Attractions: Rouen

May 15, 2023

Paul Kay

Are you interested in attractions? Since you are a traveler interested in France, have you ever considered Rouen? We knew a little bit about Rouen, but our tour guides expanded our knowledge considerably. We are delighted that we went. Madeline and I visited Rouen and Honfleur when we visited Paris. It’s a short drive from Paris but we found a terrific tour company that suggested many places to see from our Paris anchor point. Doru and Stella are a terrific couple, very informative and just fun to be around. We would recommend taking the tour with Doru and Stella. You can find them at their Instagram page I Come and Go. This post is about Rouen, and you can check out our Honfleur post here.

Rouen is steeped in history. The Romans called it Rotomagus in the 3rd century. The Normans invaded it in 876. If you are a fan of the TV Series Vikings, you’ll remember that Rollo was the first ruler of the region of Normandy. 

Rouen Rollon statue Viking was 1st ruler of Normandie died between 928 and 933

This is Hrolf Ganger, known by the nickname of Rollo the Walker, a Norwegian Viking warlord who is considered the first Duke of Normandy. The French name is Rollon. He headed a group of Vikings the pillaged the coasts of the North Sea. He commanded expeditions to Scotland, Ireland, England and Flanders. Rollo’s legend is long, and it is told through many Norse sagas. He was called the Walker, because he was so big that no horse could transport him. It is said that he weighed more than 300 pounds and was taller than 6 feet 5 inches. Rouen became the Norman capital from 912 until the time of William the Conqueror who was a descendant of Rollo and Duke of Normandy.

Rouen Saint Joan of Arc brass head statue inside church

In 1204 the French captured Rouen, and the city prospered until the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), when, in 1419, it was taken by Henry V of England. In 1430 St. Joan of Arc, the patron saint of France, was imprisoned at Rouen in a tower that still stands and now bears her name. 

Rouen Saint Joan of Arc burned location

Tried and condemned for heresy, she was burned at the stake by the English in the city on the Place du Vieux-Marché in May 1431. Rouen suffered during the Wars of Religion which were a series of wars waged in Europe during the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. The conflicts began as a struggle between French Protestants who wanted freedom to practice their religion and Catholics who saw themselves as defenders of the true faith. 

Rouen suffered in both WWI and WWII largely because of its strategic seaport. It eventually recovered when the textile trade brought it new prosperity after the wars. Today, its exports are mainly food products and electrical and electronics equipment production.

Rouen is thriving with both tourism and industry. It hosts the Armada de Rouen, a gathering of some of the world’s largest sailing boats, ships and military boats that occurs every five years.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame side view

We came to Rouen as tourists who wanted to learn about its history. As a tourist destination, it is famous for quite a few landmarks. The Notre Dame Cathedral began construction in the 12th century on the foundation of a 4th century basilica and an 11th century Romanesque edifice. It was destroyed during the Viking invasions in 841 and damaged, in 1944, by allied bombardments. The tall spire rises to almost 500 feet which makes it the highest in France. Inside the cathedral are the tombs of the Dukes of Normandy, including that of Rollo, founder of the Duchy in 911, and the heart of Richard the Lionheart, King of England and Duke of Normandy.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame side with Madeline

It is an immense building, and it was difficult to photograph in its entirety. You can see Madeline in the foreground, and she looks tiny as compared to the 500-foot spire under renovation.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame ceiling

Inside, the gothic architecture is amazing.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame arches detail

The arches tell the story of how massive the building is.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame Relics of St Olaf

Notre Dame is always going to be under some form of restoration and construction. However, we found an area dedicated to St. Olaf. He was a Viking and found against the English. He was born a pagan but converted and was baptized at Rouen in 1013. You can see a Viking ship on the table in the photo.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame Relics of St Olaf explained

His sainthood was given to him in 1031 because of how he encouraged the widespread adoption of Christianity by all of Scandinavia's Vikings/Norsemen. Pope Alexander III confirmed Olaf's local canonization in 1164, making him a universally recognized saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Olaf was King of Norway from 1015 to 1028.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame stained glass

As we continued to walk through the cathedral, we were stunned by the beauty of the many stained-glass windows throughout.

Rouen Cathedral Notre Dame Joan of Arc Chapel with statue

Doru guided us to a place where he pointed out the statue of Joan of Arc. We couldn’t get any closer and it was behind what appeared to be a tomb. The stained-glass windows are above the statue.

Rouen colorful half timber houses

The old town of Rouen includes about 2,000 half-timbered houses, of which half have been restored. 

Rouen half timber building on Rue de Hilaire

The houses date back to the late Middle Ages.

