Northwest of Paris along the River Seine is the city of Rouen, Normandy. My friend Jana lived there for a year during college, so made a generous donation to send me on an all-inclusive day trip!
I don't use the word charming very often. In fact, I don't know that I've ever used it unsarcastically, but as far as towns go, Rouen is pretty damned charming. It's full of cobblestone streets lined with half-timbered houses, towering Gothic cathedrals, shops, cafes, panini vendors, and plenty of fascinating history.
From a list Jana sent me of places to see, I plotted out my route on a map. First stop was Tour Jeanne d'Arc, the Joan of Arc Tower. This is the only surviving part of the Castle of Rouen, where Joan of Arc was imprisoned in 1430. Today it houses a Joan of Arc museum.
I knew very little about Joan of Arc before visiting Rouen. Here's a brief history, which you may already know. She claimed that God told her to join the French forces and lead France to victory in the Hundred Years War with England. Although not fighting directly, she held her banner and lead the French army to Orleans where they achieved a victory over the English. Later, she supposedly convinced the cautious France to go on the offensive, bolstered their resolve, and changed the course of that war.
Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces and was eventually moved to Rouen, England's main headquarters in France. This is a model of what the Castle of Rouen once looked like.
Once imprisoned, Joan of Arc would never leave the fortress since this is where she would be tried and executed for witchcraft and heresy.
Joan had become a popular figure among the French Forces, so rather than just kill her and turn her into a martyr, she was first tried by the church in order to discredit her. They charged her with several crimes, but basically it came down to her claiming that God directly contacted her and cross-dressing, because she wore male clothing and cut her hair short when joining the French military.
After signing a confession in exchange for life imprisonment rather than execution, Joan put the male clothing back on because she could fasten her hosen, boots, and tunic together, which deterred molestation and rape while in prison. This labeled her as a relapsed heretic and she was sentenced to death.
The reasons for wearing male clothing was argued in the trial, but practicality and rationality didn't really matter since this wasn't about cross-dressing, witchcraft, or heresy. Regardless of her actual role in the war, Joan's actions boosted moral among the French troops and paved the way for French victory. She didn't have a chance.
At age 19, Joan was sent to this spot in the town center of Rouen and burned at the stake. Her ashes were cast into the River Seine.
Her popularity only increased after her death. She attained a mythical stature and has appeared in literature and art for centuries. She later became the patron saint of France and a national heroine. She was canonized by the pope in 1920.
Left photo: Statue near the site of execution. Right: Joan of Arc graffiti
Since 1979, at the site where her pyre was lit, stands the Church of Saint Joan of Arc.
Rouen is also home to the Rouen Cathedral, the subject of more than thirty paintings by Claude Monet.
Monet rented rooms across the street from the cathedral where he would paint it from different times of day, seasons, and weather.
Before going to see the cathedral, I stopped to see one of those paintings at Rouen's Museum of Fine Arts. This one is titled, Grey Weather.
Unfortunately, construction on the western facade prevented me from taking a photo from Monet's viewpoint.
And I wasn't able to get inside, but the outside was beautiful.
Connecting the Place du Vieux Marché, where Joan of Arc was executed, and the Rouen Cathedral is France's first pedestrian street, the Rue du Gros-Horloge.
The cobblestone street is full of shops, cafes, and half-timbered houses, three of which may have existed before the execution of Joan of Arc in 1431.
The road's name is derived from the Gros Horloge, a 14th-century astronomical clock, that it passes under.
It is one of the oldest in France and possibly the largest of such clocks that exists.
This is the Church of Saint-Maclou.
Considered to be one of the best examples of the Flamboyant style of Gothic architecture in France.
I spent most of the day walking up and down streets taking photos. It's hard to put your camera away in this town.
Which is why there are so many photos in this post. Mmm panini. I wish that sandwich never had to end.
I love how the buildings sometimes lean out and no longer conform to any 90 degree angles.
This is the Church of Saint Ouen.
I regret not going inside. After not being able to get into the other cathedrals, I guess I just assumed I couldn't.
It's home to a very large original Cavaillé-Coll organ, which I know nothing about other than the name sounds photogenic.
I tried to find some locations Jana talked about to take pictures for her, like the restaurants she loved and her old apartment. Unfortunately, her favorite place to eat is no longer in business, but I think it was near this block.
Next I walked down her street, Rue Orbe.
And took a picture of her old apartment for her. I hope these bring back some good memories.
When I saw this behind her apartment, I knew she would have to remember it. Something like this doesn't go unnoticed.
When the sun set, I decided it was time to get back on the train and head back to Paris. Thank you Jana for a great day in the "charming" town of Rouen, full of rich history, priceless works of art, and delicious french food and coffee. My trip to France is so much fuller now thanks to you.