This week I headed to Rouen, the historic capital of Normandy. For many years I have been eager to discover the ‘City of 100 bell towers’ from the words of Victor Hugo. So I booked a train ticket for a day-trip from Paris and here is a little review of what I discovered in the city, hoping I will convince you to stop at Rouen too!
Coming from the direction of Paris or Le Havre, a visitor might not be too impressed by the approach of Rouen, with its industrial suburbs. Beyond the industrial and commercial business parks that might repel some visitors, the historic city centre is a “must-see”. It would be a shame to miss a stroll through its fascinating heritage that includes Gothic churches and mansions and hundreds of restored half-timbered houses… Since the aftermath of World War Two, the city centre has undergone a costly upmarket restoration of its historical gem, which is largely pedestrianised.
Situation Map of Rouen Old Town
My walk through the main landmarks and monuments of Rouen was 5.5 km long and was completed in one day – as long as I did not stay too long inside the beautiful churches of the town!
Temple St. Éloi, Place Martin Luther King
The walk starts from the Protestant Temple St. Éloi on Place Martin Luther King (not far from the banks of River Seine).
The 16th century church of Saint Éloi which was changed into a Protestant place of worship for the Reformed church in 1803.
Reach the adjacent Place de la Pucelle.
Place de la Pucelle and Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde
The name of the square led many to erroneously believe this was the place where Joan of Arc had been burnt at the stake (the maid was killed on the adjacent square of Place du Vieux-Marché).
The fine Gothic Bourgtheroulde House (pronounce Bourtroud’), was built in the 16th century to serve as a residence to Guillaume II le Roux, Lord Bourgetheroude and member of the Exchequer of Normandy. Although dominantly Gothic, there are some Renaissance influences visible from the courtyard. After having housed a bank for many years, it became a 5 star hotel in the 2010s.
From there, walk on rue de la Vicomté and turn right on Rue du Gros Horloge towards the Cathedral.
Rue du Gros Horloge
Sometimes called by locals “Rue du Gros”, this 420 metre long street is famously known for the astronomical clock (the “Gros Horloge”). The picturesque cobbled street is bordered with charming half-timbered buildings built on waterproof stone bases, some of them with richly decorated corbelling made of oak. Some experts date a few of the houses along the Rue du Gros Horloge to before the time of Joan of Arc’s death at the stake in 1431.
The astronomical clock known as Le Gros Horloge is the pride of the Rouen people. It is placed on a Renaissance arch which has spanned the historic street since 1527. The clock lies roughly equidistant between the Place du Vieux Marché and the cathedral. The Gros Horloge itself dates back to the 16th century and its movement from 1389. The Gros Horloge is flanked by a gothic belfry built between the 14th and the 15th centuries, which houses the bells linked to the clock’s movement.
The Rue du Gros Horloge was painted by Camille Pissarro in 1885 which became the first pedestrian street in France in 1971. Apart from its historic atmosphere, it owes its popularity to the numerous shops and department stores. The view of the cathedral in the distance towering over the half-timbered façades is pretty amazing.
Walk through the end of the pedestrian street to the Place de la Cathédrale. There, you can find Rouen’s Tourist Office Centre and the stunning western façade of Rouen’s cathedral.
Place de la Cathédrale
Rouen’s most distinctive monument, seen from far away, is its lofty and imposing cathedral, whose spire stands 151 metres high. From the Place de la Cathédrale, the church appears in all its glory, with its Tour de Beurre (butter tower) to the right and the Tour Saint Romain to the left.
Facing the cathedral, turn to the right and after a few metres, enter the Bureau des finances (House of the Exchequer) where you will find Rouen’ Tourist Office Centre.
House of the Exchequer
The Bureau des Finances (House of the Exchequer) houses the Tourist Office of Rouen and faces the cathedral’s façade. Built from 1509 to 1540 for the Exchequer General of Normandy, it represents a fine example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture and also features early Renaissance elements.
