Our roam in Rouen: They honeymooned in Paris, but John Sergeant and wife Mary mark their 55th anniversary in another enchanting French city
Many people, myself included, have been completely wrong about Rouen. I used to think, coming off the ferry, it was a useful stop while rushing down to the south of France. All too often the irritating phrase ‘seen it, done it’ has been applied to what is actually one of the most interesting and enchanting French cities.
My first brief visit, many years ago, did not go well, mainly due to an absurd attempt by the French authorities to be more welcoming to foreigners. We were issued with tokens called ‘cheques-sourire’ (smile checks) to give to those who provided a friendly service, which would enter them into a prize draw. I can still remember the looks of horror after handing them to shop owners… I had never heard ‘merde’ pronounced so bitterly.
This time, all was forgiven. The smiles were genuine and, despite being January, the weather was mild, almost all the restaurants were open and Rouen was settling down to its year-round status as a major tourist hub.
My wife, Mary, and I were in high spirits. We were celebrating our 55th wedding anniversary and wondering yet again why we had decided to get married in January.
Nostalgia decided that we would travel on the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, as we had on our honeymoon all those years ago. Eurostar was then no more than a twinkle in the eye of those who dreamt of a Channel Tunnel.
On a visit to Rouen, John Sergeant visits the city’s impressive cathedral (pictured)
The four-hour crossing, in high winds, did not dampen our mood, and a smiling taxi driver with a grand car took us in no time to Rouen. Our hotel, the four-star Hotel De Bourgtheroulde, like so much of the old town, can trace its origins back several hundred years. It was badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War but has been cleverly restored, with parts of the ancient building incorporated into the modern structure.
On our first night, we found ourselves in the old market square, enjoying the impression of Rouen as it was in medieval times. Narrow, twisting streets provide vistas of half-timbered houses looking like a Hollywood set for a Robin Hood film. Real history in this capital of Normandy is never far away.
We visited a traditional restaurant conveniently placed on a street named after William the Conqueror. He died here, as King of England, 21 years after the Battle of Hastings.
John and his wife Mary pictured in Rouen, celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary
Above, the couple in Paris in 1969 on their honeymoon
And that is not the end of the British connection. As I unashamedly tucked into the traditional dish of calf’s head, I was reminded that long after the Norman Conquest it was in this square that the fair maid of France, the great Joan of Arc, was burnt at the stake by English forces. But it would have been a terrible mistake to let history ruin a good dinner. And Rouen is one of the great foodie centres of France.
I always want to savour the local dishes and cannot resist steak tartare or kidneys in mustard sauce. Mary is more restrained but can easily be tempted by escargots in cream sauce or garlic butter.
We are also both keen on architecture and art, in which this city abounds. So the next day we walked to Rouen Cathedral – a Gothic masterpiece. Defying gravity, its soaring nave reminds us that it was French architects who first gave the world these tall, sharp, pointed windows showing off the light through painted glass.
John says that Rouen’s half-timbered houses (pictured) look like a ‘Hollywood set for a Robin Hood film’
John stays at Hotel De Bourgtheroulde, which can trace its origins back several hundred years
Rouen also has another firm place in the history of art. When trains first started to run the fairly short distance from Paris, artists with their new portable equipment, easels and tubes of paint quickly followed the River Seine to Rouen.
Claude Monet was one who made the biggest impact with his famous series depicting the West Door of the cathedral.
One of these is on display in the Musee des Beaux Arts alongside a fine collection of Impressionist paintings.
On the last day, we walked along the Seine. Upriver is Paris and Rouen is the last deep port before the capital. It is here that during many a summer, the great sailing ships from around Europe are moored for the Armada festival.
And as we left the next day, we glanced back at our nearest bridge, and who is it named after? Oh yes, of course, William the Conqueror.