. Thanks!
Karen J Roe(non-registered)
Great commentary and photos. We have a similar (but much smaller in scale) light show on the Cathedral here in San Antonio. Hope you get down to see us sometime soon.
Hi Dan,
We took the Seine river cruise in 2017 that spent a day in Rouen. I am sad to say
we did not see the light show at the cathedral. Wonderful images.
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Hi Dan - as usual, and excellent trip narration and great photos. Loved the explanation of another Notre Dame, and the laser light show was really unusual! Interesting to paint a complicated building with light and not just a blank screen. And putting climbers on it was really clever.

Hope you and Ellen have been having fun!
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