“The chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulant” – T.S. Eliot
Our time in Paris was short-lived, but a it was a like a quick 24 hour fling with an old flame; no need to reacquaint, just savor and enjoy.
After a delicious breakfast served in the vaulted cellar of our 17th century hotel, we rolled our suitcases down to the nearby taxi stand where we were whisked (literally) to Saint-Lazare train station.
At this point, I have to side track to give credit where credit is due. Since January, Josette has been learning French. She’s listened to hundreds of hours of pod casts, watched instructional You Tube vidoes, downloaded apps…and for someone who studied Spanish for many years (and spoke it pretty well) I have been impressed with her ability to pick up a foreign language, at least well enough to get us by while traveling. The further away from large cities you go, the less English is spoken.
All that praise aside, when we got into our taxi, Josette asked the driver to please take us to Saint-Lazare station , upon which the driver said “Madame….your accent is horrible! You mean Saint-Lazare (Sahn-Lah-zhar)”. And then, after thinking that we were Germans, and upon finding out that we were New Yorkers, he said “Oh, I hate New York! Too hot!”. Feeling a bit insulted, but appreciative of his honesty at the same time, we arrived at the station and he proceeded to tell us that our bags were too heavy to lift, so we’d have to do it ourselves.
As has been the case at pretty much every major train station in France, we had a difficult time finding out which ticket line or ticket machine to use to get to Rouen, and eventually we had to ask for help. The seats are either 1st or 2nd Class, and it is always hard to figure out which seats are which….there’s nothing like worrying that you are sitting where you shouldn’t be sitting…so we just paid a little extra and got the 1st Class seats and sat where we wanted. Ironically, no one ever came around to collect our ticket!
Rouen was about a 75 minute train ride northwest from Paris, and it is the first stop, so we sat back and enjoyed the ride, eating a baguette with ham and butter that we had picked up earlier. Upon arriving, we found another taxi stand and rode along the tiny streets of Rouen to our hotel.
There weren’t a ton of choices in 3 or 4 star hotels, but we decided upon the Hotel Mercure which sits just steps from the Cathedral of Rouen. It has a business hotel vibe, but our room had a view of the Cathedral, a nice modern bathroom and a great king-size bed. It was the perfect location and had free Wi-fi…so we couldn’t have been happier with our choice.
We headed out to the streets at around 3PM, which seems to have been the same time that all of the local schools let out. The town was packed with kids…tweens, teens and college age kids. Texting, laughing, stopping in cafes to sit for a Coca Cola. We felt super old and out of place…but not for long…we turned a corner and ran into a Viking Cruise tour group.
Now let me take another side step and tell you that Josette and I have ALWAYS wanted to take a Viking Cruise. When we watch Downton Abbey or some other similar PBS show, it always seems to be sponsored by Viking Cruises…and we inevitably turn to each other and say, “Dear, wouldn’t it be delightful to cruise down the Danube River and see those lovely European towns?”…and Josette says, “Why, yes, Dear, it would be lovely!”. Neither of us are into regular Cruises (like Carnival),…but sign us up for a Viking Cruise!!!
That was until we saw the kind of people that actually take Viking River Cruises. This group’s average age must have been 88. Maybe even 90. There were canes and walkers and those big, wrap-around sunglasses, elastic waist pants pulled up to armpits and very white, comfortable sneakers. I could be wrong, but I think their tour guide was the Grim Reaper…scythe in one hand and tour flag in the other. We determined at that moment that we had many many many years before we could take a Viking Cruise.
After that shudder down the spine, we toured the beautiful Cathedral of Rouen (officially called Notre-Dame de l’Assomption de Rouen). As with most major European cathedrals, the present building sits on the remains of many older, long gone churches. A church on this spot has most likely existed since the 4th century and destroyed by the Vikings in the 9th century. The first cathedral was constructed in the 12th century and then burned down in 1200….the re-built cathedral of the 13th century was done in a high gothic style. This Cathedral should probably have been dedicated to some Saint of Better Luck, because from the get go, it has had a lot of misfortunes. Besides the Vikings knocking it down, there was a fire in 1200, it was struck by lightening in 1284, the spire blew off in 1353, another fire in 1514, more lightening strikes in 1625 and 1642, hit by a hurricane in 1683, more lightning strikes and fires in the 18th century and as if that wasn’t enough, the Allies (yes, the Americans and British) dropped 7 bombs on the place in April 1944 causing major damage! It’s a wonder anything survived. But in fact, a lot did! Much of the historic stained glass was lost, but there are still windows that contain 12th and 13th century stained glass. By comparison to some of the other European cathedrals we have visited, Rouen’s exterior stood out as very unique and detailed, while the interior was more sparse than others in France. Still overwhelmingly stunning! Have a look.
