A Day Out With Elspeth in Rouen


The world’s best timbered city?

This time I go international, and to the capital of Normandy.

I’d long seen pictures of this city and wondered if it would be a cunning 1 street (like Worcester’s Friar’s St) made to look like many. Someone from there told me unenthusiastically that it was industrial, and I wondered how much after the big clock and the cathedral I’d find to enjoy.

Answer – more than any city I’ve visited, and easily beats anything in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Rouen’s quite large by today’s standards – the area or departement it is capital of is at least half a million. It feels like a regional capital too, with its metro system and serious feeling arts theatre, the regional leader’s palatial home (the Prefecture); its overpriced Beaux Arts museum aiming at being a national one, its Art Nouveau Rive-Droite station.

It was also large in pre-industrial times. Nearly every street within the city walls – covering well over a mile – is an ancient, attractive, postcard worthy view. Some of it’s like mini Paris, the typical stone buildings of post renaissance grander France; and much of it is the timbered look, often with colour on the wooden parts. The buildings are high – showing it was always grand, even in the middle ages – having several more storeys than the average Norwich building, with whom it is aptly twinned. But the strength of historic atmosphere here is more like York or Chester, as is a greater presence of tourists.

You won’t be here long and not know Joan of Arc (or Jeanne D’Arc) ended her life here; she may be the Maid of Orleans, but her incarceration and execution at Rouen are reflected not only in the controversial modern church on the site of her death in the market, or the now defunct J of A museum, or that the helter skelter like remains of the castle are named after her. There’s various other perhaps more random and profane things – for example, a tour company bearing her name; or the light show on the front of the cathedral.

I was first drawn to Rouen because of its churches, of which there are three outstanding ones, but also many interesting bombed ones and a couple of classical ones, such as the monument to Jeanne on the hill overlooking the city. St Maclou is surprisingly short, and sadly shut when I was there, but pictures reveal a stunning, light interior – perhaps the best in the city. And the stonework on the outside is incredibly detailed. St Ouen’s abbey is a large church whose interior is reminiscent of York minster, wide and light. It’s no longer used for worship but its uncluttered seat free interior is pleasant to wander, especially if there’s a rehearsal for a concert. You will start to note that, perhaps to Rouen’s resentment, its English influence is apparent, especially in its older buildings during the time of English occupation. Perhaps it’s why I like this city particularly and felt a draw here. The cathedral, which I thought to be a favourite, was less so once inside the doors and I preferred the inside of the other churches mentioned. The huge wide frontage is of as many stone kinds as it is architectural styles, but the 19th C iron spire doesn’t add or fit entirely. War damage (again English influence on the cityscape) made the interior a little forlorn and some of the glass was as dirty as a shed – but restoration is planned.

The Gros Horloge is a wonderful viewing point of the cathedral and on top, of the entire city. There’s nothing really spoiling the vista, nothing high rise, as far as the eye can see. It’s an interesting museum, where you’re escorted audially around by the ghost of the old clockmaker. And the elaborate clock itself is worthy of all the photographic attention lavished on it.

The early stone buildings here are centuries in front of what Britain was building at that time – the 16th C Finance Office that houses the tourist information centre, the Palace of Justice/parliament, and the Bourgtheroulde mansion (now luxury hotel) are three of the biggest examples.

The area that is disappointing is the river, which could be a real asset, but British bombers took much of this area, including the transporter bridge. Some warehouses are being converted into restaurants; the industrial use remains – this is still one of France’s biggest ports.

Happily this is almost a mall free city, though it did have several British chains that I was annoyed to see. Instead, one wanders the streets finding all sorts to browse at, eat in – there are so many buildings of interest I could mention – though it’s not so great if you’re vegetarian, and I could easily lampoon the upmarket restaurant whose idea of a veggie dish was broccoli spring rolls with a dash of broccoli.

One of its cinemas is reviewed here http://cinemawithelspeth.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/rouen-le-melville/