La Couronne (the Crown) on the Place du Vieux Marche in Rouen, is said to be the oldest restaurant in France, established in 1345. If you happen to be sitting at a window table in 1431, you could watch as Joan of Arc was burned at the stake a few yards away.
Rouen and its harbor on the Seine River suffered considerable damage during World War II, but its heart of half-timbered houses, beautiful cathedral and other historic sights are intact (or reconstructed) and a delight. Rouen was once a Celtic trading post, a Roman garrison and a Viking colony. It was the capital of Normandy and an important city during the Middle Ages. It was conquered by Henry V in 1419, four years after the Battle of Agincourt. It was during the years of English rule that Joan helped the Dauphin of France regain his throne until she was captured by the English and condemned to death on trumped up charges.
There is a memorial to Joan of Arc next to the stunning contemporary Church of St. Joan on the central market place (le vieux marche), where Joan is remembered with a large cross on the very spot where she was burned for heresy. The church has brilliant 16th century stained glass windows, which had been removed for safety from a nearby church which was almost completely destroyed during the war. Like many churches in the region of Normandy, the inside of the church of St.Joan appears to be an upside down boat hull. Seen from the outside, the structure reminds of flames reaching skyward.
The cathedral of Notre Dame is a gothic splendor. Its west facade made famous by the painter, Claude Monet, who painted a series of paintings of the cathedral in different light. Its tower is known as the Tour de Beurre (butter tower) because it was financed by the sale of indulgences for the consumption of butter during Lent. The heart of Richard the Lionhearted is buried in the cathedral.
Straddling Rouen’s main pedestrian shopping street, La rue du Gros Horloge, is an arch built to house the large 16th century astronomical clock, the Gros Horloge, which has two dials – a single hour hand, and a panel showing the phases of the moon.
Behind the Church of St. Maclou is the fascinating “aitre” I(ossary). Once a medieval cemetery for the burial of plague victims, today it is the school of fine arts. The wooden timbers of the building, which surrounds a four-sided courtyard, are decorated with carved crossbones, skulls and gravediggers’ tools.
Rouen has several museums worth visiting: a fine arts museum, a ceramic museum, which boasts 1,000 pieces of faience, and the Musee Flaubert. Gustave Flaubert, author of “Madame Bovary” was born and reared in Rouen, where his father was a doctor at the Rouen Hospital. The stuffed green parrot which was always perched on his writing desk can be seen at the museum.
Normandy is the land of camembert, cider and Calvados. There is no shortage of bistros and restaurants, besides La Couronne, to enjoy the specialties of the region.