It is a miserable February day, much like the painting of Rouen Cathedral by Monet, but I’m determined to stay dry while visiting the city. The only motorhome parking is on the opposite side of the Seine but it’s just a short walk over the Corneille Bridge to the city centre.
I had hoped to start my city tour with the Cathedral but a morning service means I have to change my plans and a quick visit to the Tourist Office in the 16th century House of the Exchequer opposite gives me plenty of ideas. What the staff of the Tourist Office fail to mention is that the mayor has decided that, from January 2016, nine of the principle museums in Rouen should be free (Rouen must be more prosperous than I thought, or perhaps there is a mayoral election coming up). I discover this fact from a notice on the closed gate of the Wrought Ironwork Museum. They also failed to mention that most of the museums are only open in the afternoon!
Luckily, the Fine Arts Museum is open all day and inside it is warm and dry. They also have nice clean toilets and lockers for storing bulky bags so I am free to wander around with just my camera. They have some wonderful works of art, including some by Monet and Renoir. However, my favourite is a painting by Simon Saint Jean whose flowers are dotted with drops of water which look so real that I want to reach out and touch them. My favourite room is the huge, glass-covered atrium which features some of the largest paintings and sculptures and, during the summer, doubles as a restaurant.
I find a more morbid kind of art in the Saint Maclou courtyard, where the surrounding 16th century timber-framed houses are decorated with skulls and other symbols of death. The reason for this is that during the middle ages the area was a cemetery and many plague victims from 1348 were buried there.
However, the most famous person to have died in Rouen has to be Joan of Arc and I find out more about this heroine of the Hundred Years War in the keep, the only remaining part of the 13th century castle. Known in France as La Pucelle (the maiden), she was an illiterate farm girl who was convinced that she would save France. She persuaded King Charles VII to let her fight against the English and, inspired by the voices of saints, she led 4000 troops to victory in Orleans.
She was eventually captured by the English and imprisoned in the castle at Rouen before being tried for witchcraft and heresy. Eventually she was convicted and executed by fire on 30th May 1431. Her heart was thrown into the River Seine to prevent people from venerating her relics.
20 years later her sentence was overturned by a papal commission and in 1920 she was canonized by the Vatican and accepted as a Saint.
The site where Joan of Arc died is marked by a huge stone and iron cross in the former market square. Next to it, adjoining a more modern covered market, is an equally modern church. Built in 1979, the shape is supposed to evoke the image of the flames rising and the wooden roof has been constructed in the same way that boat’s hulls are made. Large 16th century stained-glass windows stretch along one side. These were rescued from the Church of St Vincent before it was damaged during the bombing in WWII and their installation helped the local people to accept the unusual modern design of the new church.
I’m not a big fan of ceramics, but the museum is another place to stay dry and the interior architecture of the 17th century Hotel d’Hocqueville is worth the visit alone. There are lots of cabinets of the blue and white porcelain of Rouen, as well as some more unusual additions, such as the wood panelling from the St Ouen Abbey and the former pavilion of the Hotel.
The Secq de Tournelles Museum is a collection of historical metalwork from around the world. This may not sound very interesting, but inside an old church there are approximately 16,000 objects from keys and doorknockers to scissors, irons, baking utensils and armour. It really is an unusual and captivating display.
Finally, I make it to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Twice destroyed by the Viking invasions in 841 and allied bombing during WWII, it is amazing that it still remains. There are three towers, each very different and boasts the highest spire in France, rising to 151m. Inside the mood is sombre with lines of life-sized statues of saints and apostles, as well as embellished tombs, including that of Richard the Lionheart.