Walk across the Place de la Cathédrale towards the Tour Saint Romain, then turn right at Rue Georges Lanfry. Continue straight ahead: the street changes its name to Rue Saint Romain. On your right is the “Cour des Libraires” leading to the North Transept of the Cathedral.
There are many half-timbered houses bordering the north side of the street.
The rue Saint-Romain is also bordered by the ruins of a former chapel where the trial of Joan of Arc ended on the 29th May 1429. It is there as well that her rehabilitation was proclaimed in 1456.
Later on, cross the Rue de la République and you will arrive on the little intimate square of Place Barthélémy towered by the impressive church Saint Maclou. The place Barthélémy owes its name from the 19th century architect who built the church spire. In order to install the spire, several houses had to be destroyed. To the left of the facade, observe the lovely 16th century fountain.
Saint Maclou Church
The Church of Saint-Maclou is arguably one of the most striking churches in Rouen. A Flamboyant church dedicated to Saint Malo, it is considered one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Rouen, alongside with the cathedral and the Church of Saint Ouen. The lantern tower has been surmounted by a fine elaborated spire since the 19th century.
Take the rue dMartainville on the right when you exit the church. A few metres beyond the chevet of the church, enter the Aître Saint Maclou on your left.
The rue Martainville is one of our favourite in the old town centre of Rouen for its typical half-timbered houses.
The Saint Maclou Ossuary
One of the strangest sites of Rouen, the unique ossuary Saint Maclou (in French: Aître de St Maclou) is a popular landmark to discover. To place the ossuary in context, one must recall the Great Plague of 1348. As in most European cities, many of the townsfolk died during the plague. The cemetery around Saint Maclou became too small to house all the dead and a new cemetery needed to be built. Therefore, victims of the plague were buried on this site in large communal graves.
The decorations reflect their original purpose: skulls, crossbones, gravediggers’ tools and objects… Take a closer look on the columns and you will observe Death leading Life in a “danse macabre”.
From the Aître Saint Maclou, return to Place Barthélémy and turn right on Rue Damiette.
Rue Damiette links the squares of Place Barthélémy to Place du Lieutenant Aubert. The narrow street is bordered by restored half-timbered houses. On rue Damiette, the spire of Saint-Maclou seems to respond to the lantern tower of St. Ouen church.
Cross the Rue d’Amiens and walk straight ahead for a few meters. On your left starts the medieval and picturesque Rue Eau de Robec.
Rue Eau-de-Robec is lined up with half-timbered houses and in its centre is a streamlet crossed by a walkway.
Arriving on the Place du Général de Gaulle, you will see the mighty Saint Ouen Abbey overlooking the greenery of the well-maintained gardens of the Town Hall. On your right, Rue des Faulx, stands an interesting row of half-timbered houses with the spire of Rouen Cathedral in the distance.
Enter the public park of the Jardins de l’Hôtel de Ville.
Saint Ouen Abbey Church
Saint Ouen is an impressive sanctuary and one of the largest churches to be built in the Rayonnant Gothic style. The abbey church comprises of two spire-towers on the western façade and and a majestic 88 metre central tower above the crossing of the transept nicknamed the “Crown of Normandy”.
Take the time to stroll in the Gardens of the Town Hall which surround the Abbey with have views of the whole building. To the North stands the classical building of Rouen’s Town Hall.
The classical building which stands close to the Abbey is Rouen’s present day City Hall. It used to be the monk’s dormitory until the French Revolution. The monks had only just completed the building when they were forced to abandon it to the municipality.
Reach the narrow and picturesque street of rue du petit porche and at the end of the street turn left to the Place de la Rougemare.
Place de la Rougemare lies outside the limits of the touristy part of Rouen but is worth mentioning for its peaceful character.
Continue on rue du Cordier and cross the Place du Dr A. Cerné to reach the rue du Donjon.
