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Wearing Pants in Rouen

We had this idea to take a day-trip outside of the City of Light for a Sunday outing and fortunately (or unfortunately) there is almost too much from which choose. Using those places we’ve already been, those that take too long to get to and those for which the price of travel is too high as a method of elimination, we settled on Rouen.

Rouen is the Normandy city where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 — for cross dressing! Although Joan’s story is a little more complicated than being crucified for just wearing trousers instead of a skirt, nonetheless, that’s what got her in the end. The story goes that this young (very young, indeed) woman heard voices (of Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine). She was subsequently compelled to lead the troops into battle in order to save France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War — in the first quarter of the 1400’s.

This young woman was so brave, so patriotic and so religiously devoted, that they had a really tough time keeping her down. So tough, that they had to trump up the charges against her in order to justify her capital punishment. Those charges? Wearing men’s clothing. Fortunately things have changed a bit for women, and I wore pants to see where she died.

The train to Rouen was a mere 12€ each way (second class) from Gare Saint-Lazare and took just one hour 11 minutes on the non-stop (and an hour 31 minutes on the local). The station is, as usual, center city and easy walking distance to all the most important sights, of which there are many to choose — too many really for just one afternoon.

Upon exiting the train station you are immediately reminded of Jeanne d’Arc by the imposing white tower just as you enter the oldest part of the city. It is all that remains of French King Philippe-Auguste’s castle built at the beginning of the 13th-century. She was held here and threatened with torture.

What’s initially most remarkable about Rouen are the beautiful well-restored and maintained half-timbered houses (“collambage”), even though the landscape is peppered with contemporary architecture ‘thanks’ to the destruction of 45% of the city during World War II. In fact, a large area between the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Seine burned for two days because the Germans did not allow firemen access to the fire in June of 1940. The Canadians liberated the city on August 30, 1944 and for this reason there is still a strong Canadian presence — evident by the many Canadian-based merchants at the Marché de Noël on the square in front of the cathedral.

There were eight hours and a long list of things to see for a Sunday afternoon, but first and foremost on the agenda was to have a proper Norman lunch. Using “La Fourchette,” we booked a table at Pascaline Le Bistrot Comptoir for a short while after our arrival — a Rouen bistrot since 1880, run by five generations and named after the matriarch who ran the Hôtel de Dieppe. It was the perfect beginning to our exploration of the medieval city, dining on Normandy oysters from Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, “Pot au Feu de joue de boeuf” with “os à moëlle” (bone marrow) and Poulet fermier Normand AOC Label Rouge rôti (Normandy roast chicken) — all for less than 30€ per person with wine and coffee.

Then, we set out to wander the streets. One of the most beautiful sights is the Gros Horloge, a monumental double-faced town clock. Under its arch, a musician was playing taking advantage of the fine acoustics and the Sunday strollers. We perused the Christmas Market, open for just this last day, and strolled through Rouen’s massive gothic cathedral that dates back to the late 4th-century. It is well known as the subject of Claude Monet’s series of paintings capturing the ornate façade at different times of the day and year, and reflecting changes in its appearance under different lighting conditions.

There’s a new museum in Rouen — the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, housed in the Archbishop’s Palace, just next to the cathedral. Allow enough time to be taken on the tour, which begins every 15 minutes, to first see a video and then be guided through the rest of the presentation. Sadly, we hadn’t allowed that time — the reason for this warning, so you won’t make the same mistake. At the very least, missing it provides an excuse for a return to Rouen.

There are more museums in Rouen than for which we had time, but chose to spend the last hour of our visit at the Musée des Beaux Arts which boasts of a fine collection of impressionist paintings by Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Degas and others as well as international collections including works by Veronese, Velasquez, Caravaggio and Rubens. The museum winds from room to room filled with impressive works and is well worth a visit, even if you think Paris’ museums have spoiled you.

Put Rouen on your list of places to visit in France — and don’t ‘short-change’ it with having too little time, as we did!

To learn more about Rouen, download this PDF produced by the Seine Valley – Normandy Conference and Tourism Information Center.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group

(at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen)

Respond to Adrian

P.S. I’m headed to Nice in the morning for another New Year’s Eve in my home-away-from-home. We will be filming another House Hunters International this coming April there. I am seeking properties in which we can film that are approximately 30 to 40 square meters, studio or one bedroom, value of about 300,000€ to 350,000€, located between Nice and Menton, with a balcony and preferably a great view. If you have a property fitting this description and would welcome it being filmed for TV (about 3-4 hours with a small crew), please email me immediately at [email protected]


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