I visited Rouen as a teenager and hadn’t stopped there since (although I did change trains) – crazy, as it’s so close to England and is so attractive! And I do go to Caen and Bayeux in Lower Normandy most years. I remember it as very half-timbered, but really I had no idea, there are half-timbered buildings everywhere (not just in the centre but well into the suburbs, and in the heart of the modern hospital complex) – and not just black and white but a whole palette of colours. I also particularly remember the Danse Macabre, in the Aître Saint Maclou – which is just as well, as it’s being refurbished until 2020. It’s generally possible (Mon-Fri 09.00-17.00) to stand in the middle of the courtyard (yes, half-timbered), but there’s nothing to be seen as it’s all safely wrapped up. It was built in 1526-30 to expand the cemetery of the church of St Maclou, and was decorated with wooden sculptures of the dance of death, inspired by the plague epidemics that swept across Europe so often at the time; in turn they are said to inspired the rattling bones in Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre and also in the Fossils movement of his Carnival of the Animals.
Rouen has at least three fantastic churches, close together in the heart of the old town, but only the cathedral actually functions as a church, the others being decently maintained by the state and opened three to five days a week. In the case of St Maclou, open only Saturday to Monday, it’s not tragic, as the porch is a triumph of Flamboyant Gothic stonework, with carved wooden doors in Renaissance style, that can be enjoyed at any time. Just to the north, the Abbey of St-Ouen was founded in the eighth century, on the burial site of the saint, bishop of Rouen from 641 to 684, but most of it was demolished after the Revolution, except for the monks’ dormitory which was incorporated in the new Hôtel de Ville – there are now gardens to the east on the site of the abbey and a grand square to the west. The church (daily except Monday and Friday) was rebuilt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and is huge and bare, and houses the great organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll’s last masterpiece – it features in many recordings of organ music, but to be honest it didn’t exactly seem to fill the acoustic when I heard it. The seats in the nave are the wrong way round, facing the organ at the west end, although it makes no difference to the musical experience.
Finally, the cathedral is one of the great Gothic masterpieces, mostly built in the thirteenth century, although the great western façade dates from the twelfth century. The metal spire (which briefly made it the world’s tallest building) was added in 1876 – this is now rusty, and is being restored between 2016 and 2023 (it took a year just to install the scaffolding and workers’ facilities etc). The cathedral was badly damaged in Word War II and didn’t reopen until 1956 – during the rebuilding the remains of the earlier church, dating from c.1000, were found; this is where St Olaf was baptised in 1014, a year before returning to become king of Norway and effectively create a new nation. You won’t need reminding that Normandy was created by Norsemen, and you can still see the odd Viking on the streets of Rouen and Caen. Several Dukes of Normandy are buried in the cathedral, most notably the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion (see this post for the rest of him), the great crusader who moonlighted as King of England from 1189, as well as his older brother (and perpetual adversary) Henry the Young King, who was crowned King of England in 1170 and ruled on behalf of his father but died six months before him.
There’s also a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc, who was burnt to death in Rouen by the English in 1431 – you’ll see other memories of here here, notably the Historial Jeanne d’Arc in the north side of the cathedral, where you can enjoy a multimedia ‘retrial’ of this supposed heretic. I also remember the striking modernist church of St Jeanne d’Arc in the Vieux Marché, which I saw as a teenager but didn’t get back to this time.
There’s a huge amount of urban renewal and beautification (€30 million’s worth) under way from 2016 to 2023, much of it linked to the construction of the new metro line T4 (due to open in 2019) and the refurbishment of the existing underground section of line T1 (1.7km long, opened in 1994, and totally closed for July and August of 2018). The metro connects with bus rapid transit lines which use tram-style articulated buses that have traffic-free routes through the centre marked with dotted white lines to allow the Optiguide system to bring them as close as possible to the platforms. Other projects, bringing greenery and pedestrianisation, are focussing on three areas, Seine-Cathédrale (south from the cathedral to the river), Quartier des Musées (towards the station, containing most of the city’s museums) and Vieux Marché (just west of the centre). Square Verdrel (laid out in 1862, with a cascade and statues), has already been refurbished, and there’s a huge Calder mobile presently sitting between it and the Musée des Beaux Arts, although I’m not sure if it’s a permanent fixture or not.
Fine Arts in Rouen
The Musée des Beaux Arts is very good, with a large and reasonably varied collection but minimal captions with no dates (but with a few errors, eg a painting of the first modern investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911 is dated 1891/2) – there’s far more information on the frames than the art. It starts with some anonymous fourteenth-century Florentine paintings, as well as Giampetrino, Perugino and a terracotta by (Luca, presumably) Della Robbia. There’s a nice anonymous portrait of Henri III of France, looking just like an Elizabethan dandy, with designer stubble and a huge pearl in his ear, and a lovely Roman marble statue of Omphale, Then there’s plenty of Flemish art, including Jan Claesz, Jan Massys, Gerard David (a lovely The Virgin among the Virgins), Gerard Ter Borch, Thomas de Keyser, Jan Steen, van Dyck, Nicolas Berchem, and four pieces by Jan van Goyen. Later Italian art includes Palma Il Giovane and Lavinia Fontana, and then upstairs a couple by Guercino, Luca Giordano (a Good Samaritan with the victim of robbery looking like a dead Christ), Veronese’s Saint Barnabas and another by Veronese and his studio, and Caravaggio’s superb Flagellation of Christ flanked by a great Rubens (The Adoration of the Shepherds). From Spain there’s a de Ribera and Velasquez’s Democritus (a very Spanish-looking chap with a globe).