Tower of Joan of Arc
Oddly overlooking a residential area, the medieval tower is all that is left of the once-mighty castle of Rouen. Dismantled by the king of France in the 16th century, only the keep was kept. It bears the name of Joan of Arc Tower since the maid entered the castle to be imprisoned by the English.
Return to the crossroads and turn right to rue Bouvreuil to the Fine Arts Museum of Rouen.
Square Verdrel and the Fine Arts Museum
The public garden of the Square Verdrel was opened in the Second Empire (mid-19th century). It faces the massive building of Rouen’s Fine Arts Museum.
The renowned museum was established by Napoleon I but the present building dates back to the end of the 19th century and was entirely restored in 1994.
Cross the rue Lecanuet and walk through the rue de l’écureuil where you can stop for a good cup of coffee at Citizen Café.
Turn left on the rue Ganterie.
Around the Place des Carmes
The rue de Ganterie is lined up with some interesting half-timbered houses.
Turn right on the rue des Carmes and reach the Place des Carmes. From there, take the rue de la Chaîne which is bordered by a fine half-timbered hôtel particulier.
At the end of the street is the Place Saint Amand.
The little Place Saint-Amand is lined up with café terraces in the Summer. There are some beautiful half-timbered houses.
Follow the narrow street of rue Saint-Amand.
Rue Saint-Amand really gives an idea of what Rouen may look like in the Middle-Ages:
Reach the Place de la Cathédrale by walking through the rue Saint Nicolas and rue de la Croix de Fer.
From the Cathedral square, take the rue des Carmes on the right and turn left on the rue aux Juifs.
The Parliament of Normandy
Rouen may be famous for its Gothic churches, but these should not over-shadow other civil buildings such as the Gothic building of the Parliament of Normandy, one of the rare civil constructions in Gothic style in the late Middle Ages in France.
The Gothic building once was the seat of the Parliament of Normandy. The remarkable edifice features typical Gothic decoration: crocheted pinnacles, gargoyles, four centred arches, statues and a Flamboyant balustrade with interlaced rosettes at the base of the roof.
When reaching the end of the building on the rue aux Juifs, turn right on the rue Jeanne d’Arc before taking the rue Guillaume le Conquérant to the left. Walk along the street until you reach the rue Écuyère. Take the street on the right and walk to the next crossroads with rue des Bons Enfants.
Rue des Bons Enfants continues the axis of the rue Ganterie, previously crossed. The street is also bordered with half-timbered houses – one of them seems it will collapse at any time soon!
Walk along the rue des Bons Enfants and turn left on the rue de l’Ancienne Prison to reach the last stage of our walk: the Place du Vieux-Marché.
Place du Vieux-Marché
Place du Vieux Marché is arguably the main square of Rouen with its half-timbered houses and restaurant and dominated by the modern church of Saint Joan of Arc.
The 1979 modern and wacky and spiky-looking memorial church is at odds with the surrounding fine brown-and-white half timbered houses. Some people see in the shape of the church an upturned boat or the pyre on which the Saint was burnt. The church is surmounted by a trapezoidal slate roof which is elongated to form a walkway across the square. The scaly tiling of the roof matches the fish-shaped windows.
Inside, 13 stained-glass windows from the Renaissance era form a glass wall of 500 square metres, bathing the interior in exceptional light. These fine windows date back to the 16th century and were originally set in another church which was destroyed during the Second World War. However, precautions had been taken and the windows were put in safe keeping until they found their new home some 40 years later. They illustrate Christ’s childhood, Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection, and life events of Saint Peter, Saint Anne and Saint Anthony of Padua.
A small commemorative plaque and a 20 metre high cross mark the spot on which Joan of Arc was burnt alive on the 30th May 1431. On the adjacent walls, the marks of a former church destroyed in the past are visible.
This walk ends at the Place du Vieux-Marché. For another interesting walk in Rouen why not ascending the Côte Sainte-Catherine for a panoramic view of the whole city of Rouen…