After leaving the Cathedral, we started to wander the tiny little streets of Rouen. This town doesn’t have a touristy feel at all. Between 4 and 6 PM, the streets were packed with locals…shopping the July sales, getting ice cream, strolling hand in hand, and sitting in cafes drinking and smoking. In a sense, we almost felt like we were intruding on their afternoon.
The architecture of the old section contains dozens and dozens of half-timbered structures. It definitely evokes northern Europe and parts of England, more than the rest of France. It’s all very charming and photogenic. You can get lost in all of the twisting, narrow streets and alley ways. One thing that I learned is that the “leaning” houses were outlawed at some point in the 1500’s because those in the know thought that they impeded on fresh air flow and made the narrow streets more dank and disease filled.
There’s a famous restaurant, La Couronne, that claims that this is where Julia Child had her first French meal and inspired her to learn to cook in the French style and go on to become the world famous cook that she was.
We did a little window shopping and happened upon a shop that specializes in hand-painted porcelain ware. The artist was in the shop painting while we were there, and the kiln was fired up in the back of the shop baking away new products. We picked up a small dish that we might use for serving olives or other hors d’oeuvres.
Besides the grand Cathedral, there are two other massive ecclesiastical architectural sights in Rouen, the Church of Saint-Maclou and St. Ouen’s Abbey (which was closed).
By the 12th century, Rouen had already become a prosperous town, exporting wheat and wine to England, and receiving wool in return. A major textile industry was formed.
Rouen is also known as the place that Joan of Arc was captured and burned at the stake. The teenage girl received visions from Archangels and Saints that instructed her to help the French during the Hundred Years War to gain power back from English forces. In May of 1430, she was captured by pro-English forces and soon handed directly to the English. A year later in 1431, at age 19, she was burned at the stake in Rouen. In the early 20th century, she was officially canonized and made a Saint. Besides the exact location of her execution, a modern church from the 1970’s was built in her honor. 15th century stained glass from a church on the site that was destroyed in World War 2 was incorporated into the architecture. The interior is a minimalist contrast to the gothic architecture we have seen everywhere else on our trip.
All of this sightseeing is hard work and it makes you tired and thirsty…so it was time to sit and have a few glasses of rosé and a cold Pierrer. If we were true to the region, we should have been drinking beer or cider. Because this area is so close to Belgium and Germany, the region is big on beer (bier) and dry cider. We will definitely try some before we leave, but for this afternoon, it was wine.
We walked back to our hotel room and relaxed for a bit and tried to figure out what we could have for dinner. Side note….Monday is often the day that restaurants and museums are closed, so do a little research before making plans. All of the top 15 restaurants in Rouen were closed…so we had to figure out other options. What we found was that non-French places were open. Middle Eastern, Asian, Italian, etc. were open for dinner. We found a pizza place that got good reviews, Pizzeria du Drugstore. They have traditional pizzas, but they use French cheeses and ingredients. Who doesn’t love pizza?
As I’ve mentioned several times before, it stays quite light outside well past 10PM, so we decided to take a stroll through town to capture some of the enchanting light on the old buildings.
As if our day wasn’t already action packed and full of sightseeing, we had one more item on our agenda. At 11PM in summer months, they do a light show on the facade of the Cathedral. A fairly large crowd gathered in the courtyard around the facade, and we watched a pretty spectacular and very well-done show. Actually, there were several different shows by different directors/producers. We watched two of them, one being the story of William the Conqueror and the other about the general history of Rouen. We have similar light shows during the holidays in New York, but ours seem sophomoric and low budget compared to these that we saw.
Rouen proved to be better than expected. It has a lively vibe that is not touristy, even in the high season. The gothic architecture of the Cathedrals and the Abbey are stunning and the charming half timbered old section are like something out of children’s fairy tale. It’a also super easy to get to by train from Paris. If you are planning a day excursion from Paris or headed to the northwest coast, Rouen should be on your list.