Gros Horloge astronomical clock from 1527

We continued our tour with Doru leading the way to the Gros Horloge. This astronomic clock is situated on a Renaissance arch which has spanned the street since 1527. The clock lies roughly equidistant between the Place du Vieux Marche and the cathedral. The Gros Horloge dates back to the 16th century but its movement from 1389. Although the mechanism of the clock is one of the oldest in Europe, it has been powered by electricity since the 1920s.

Rouen Great Clock Rue Du Gros Horloge with Doru and Louis XV fountain behind him and Paul

In this photo, I’m approaching the clock and Doru is directing me. He is also pointing out the fountain to the right of the clock which is dedicated to King Louis XV.

Rouen Louis XV fountain detail Ludovico

It does not appear to be a working fountain, but it was impressive, nevertheless.

Dapper gentleman walking towards Great Clock on Rue Du Gros Horloge

Madeline took this photo of a dapper gentleman walking on this pedestrian street toward the great clock.

Rouen underside of Renaissance arch over Rue du Gros Horloge

Madeline noticed that the arch was beautiful, but she also found the intricate carvings underneath the arch. If you look carefully in the center, you will see a bas-relief of Christ as the Good Shepherd. I would guess that most people don’t even look up.

Rouen Saint Ouen Abbey front view

Doru and Stella told us that Notre Dame was not the only impressive church in Rouen. The Saint-Ouen abbey church would have been the star attraction in most any town. It is one of the rarest forms of a church to be built in the Rayonnant Gothic style.

Rouen Saint Ouen Abbey interior

It still services the faithful, but the interior is very sparse, and donations are keeping it open to the public. Saint Ouen, Rouen’s great bishop, was buried here around the year 680 and lent his name to the abbey. Founded in 563, the abbey of Saint-Ouen was one of the most influential Benedictine monasteries in Normandy. The abbey was sacked by the Vikings in 841 and it took until 1062 to rebuild again. It finished 1126. It was destroyed by fire in 1248. Reconstruction began again and it was completed in 1537 without the facade which had to wait until the 19th century to complete with the twin spires.

Rouen Saint Ouen Abbey Church from back

The grounds around it are large. This is where we found the statue of Rollo because Doru knew where to look. We were not done with churches. Doru led us to Eglise Saint Vivien.

Rouen Eglise Saint Vivien de Rouen

It is the only church in Normandy to bear the name of Saint Vivien, whose relics were brought to Rouen in 1459. Saint Bibiana, also called Vivian and Vivien, was a heroic Roman girl, the daughter of a father and mother who were saints.  Her sister was also a saint.  All four of this family were martyred for the Catholic Faith and she died in 360. We did not go inside but we felt it was quite an impressive church.

Not to be outdone by Sant Vivien, Doru took us to see the church dedicated to Joan of Arc or Saint Joan.

Rouen Saint Joan of Arc church from rear

The church is located in the city’s historic Place du Vieux-Marche. The Saint Joan of Arc church was built in the 20th century. The sweeping curves reference the flames that consumed Joan of Arc on the same square in 1431. 

Rouen Saint Joan of Arc church stained glass and boat ceiling

The inside of the church is stunning as well with walls of stained glass. It is an active church.

Rouen Saint Joan of Arc church interior

There were simple benches for services and the curving walls gave a feeling of solemnity. There were lots of historical information in the church referencing how important Saint Joan was in French history.

Rouen Saint Joan of Arc Church with Paul and Doru

In this shot, you can see the sweeping arc and you might also notice that I’m listening intently to Doru explain the history and significance of the church and the spot where Saint Joan was burned at the stake.

The church was inaugurated in 1979 by French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing. It was listed as an historic monument in 2002. It was controversial to build something like this when all of the surrounding churches were primarily Gothic or Renaissance style. The architect wanted the shape of the church to resemble an overturned long ship or the pyre on which the Saint was burned. It doesn’t fit with the style of the half timber houses which border it. However, the architect wanted a statement reflecting both the past and the present.

Rouen Sainte Madeleine Church

Doru wanted us to see one more church. Madeline thought it was appropriately named although the spelling was a little “off.” The church was named for Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat. Construction on this church began in 1423 and continued through the 17th century. Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat founded more than 100 schools under the Society of the Sacred Heart. The schools were focused on serving the poor. In 1826, her Society of the Sacred Heart received formal papal approval. Madeleine Sophie Barat was canonized in 1925. 

We were very tired after walking all over Rouen and seeing so many things. But we learned so much and we would not have seen so many things without Doru and Stella. They made the history of Rouen come alive and made our day truly memorable. We think you’d love to visit Rouen. You can see our visit to Honfleur in this post. We were able to see both Honfleur and Rouen in a single (long) day, but we loved it! If you contact Doru and Stella, they will take care of everything. Here is a link to their Instagram page:

I Come and Go.

Check them out because we used them to go all over France on attraction tours. We think you’ll love it.

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