When tourist attractions in Normandy are mentioned, the first place that comes to mind are the D-Day beaches. But those who only stop at the beaches of Normandy are missing out on a lot. That's because Rouen has a lot to offer. Normandy's largest city features the perfect mix of history, sports, activities, and charm to entice and occupy visitors for a couple of days. Heavily damaged during World War II, the city has rebounded to become a jewel. It's a city where cobblestone backstreets can lead you to unique shops that provide the perfect Normandy souvenirs. And Rouen's fun doesn't stop when the sun goes down.
Rouen is best known as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Those interested in her story won't be disappointed as the Eglise Jeanne d'Arc marks the site of her execution. There are more places to learn about the French heroine. Visit the Musée Jeanne d'Arc, located across the Place du Vieux Marché from the Eglise. If that's not enough, La Tour Jeanne d'Arc – open to visitors – stands on the site of Joan of Arc's imprisonment before her execution.
Rouen's history isn't limited to Joan of Arc. A popular attraction and meeting place in town is the Cathédrale Notre Dame. Built over several centuries and popularized by Claude Monet's paintings, the Cathédrale – a Gothic cathedral that's the seat of the Archbishop of Rouen – was almost destroyed during World War II. But restoration has strengthened a landmark that is a symbol of Rouen.
The Cathédrale isn't the only historical attraction in Rouen to have seen substantial improvements. The Gros Horloge, a huge medieval clock with only one hand, reopened in October 2006 after spending nine months under renovation. The "Big Clock", which overlooks a busy shopping street (Rue de Gros Horloge), is held aloft by an early sixteenth century gatehouse. It's open to visitors from Tuesday to Sunday.
A trip to Rouen isn't only a history lesson. La Foire Saint-Romain hits the city for a month each autumn (the 2006 edition ran from October 20 to November 19). The fair turns the lower left bank of the Seine into a miniature amusement part as merry-go-rounds, arcades, and numerous rides entertain the mostly younger-than-25 crowd. Shortly after La Foire Saint-Romain says goodbye, the Christmas market arrives, as the area around the Cathédrale is a shopper's and ice skater's paradise for a month (a temporary ice skating rink is laid down).
Movie buffs won't be disappointed. The city hosts several film festivals – such as Le Festival du Cinéma Nordique, a March event that is celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2007. Not to be outdone is the Regards sur le cinéma du Sud, a festival every January that features films from Asia, Africa and Latin America. A newcomer to the scene is the Agora du Cinéma Coréen, which celebrated its second year in November 2006, and featured 15 films from Korea.
Music fans aren't left out either. Although big name French acts often perform outside of the city limits at the Zenith in nearby Grand Quevilly, shows can easily be found in/around the city center. The Hangar 23, located close to the right bank of the Seine, often hosts “world music” acts. The Bateau Ivre – north of city hall – is a cozy little building that welcomes local rock and reggae acts at least twice a week. And some of the city's bars – such as the Emporium Galorium, Brooklyn Café and O'Kallaghans – occasionally host shows.
While high level soccer doesn't exist in Rouen (the city's team plays in the equivalent of the French fourth division), sporting events dot the calendar. For one Sunday in October, runners take command as the semi-marathon comes to town. The eleventh edition in 2006 welcomed more than 1,100 competitors. The Arena Sprint meet brings France's best swimmers – such as world record holder Laure Manadou – to the Piscine Guy-Boissière in November. Other champions of sorts are in town also. The Dragons, Rouen's ice hockey team, took home its eighth French title last April.
The Seine divides Rouen, and although the Rive Droite (Right Bank) is more glamorous, featuring more touristy attractions and upscale shops, the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) is not to be sneezed at. The Saint-Sever section of town offers plenty of shopping opportunities – including the market each Tuesday and Saturday that attracts bargain hunters. Those searching for peace and quiet will enjoy the Jardin des Plantes, a large garden popular with young and old, especially on Sundays.
Getting to and around Rouen provides no worries. The city center – mostly situated on the Rive Droite – is compact and pedestrian friendly. For those wanting to rest their feet, the city center can be reached by tram (which also serves several other locations in Rouen and neighboring towns) from the train station, and an extensive local bus network serves Rouen and nearby towns. Rouen is about a 70-minute train ride from Paris, and several other major towns in northern France – Amiens, Caen, Dieppe – are less than two hours away by train.
Rouen doesn't roll off the the tongue when French tourist destinations are mentioned. But come here – you won't be disappointed. It has plenty for everyone.