French art is dominated, naturally, by locally born painters, such as Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717), Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824), Jean Restout (1692-1768), Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine (1751-1824), who all painted dull academic works, and Joseph-Desiré Court (1796-1865), a rather more interesting portrait painter. Every one of them was born here, moved to Paris and died there, but that’s normal in France. There are also three paintings by Nicolas Poussin (born in Les Andelys in 1594), but the greatest of the Rouen-born painters, without a doubt, is Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) – there’s a roomful of his paintings plus a sculpture of a nymph and a satyr with his hand where it definitely shouldn’t be. You’ll also see an Érard fortepiano and harp, commemorating François-Adrien Boieldieu, an opera composer known as ‘the French Mozart’, who was born in Rouen in 1775.
The impressionist galleries are what most people come for, with several paintings by Monet, including one of his famous thirty versions of the west façade of the cathedral (1892-3), two by Pissarro, nine by Sisley (always my mother’s favourite, and one of mine too), two by Renoir (probably my least favourite artist), and also Guillaumin, Jongkind, Caillebotte and Gustave Moreau. There were half a dozen decent Rouen-born Impressionists too, but oddly, later painters tended to be born in Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine, rather than in Rouen – above all Raoul Dufy (born 1877), as well as Othon Friesz (1879) and Jean Dubuffet (1901).
Finally, back near the entrance hall, there are two fine paintings by Modigliani (not female nudes but portraits of men with their clothes on) plus various works by the Duchamp/Villon brothers, born nearby in Blainville-Crevon in the 1870s and 1880s – the oldest was the Cubist painter Jacques Villon, the next was Raymond Duchamp-Villon, a sculptor who was like a big clumsy version of Henri Gaudier-Brezska (whose work is well represented in Kettle’s Yard back home in Cambridge) and the third was Marcel Duchamp, founder of Dadaism. Why they used both surnames I don’t know; but they also had a younger sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, also a painter, about whom I know nothing.
More tramways and trains – Caen and Amiens
I came to Rouen from Caen where, oddly enough, the city centre is also in disarray due to construction of a modern rapid transit system (mentioned here). From Rouen I went to Amiens, which has one of the biggest and very best Gothic cathedrals – but of course you knew that already. But you probably didn’t know that the Musée de Picardie is closed for refurbishment until the autumn of 2019. Instead I was very happy to visit the house of Jules Verne. Some urban improvements are happening here too, with segregated bus-only routes being created.
I mentioned in my previous post on Normandy that the region was taking charge of its rail services and that there’s now a fairly intensive Paris-Caen intercity service with regional connections from Caen to Cherbourg, rather than regular Paris-Cherbourg trains; the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre service has evolved slightly differently, with semi-fast trains from Paris to Rouen, stopping at all kinds of places you’ve never heard of, and intercity trains that run non-stop to Rouen and then on to Yvetôt and Le Havre. I came from Caen to Rouen on a non-stop train – nice for me, but it seems bizarre not to stop at Lisieux at least.
Meanwhile, the SNCF has almost stopped printing timetable leaflets and there are no timetable posters in the stations – apparently everyone has to be digital now, which sounds much like the banks closing branches in Cornwall (see here) ‘due to changing public demand’. People seem to be coping, but I suspect it’s putting some occasional travellers off (or maybe they’re wasting their lives away holding on the phone).
In addition Rouen airport is expanding its activities (with new services to Lyon and Bastia), Flixbus coach services come here, and an increasing number of cruise ships are making their way up the Seine (not the huge ones, thankfully, but still bringing 20,000 passengers in 2017). There’s a cycle route from Rouen downstream to Le Havre and in 2020 this will be extended to Paris – I was already thinking of a trip linking the many Impressionist sights along the Seine (not just Monet’s garden at Giverny), so maybe I’ll wait till this is open.
[Update – it turns out that 2021 is the bicentenary of the novelist Gustave Flaubert‘s birth in Rouen, and the city will be celebrating. Looking at Madame Bovary recently, I saw that when he was a medical student, Charles lived in a fourth-floor room overlooking the Eau de Robec, a lovely stream near where I stayed: ‘La riviere, qui fait de ce quartier de Rouen comme une ignoble petite Venise, coulait en bas, sous lui, jaune, violette ou bleu entre ses ponts et ses grilles.’ (The river, which makes this quarter of Rouen something like an ignoble little Venice, flowed below him, violet or blue between its bridges and grills.) ]