In April I made a family trip to the Norman capital of Rouen in Northern France for my mum’s 70th birthday. Judging by the French penchance for almond and cherry blossoms, I don’t think we could have picked a more scenic time to visit than during the early throngs of spring. The train ride from Paris (1 hour 20 mins) followed the flow of the River Seine, passing verdant fields and quaint riverside villages in which every house appeared unique from the next. I had no expectations about Rouen, so I was pleased to discover an extraordinarily picturesque little city brimming with history and character at every turn (think York but larger, draped in pastel hues).
The reason for visiting this town was at the behest of my mother who saw the trip as a kind of ancestral pilgrimage. Years of painstaking research into our family tree revealed that many of our predecessors hailed from the area – not unusual for an English family given that the Normans invaded and occupied our country for 200 years. Her discoveries traced our roots as far back as to one of Rouen’s initial Viking settlers, a norseman called Rollo who seized the city in 876 and later rose to prestige to become the very first Count of Normandy. People greet me with a mix of bewilderment and sheer disbelief when I tell them this but I KID YOU NOT, unless my mother has been well and truly led down the geneological garden path, this genuinely is all true! Rollo’s remains are buried in a tomb at the Rouen Cathedral (the city’s most prominent landmark) and we were elated to spot a statue of the man himself in one of the town’s churchyards.
Famous for its gothic architecture and for being the place where Joan of Arc came to an untimely end (burnt at the stake in Place du Vieux Marché), Rouen was France’s second city back in the Middle Ages. These days its a lively town choc-a-bloc with Tudor style timber frame buildings, boutiques, patisseries and antique shops. In spring, it’s an incredibly photogenic town so I’d definitely recommend visiting at this time of year (though, according to our guesthouse guide, the town is apparently a “heady” and “intoxicating” place to be in the summer months).
Tudor style buildings atypical of this pretty Norman town
The imposing Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen lays claim to the highest church spire in France. The first cathedral was built all the way back in 396, but with invading Normans, a destructive fire in the 1200s, financial woes and numerous additions of towers and spires and extensions over the years, this building has been revamped so many times that the finished result took more than three centuries and represents a mix of several different gothic styles. It is considered to be one of the most impressive gothic cathedrals ever built and, in addition to housing our Rollo’s tomb, it also contains the heart of Richard the Lion Heart.
Intricate details on some of the town’s historic buildings
Rouen possesses many religious buildings (it’s not for nothing that it’s sometimes referred to as “The City of A Hundred Spires”). Below is the Church of St Ouen. Set in a pretty churchyard garden, it looks nothing short of amazing in spring.
Yes! It was dans ce cimetière that we found the man and warrior himself, the mighty ROLLO! One for the family album.
“Ou est la tombe de Rollo?” dad questioned any bemused French citizen who could understand his heavily-accented French (LOL) once inside the Cathedral. We had, in fact, to make two trips before we found it! On the first visit the back part of the building was closed off so visitors could admire some ancient relics the priest had put on display. Second time lucky, however, Rollo was found. His effigy, at least… Apparently his femur (thigh bone) is still in there somewhere. I have to say that I was delighted to see a feline resting at his feet – clearly, his passion for felines lives on in his distant ancestors today (hurrah!)
Dogs of Rouen
Whilst in Rouen we stayed in some rooms above a vintage shop (tea is huge in Rouen – some serious anglophiles in this town). Low ceilings and crooked stairs galore, it oozed olde world charm. The highlight, however, was the resident cat, who rarely moved from the cafe’s high chair.
Rouen was a real gem and has left me with a desire to explore more of our neighbouring land. All suggestions/recommendations most welcome. À bientôt!