Monday, June 7, 2010


Capital of Haute-Normandie, Rouen sits bestride the Seine between Paris and the English Channel. Although Le Havre, at the Seine's mouth, developed into northern France's deep-water port, Rouen had been a port city for centuries. The city's right bank, with the cathedral and commercial districts, was a center for social life. The left bank, with its great factories born of the Industrial Revolution, provided the economic foundation for the city's growth in the 18th and 19th Centuries. In the late 19th Century, Rouen's cathedral served as the subject of Monet's iconic series of paintings about light and its changes. Rouen's bridges of that era, forever in our imaginations through the paintings of other Impressionists such as Pissarro, were all destroyed in the Second World War. Modern bridges now span the river.

On both sides of Rouen, the Seine makes a series of great loops, carving the hillsides on the outsides of the bends. Looking east from central Rouen, you can see how surprising hilly this part of Normandy turns out to be.

Although the great sailing and steamships of the heyday of Rouen's port left many, many years ago, the port still serves traffic, both touristic and commercial. A large cruise boat, presumably down from Paris, was docked near the center of the city. Passengers were having drinks on the upper deck as we walked by. And many barge were docked east of the city center. The two bigger barges in this photo carry, improbably enough, the respective names of "Harlem" and "Bronx."

The center of Rouen has preserved much of its medieval character.
It's easy to walk in--and not so easy to drive in--because many of the streets are reserved for pedestrians. This lets sidewalk cafes spill out into the the street.

We had dinner in a slight space in the bend of a street, under an ancient stone wall, where the tables were set up across from a tavern. Little kids on bicycles rolled by. The jazz musicians playing inside the tavern occasionally came out to play a little and to pass the hat. Darkness came so late that the restaurant didn't bring out the candles until 10:20 p.m.

Rouen suffered great damage in World War II, so many structures have been rebuilt or replaced. This has led to odd juxtapositions, such as on the Rue aux Juifs, where the laboriously restored, ornate Palais de Justice sits next to and opposite cleanly drawn post-war buildings.

Even with all the damage, Rouen retains many wonderful spaces, such as this little passage.

And in numerous half-timbered buildings you begin to get the impression that medieval builders had a variety of ideas about what constitutes straight.

The Tourist Office, opposite the cathedral, occupies a resplendent Renaissance mansion, the oldest in Rouen.

Over a street parallel to the Rue aux Juifs, the Gros Horloge (big clock) has been keeping time since the late 14th Century; the current clock and clock faces date from the 1520s.

In French history, Rouen's tragic link was to serve as the place of the trial and burning of Joan of Arc at the hands of the English. Joan of Arc, whom ultra-rightist elements have of late tried to appropriate as their symbol, still remains Saint Joan, a figure of reverence here. At the Place Jeanne d'Arc, a modern church, with its roof in the form of what I see as a helmet and abutting the newly rebuilt market, was built in her name.

The site of her burning, in the old market square, is marked with flowers and a monument. Twenty-four years later, as marked by a plaque on the Palais de Justice, a later ecclesiastical court found her innocent, which didn't do much for Joan herself by that point.

And across from the church, around the square, restaurants, cafes and bars have taken hold, providing a night life much cheerier than the awful events of 1431.

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