“It was now autumn, and I made up my mind to make, before winter set in, an excursion across Normandy, a country with which I was not acquainted. It must be borne in mind that I began with Rouen, and for a week I wandered about enthusiastic with admiration, in that picturesque town of the Middle Ages, in that veritable museum of extraordinary Gothic monuments.”
~Guy de Maupassant, Ghostly by Gaslight
Rouen is one of those places that packs a stunning amount of history and sites worth exploring into a small space. The capital of France’s Normandy region has a population of more than 400,000, but it’s the medieval section with its half-timbered houses and gothic architecture that draws visitors to this charming city on the Seine. Its origins can be traced to the fifth century, with Rouen becoming self-governing in 1150.
The ms Sapphire was docked a short walking distance from the old part of the city. We met our guide Natalie, who greeted us with a most unusual and heartfelt welcome. With teary eyes and profound passion, she told us the story of her grandfather’s request when she first became a tour guide many years ago. Her grandfather had fought in World War II, she explained, and he was always grateful to the American forces for their sacrifices at Normandy.
“Whenever you begin a new tour that has Americans, he told me, please greet them with these words: Thank You and Welcome Back.”
Before turning into the old section of Rouen, we stopped at rue Alsace Lorraine, just around the corner from rue de la Republic. Natalie asked us to look at the architecture on the left side of the street and then on the right. The contrast was immediately apparent. The left side is the original architecture leading to Vieux Rouen. The right side had been destroyed during WWII and was later rebuilt.
About 2,500 half-timbered framed houses remain in Vieux Rouen. Streets are narrow, dark and cobblestoned. Natalie explained that houses built in the 16th century had second stories which hung over the first floor. As a result, these second stories were precariously close to the second story immediately across the street. By the 17th century, this overhang design was considered a fire hazard, and the architecture was changed to a flat second story.
At the end of rue Malpalu sits the Church of Saint-Maclou, constructed between 1436 and 1521. Considered one of the best examples of late Gothic architecture in France, Saint-Maclou is filled with symbolism. Pictures were created to tell stories, Natalie said, as a way to communicate messages to people who were unable to read.
We continued our walk through the winding streets of Vieux Rouen.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen
We could see the spire of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen before we reached the front entrance. The tallest church in France is a commanding presence, with ornate architectural details, towers of different designs, gables, flying buttresses and a soaring spire. Constructed and reconstructed over a period of more than 800 years, Notre-Dame wasn’t completed until 1880. The resulting architectural styles run the gamut from Early Gothic to Late Flamboyant Gothic to Renaissance.
The Cathédrale is undoubtedly best known for its role as a muse of Claude Monet. The Impressionistic artist was so taken with Notre-Dame that he created at least thirty paintings of the façade. Between 1892 and 1894, Monet rented rooms in a house facing the Cathédrale, often painting outside in the square. In his quest to pursue the constantly changing light, Monet captured Notre-Dame at different times of day and at different seasons.
Le Gros Horloge
Our next stop was a 14th century astronomical clock set in a Renaissance arch on the rue du Gros-Horloge. A single hand rotates around a golden sun with 24 rays on a star-filled blue background. Phases of the moon are displayed in a circular opening above the dial. At the base, another opening indicates the days of the week.
Place du Vieux-Marché
Our tour ended at the old marketplace, a lovely town square with a not-so-lovely history. This was once the site of public executions, and most famously, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Today the square is filled with restaurants, open-air and covered markets and a church that was built in honor of Saint Joan.
Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc de Rouen
From the outside, the Church of Saint Joan of Arc doesn’t make a grand impression. But inside, it is absolutely stunning. Architect Louis Arretche incorporated beautiful 16th century stained glass windows from the Church of Saint Vincent into his modern 1979 design. Saint Vincent had been almost completely destroyed in WWII, but its windows had been removed earlier and stored in a safe location. To complement the windows, Arretche created a sweeping ceiling of warm wood, giving an illusion of a Viking ship – a nod to Normandy’s Viking history.
Rouen’s Open-Air and Covered Market
The open-air portion of Rouen’s market almost looks as if it’s nestled under the rooftop of Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc. Vendors selling fruits and vegetables under blue and yellow canopies line the outdoor space. A short distance away, the covered market begins, with permanent shops as well as temporary stalls.
Rouen and Julia Child
In 1948, future chef Julia Child arrived in Rouen and had her first French meal at La Couronne. Her dinner at the oldest inn in France famously inspired her to study this new cuisine and become “The French Chef.”
“A dining experience of a higher order than any I’d ever had before…absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.”
~Julia Child, My Life in France
Two people on our cruise had lunch at La Couronne and said it is possible to order the same meal Julia had!
My culinary goal in Rouen was a little less sophisticated than Julia’s, but equally authentic. Normandy is known for its crêpes, and I had set my sights on a place for lunch on rue Père Adam called Crêperie Rouennaise. From the reviews I had read, it sounded just like what I was looking for. But what I didn’t know until we arrived was that it was also hugely popular among locals – always an encouraging sign.
A hostess at the entrance asked to see our vaccination cards…and voilà! We were seated inside at a table for two, among other couples and several larger groups. It was a lively scene, with locals enjoying a Sunday lunch, tables with wine and Normandy apple cider and of course, the coveted crêpes. Herb and I ordered from the menu of creatively named crêpes printed on our placemats, opting for the “Normande.” We were in Normandy, after all.
Our friendly server brought a complimentary appetizer – a homemade dip made with mustard, shallots and spices – served with delicious crusty bread.
Then came our Normande crêpes…chicken strips, Emmental and Camembert cheeses, Normand honey drizzle and homemade apple marmalade prepared in crêpes as big as our plates. It was one of those memorable meals that you never want to end, where food, atmosphere and the delight of discovery come together in one perfect moment.
As we were finishing, our server asked if we wanted dessert crêpes. We both laughed at the thought of being able to eat any more food, but as we looked around at the other tables, everyone was eating dessert.
“How can they possibly have room for dessert?” Herb asked, somewhat rhetorically.
Our server smiled. “That’s easy,” she said. “We are French!”