Thursday, 7 August 2014

Rouen 1: The Cathedrale to the Palais de Justice

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame: Son et lumière

We are on a short holiday in Rouen with our friends Merv and Pud and we naturally begin with a walk around the old town starting from the famous cathedral, painted many times by Claude  Monet. Today's route forms part of a complete circuit: we will do the second part tomorrow.

The cathedral is currently under restoration and part of the facade is covered up. It was started in the 12th century but had to be rebuilt in the 13th after a fire. The central part of the facade is notable for innumerable statues and delicate tracery and unusually this is flanked by two very different towers. The left tower, of St Romaine, is obviously older (12th century), while the right tower (the Butter tower) is both later and in a different colour stone. It was so called because it was said to have been funded by people who paid for a dispensation allowing them to drink milk and eat butter during lent.

The very tall spire, or flèche, is the tallest in France at 151m. It was added in the 19th century.

Both of the two doorways are surmounted, as is usual in cathedrals, by an elaborately carved tympanum. This is the one above the St Jean doorway, on the left, showing the martyrdom of the saint. Note the acrobat in the centre of the lower part.

Internally the cathedral appears more homogenous. We admired this delicate staircase, later discovered to be the Escalier des Libraires, dates from the 15th century.

We emerged from the Cathedral to notice the House of the Exchequer opposite. Work started on this in 1509 and it is Rouen's oldest Renaissance building. It is now the Tourist Office.

The chemist next door isn't generally mentioned in the guidebooks, but I rather liked the decoration, somewhere between art nouveau and art deco.

We went round to the left of the cathedral and walked along the narrow picturesque rue St Romain. We liked this piece of street art. The dark colour is principally the dirty stone. The picture of course is Joan of Arc, who features prominently in tomorrow's walk.

At the end of the street you cross the road and enter Place Barthèlemy where you are confronted by the exquisite facade of the church of St Maclou (apparently the same as St Malo). The church dates from 1437-1517 and is built in a very uniform Gothic-Flamboyant style. The five arched porch is quite remarkable.

The square is very pretty, mainly consisting of the half-timbered houses which are a distinctive feature of the city.

We walked along rue Martainville, past more half-timbered houses, now mostly housing restaurants to reach the extraordinary Ossuary of St Maclou. Initially this was the site of mass graves for victims of the Great Plague of 1348. Three sides of the courtyard were built in the 16th century, initially with the ground floors open, for use as ossuary for a later plague. The fourth side was added in 1640

The columns which support the upper storey are decorated with macabre motifs.
The buildings are now occupied by the regional school of fine arts.

We headed up rue Damiette and then passed on the right rue Eau-de-Robec, which has teh unusual feature of a stream running along its length. There were some popular student bars along here.

Soon we reached Rouen's third great church, the former abbey church of Saint Ouen. Construction began in 1318.

We then doubled back to see the one time Parliament (high court) of Normandy building, now the Palais de Justice, built in an extravagant gothic style, all pinnacles and crotchets. The oldest part dates from 1499, while the main section is 16th century and has a more renaissance feel.

After this we went to explore the Museé des Beaux Arts where the permanent collection features several of the Impressionists, but consists only of a quite small number of paintings. The temporary exhibition on Cathedrals since the French revolution was excellent however.

Conditions: warm but cloudy.

Distance: at most a couple of miles.

Rating: four stars.

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