A Day Trip to Rouen, France

If you follow the Seine River out of Paris and wind north-eastward toward the English Channel, you will pass through a quaint town called Rouen [Roo-ahn]. You might recognize it (if you are good with European history) as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake or (if you are an art guru) you might know it as the city where Claude Monet painted his cathedral series. Either way, Rouen is definitely worth a day trip.

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We hopped on a bus in Paris in the morning and reached Rouen by 11 AM. We crossed the river to Rive Droit [Reeve Drwaht] (the Right Bank) and went straight to see the cathedral Notre Dame of Rouen. As a side note, I realize recently that Notre Dame means “Our Lady” in French, which explains the preponderance of Notre Dame churches and cathedrals in France.

When Claude Monet painted his cathedral series, he set up a row of easels on the second story of the building across the square from the cathedral, which now serves as a tourist office. (They have free maps there, so I highly recommend paying the tourist office a visit.) Monet assigned an hour of the day to each easel and would paint the cathedral moving from one canvas to the next on the hour in order to capture the exact lighting conditions at each time.

We too returned to the cathedral a couple times during the day—it’s in the middle of Rive Droite—to enjoy its beautiful spires, intricate carvings, and elegant peaked arches. I think Monet did a great job of capturing the look of the place, don’t you?

I had never heard the story of Joan of Arc before I went to Ruoen. I knew she was a young woman who was burned alive for her belief in Christianity, but I had never heard her story. The real story is that in the middle ages during the Hundred Years’ War—which actually lasted 116 years—when the English and the French were fighting, Joan of Arc believed she had received a divine mandate to aid the French king.

When she correctly predicted the outcome of a battle, she  gained an audience with the king and begged to be allowed to accompany the army so she could see them to victory. Some doubted her claim to divine inspiration, and in response, Joan said that she would provide a sign at the Siege of Orleans. She joined the army and ended up playing a key role in ending the Siege, despite an arrow wound in her shoulder.

After that, Joan continued to advice the French forces on strategy until she was captured by the English and eventually transported to Rouen where she was tried as a war criminal under a charges of heresy and cross-dressing (for wearing armor). They convicted her and sentenced her to death by burning at the stake and scattered her ashes into the Seine. Later, the Catholic Church declared Joan a martyr and beatified her as a saint.

Today, there is a beautiful, modern church built in honor of Joan of Arc in the square where she was burned. It is a strange building on the outside (I described it to one friend as a dragon-esque Sorting Hat) with cool stained glass on the inside. I especially liked the swooping, wooden ceiling beams.

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We visited the Rouen Museum of Fine Arts as well as several other churches, a park, the Palace of Justice, and some ruins still standing after WWII bombings. My favorite part of the Rouen, however, was the Grand Clock—a gilded clock and belfry with a museum inside and an amazing panoramic view on top. The best three-and-a-half euro view I’ve ever seen.

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At the end of the day, we found a park and had pizza and French pastries and listened to the old men in the park (who had been there for four hours already) comment on people in the park.

It was the perfect place for a one day visit. I would love to return someday, cross once more over the Seine to Rive Droite to see the beautiful cathedrals and appreciate the complicated history that underlies it all. And of course, eat another one of those green-frosted pastries.

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—M.M

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