Located along the Seine River in Normandy and less than 90 miles from Paris (a little over an hour by train), Rouen is an easy day trip. Most people come to see its cathedral, Notre Dame de Rouen, which was made famous by Monet who painted more than 30 versions of it in different light from his studio across the square from 1892 to 1893. It's indeed breathtaking, but there's more to Rouen than the stunning cathedral. Its historic center is small and full of history. This is where Jeanne d'Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 and it's where in recent history renowned chef Julia Child fell in love with French food and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cathédral Notre Dame de Rouen
Seeing the intricacy of the cathedral's facade in person helps you appreciate Monet's talent even more to say nothing of the artists who sculpted it.
The cathedral was built over a period of 800 years, so it reflects architecture from the Early Gothic period through late Flamboyant and Renaissance.
Notice that the two towers on either side of the cathedral are different shades. The left-hand or northernmost tower, the Tour Saint-Romain, is the older of the two. Its construction began in the middle part of the 12th century, the beginning of the Gothic period. The righthand, or southernmost tower is called the Tour de Beurre, or Butter Tower due to its richer, buttery tone. iIt is the newer of the two towers, its construction having begun in the late 15th century.
It's said that the Tour de Beurre acquired its name because in the Middle Ages Catholics weren't permitted to eat butter during Lent, so wealthy citizens paid - or made donations to - the Church for the privilege of eating butter, and the construction of the Tour de Beurre was funded from those donations. I don't know if that's true, but it's a good story.
The inside of the cathedral isn't as intricate as the outside, but lovely nevertheless.
The Gros Horloge
As if the cathedral isn't enough feast for the eyes, the Gros Horloge, or "big clock" and the tower which holds it are more early Renaissance masterpieces. Located on the main pedestrian street, rue du Gros-Horloge in the old part of town, it's hard not to take your eyes off it. There are actually two faces, one facing the cathedral and the other facing the Place du Vieux Marché. The mechanism which dates from 1389 is one of the oldest in France. It has occupied its current location since 1529 when the dials were added, and the mechanism was electrified in the 1920's.
This bas-relief under the arch represents Christ as the Good Shepherd.
This sculpture represents Rouen's coat of arms. Notice the faded red background.
More exquisite sculpture at its base.
It's possible to climb the Gros Horloge. There are 137 steps (yes, I counted them), but several levels on which to rest, look outside, and read about the tower's interesting history.
The beautiful view of the city and surrounding countryside is a reward for climbing the steps.
The Saint-Ouen Abbey stands out beautifully from the tower.
A few steps down the rue du Gros-Horloge is the Place du Vieux-Marché or the old Market Square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. The church which is dedicated to her is here and it couldn't be more of a contrast from the cathedral. The church was commissioned in 1969 and completed ten years later.
The garden of the church marks the exact spot for Joan was burned in 1431 for heresy.
The curving lines of the church are meant to represent the flames which burned her as well as an overturned longship which was a common symbol in early Christian churches. I really liked the interior.
Directly across from the church is La Couronne, the restaurant which inspired Julia Child. Her husband Paul had accepted a post in Paris with the US State Department. On their way to Paris they stopped in Rouen and ate here, spurring her love of French food and of cooking. Built in 1345, it claims to be the oldest restaurant in France.
Although badly damaged during World War II, Rouen has maintained many medieval alleys and half-timbered houses making it a picture-perfect destination.
One thing I find interesting is the juxtaposition of the old and new. Look at the old beams in this clothing store and the Monoprix at the base of the half-timbered building.
There are a number of ways to get to Rouen; you can join an organized day tour (not necessary in my opinion), rent a car or take the train. Since I like leaving the driving to others and really enjoy French trains, I chose that option. I bought my tickets the day before online, but you can also buy them at the station. The official name of the station in Rouen is Rouen Rive Droite.
Rouen trains leave from the Gare St. Lazare, one of the several large train stations in Paris. I find this one somewhat confusing and frenetic (they're all pretty frenetic), so hopefully this will help if you choose to take the train there. Follow the signs as the photo below and take the escalators to the top floor which is where you'll fine the ticket machines and tracks.
There are boards in the main waiting area before you reach the tracks which indicate the exact track ("voie" in French) that your train will be on. Don't worry if you don't see the track number right away; they tend to publish the track number closer to the time the train leaves. You see that this screen below shows that the Rouen train will leave on tracks 12 to 21 but the exact track isn't listed yet.
There are also screens in the track area so if you want to wait inside the ticketed area, that's an option.
This is one of the ticketing kiosks if you choose to buy your ticket at the station.
The train station in Rouen is much smaller than the Gare St.-Lazare and you can walk to the center of town in less than 15 minutes.
I hope you agree that Rouen is full of charm and beauty and a worthy day trip!
➜ Top Tips
The clock tower is open except on Mondays and it closes for lunch, so if you want to climb it, visit any day but Monday and note the two-hour closing at lunch.
You can read more about the cathedral, its history and architecture in this excellent article.
If possible, plan to have lunch at La Couronne. I haven't eaten there, but I've heard that the food is excellent.