Rouen – Where the Seine is “Main Street”

Cafés in Rouen’s historic town centre – ATOUT FRANCE/CRT Normandie/J-C Demais

Rouen lures visitors with a mix of joy and sorrow, architectural heritage, art, museums and compelling cuisine. Just 70 miles northwest of Paris, Rouen gives off a contemporary hum in the midst of spectacular Gothic designs and enchanting timbered houses.

Wander through the popular port city on the Seine, and you’ll discover decades-old evidence of the pounding Rouen suffered during World War II. Though we preferred to stay a few days, Rouen makes an easy day trip from Paris – just an hour by the A13 highway or from the Paris-Saint Lazare train station.

Forgive my always diving into food, but it IS France! This capitol of Normandy boasts many Michelin-starred restaurants, distinct regional fare (with a bow to Canard a la Rouennaise on most menus), creamy fish stews, lovely local cheeses and the popular Calvados apple cider. We particularly relished our meal at Les Maraîchers – one of the oldest on the Place du Vieux Marche, where the market gardeners sold their vegetables. It is a delightfully warm, old-style bistro, a mix of old posters and family photos, decorated pitchers and aged mirrors.

The Rouen Cathedral was a natural starting point for us. Claude Monet’s renowned paintings featured the cathedral façade that is particularly famous for the highest spire in France. Over time, the Allied bombings and fierce storms caused significant damage, but the Gothic cathedral is still among the most beautiful in France. Some 13th-century windows are still decorated with the special cobalt blue known as “the blue from Chartres”.  Our next stop was Saint-Ouen, the Gothic Benedictine abbey where Joan of Arc was sentenced to death in 1431, and even larger than the Rouen cathedral.

Rouen’s hand-made pottery from 18th century to today – © ATOUT FRANCE/Hervé Le Gac

Time for art with a wonderful visit to Musée des Beaux-Arts, featuring exceptional 15th to 20th century works of art from Rubens, Caravaggio, Poussin, Corot and an entire area devoted to the works of Géricault. Several of Monet’s Impressionist masterpieces of the Rouen Cathedral were on display.

Local color and personality always appeal to us, so we wandered along “Little Venice” – Rue Eau de Robec – so named by Flaubert for the small stream that runs through the archways and street. A tiny side street, it was the perfect spot for a quiet glass of wine and a little exploration of the antique shops. In fact, I was able to satisfy my love of pottery, as so many wonderful old plates were available.

It was simply wonderful to absorb the many flavors of Rouen – the riverside and orange-tinted dusk, the ancient churches and transparent skies. In fact, as much as any feature of Rouen, it is the mystical, changing light of the city that has attracted painters, writers and visitors… like us!

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