By Rosemary Kluth
Facade of the church of St-Maclou – photo by Rosemary Kluth
A week on the Seine – Days 3 and 4
Friday morning found us moored at the heart of Rouen. Our tour guide picked us up at the boat, and we were able to climb a few steps and walk into town. Rouen is a pearl of Norman architecture, and still boasts around 2,000 well-preserved timbered houses, many of which have now had their original bright coloured facades restored. The houses were typically built with upper floors projecting into the road to create more space, although after 1520 this style of architecture was banned, as it made the streets and alleyways too dark.
We followed our guide through the streets, admiring shop fronts set into medieval buildings, ancient doors and elaborate stonework. En route to Notre Dame Cathedral, we passed by the beautiful church of St-Maclou, surrounded by more ancient houses, and flanked by the impressive Bishop’s Palace, where the trial of Joan of Arc was held.
Church of St-Maclou
A particular highlight was the Aitre St-Maclou, one of France’s last remaining charnel houses. This was transformed from a school for destitute boys into an ossuary when the usual graveyards overflowed during the plague in 1521. It is now just an empty square surrounded by half-timbered buildings, whose upper floors rest on pillars with delightfully spooky carvings – a danse macabre sadly often too worn to decipher.
While we waited to get into the cathedral, we were told of the history of Rouen, and of Rollo the Viking, Duke of Normandy, who transformed Rouen into a flourishing port in the 10th century. Rollo is buried in Rouen cathedral, together with his son, William Longsword. The cathedral itself is not as aesthetically pleasing as some, but its facade has the distinction of having been painted 33 times by Claude Monet. Heading on towards the Place du Vieux Marché, we passed the Palais de Justice, requisitioned by the Nazis during the occupation of Rouen in the early 1940s for use as a prison. Among the more edifying sights along the way were a beautifully carved Louis XV fountain, and Rouen’s famous astronomical clock. The gold-embellished clock sits over an arch spanning the street. It shows the sun, moon and planets corresponding with the days of the week, and is crowned by a ball representing the current phase of the moon. The clockmaker lived in the clock tower alongside, and was able to watch over his creation from his balcony.
Rouen’s famous astronomical clock
A little further on, we came to the old marketplace where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. The approximate site of her execution is marked with a cross, and a new church resembling a giant fish or an upturned boat was erected close by in 1979. The slate roof over the thriving street market beside the church is designed to look like waves in continuation of the boat/fish theme. Suffice it to say it was not to my taste, but no doubt it has plenty of architectural value for the more discerning. After a well-earned cup of coffee in a charming little student café, we returned to the boat to continue our journey. Or so we thought. In fact, we were told there was a hitch, in that a damaged lock was going to prevent our onward journey. Instead of going on to Le Havre, we were forced to remain in Caudebec-en-Caux and visit the coast by coach. This only slightly affected our plans, but necessitated an uncomfortably early start the next morning.
Cliffs at Etratat
Saturday was cold and blustery, which was a pity, because we were heading for the famous cliffs of Étretat. It was still quite early in the morning as we bundled out of our coach. The more intrepid among us set off to climb the cliffs on foot, while we – faint-hearted and orthopaedically-challenged – boarded a little train on wheels, more reminiscent of a fairground than anything the least bit roadworthy. This set off at breakneck speed, and shot up the hill, rattling and banging round hairpin corners and leaning perilously over terrifyingly steep drops. We were all relieved when we reached the top. The view from the cliffs was indeed spectacular, but our enjoyment was marred by bitterly cold gale-force winds, so after a quick look at the church on the summit, and the white chalk arches far below, we retired behind some locked loos to wait for the rickety train. Heaven knows how we got down, but anything was better than that wind, so we were very glad to reach ground level again. After a quick and uneventful lunch in Étretat village, we climbed back into the coach and headed for Honfleur.
Harbour at Honfleur
Honfleur is absolutely charming, and easily made up for our chilly morning activities. We followed a series of little cobbled streets, past quaint old fishermen’s cottages and picturesque courtyards until we reached the old harbour. Like any tourist hotspot anywhere in the world, the place was bustling, and the prices in the cafés twice as high as anywhere else, but it was oh, so worth it! The traditional slate-fronted houses along the quayside make a stunning motif for photographers and painters alike, and have attracted artists from all over the world. The buildings differ in height, and some are even eight storeys tall, not to mention any cellar space there might be underneath them. Their main peculiarity is that the land behind them rises, so that there are more storeys on the harbour side than at the rear, facing the hill. We didn’t go inside, but decided it must be quite dark on the lower floors. At the end of the quay, we found a delightful old roundabout, complete with all the traditional rides – so much nicer than today’s fairground monstrosities!
A short uphill climb brought us to St Catherine’s church with its twin naves. The church is chiefly made of wood, and in view of the potential fire risk from lightning strikes, its belltower was built separately, a safe distance away. The roof within the church is constructed to look like the inside of an upturned boat – a reminder of all the shipowners and seamen who flocked to Honfleur in the 15th century. We were lucky enough to hear the organist practising for a concert as we went round the church – for me, the crowning experience of our trip to Honfleur. After a short interlude shopping for souvenirs, we returned to our coach for a whistle-stop tour of La Havre.
St Catherine’s church bell tower – Honfleur
Le Havre is a busy, modern-day port – France’s second largest – and has none of the quaintness found elsewhere in Normandy. Instead, the contemporary concrete architecture for which it was infamous for many years was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005, and is now much admired by the architectural community worldwide. After a quick spin round the port facilities, we were glad it was time to head for home. It had been a long day.
Sadly, the programme of chansons, the promised highlight of our evening’s entertainment, was hijacked by a 50-strong group of fellow-travellers, and morphed into a raucous karaoke session, so we retired to our comfy and peaceful cabin to prepare ourselves for Sunday’s agenda (to be continued).