Although we have been to France many times, we have never explored the Normandy area. Of course, what first comes to mind (at least my mind) when thinking about the area is World War II. Well, we are off to a 3 month trip to Europe and decided to make Normandy our first stop, to see the area, to learn more about what happened during the war, and what has happened since the war in the area. After all, Normandy is about more than WWII
After an all-day, all-night flight from San Francisco into Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, we picked up a car and made the fairly easy two-plus hour drive to Rouen, Normandy’s largest city.
Our first stop was our hotel, the Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, part of the Autograph Hotel Collection (and managed by Marriot—but don’t let that stop you from staying there) at 15 Place de la Pucelle, Rouen. The beautiful early-Renaissance mansion that has been converted into a hotel, along with two historic carved murals in its courtyard, is a National Historic Monument and seemed to be on the list of every tourist in the area to stop by to look at its beautiful outside. It was what our sleep-deprived bodies needed: very comfortable rooms, excellent service and a wonderful location on Saint Joan d’Arc Plaza, where the rebel/martyr/saint was burned at the stake—a spot commemorated by a cross and the Saint-Joan d’Arc Church, whose roofline is intended to evoke the flames in which she died. And yes, in spite of Joyce’s desire to never pay for parking, we paid to have the car valet parked behind the hotel. It was very easy to walk through the rest of historic Rouen from there.
The city, whose streets are lined with historic (not to speak of scenic) half-timber buildings, also has its share of grand, historic Gothic structures.
Three of the historic buildings in particular, are city landmarks, and in the case of one, national landmark. These are:
- Notre-Dame Cathedral, which began construction in the 12th century and was rebuilt after damaged by both Viking and by World War II allied bombs, is the tallest cathedral in France and one that was immortalized by a series of Monet oil paintings. Its crypts are also the current homes of the Dukes of Normandy and of the heart (albeit not the body) of Richard the Lionheart.
- Saint-Maclou Church is a particularly flamboyant style of gothic, with a large five-bay porch and intricately carved wooden doors. There’s an equally interesting appendage behind the church. The Aitre Saint-Maclou is a courtyard of a large house that served as a Middle Age cemetery for hundreds of victims of the Great Plaque of 1348. The surrounding buildings, which were built in the 16th century, are decorated with wood-carvings that commemorate the yard’s history with skulls, cross-bones, grave digger tools and other symbols of death.
- Parliament of Normandy, constructed in the late Middle Ages, is the largest Gothic-style civil building in the country. It is adorned with elaborate buttresses and thousands of decorative spires.
- The Great Clock, which does have a Gothic belfry, is actually an architectural mongrel, with a Renaissance archway and clock face, an 18th-century fountain and a clock mechanism that dates from the 14th century. Even so, it is a symbol of the city and a very reliable one at that, operating more than 5 million hours without once stopping.
We also made one museum stop:
- Musee de Beaux Arts has a broad collection of European paintings and sculptures from the 17th century to the present. These include works by Caravagio, Velasquez and Modigliani. The strongest part of its collection, however, is of works of artists who worked locally, especially 19th-century Impressionists like Monet and Sisley and 20th-century artists including Jacque Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon.
We had time for only one lunch and one dinner in this beautiful town.
- Petite Zinc, a nice little brasserie on a square, was a good spot for a quick snack of local seafood, with its briny La Mancha oysters and lightly smoked poached salmon.
- La Couronne is an upscale restaurant with a wonderful four-course offering (that turns into six with its large amuse bouche of salmon mousse on parmesan crisp with a garnish of tomato and lettuce and its after-dinner selection of small cookies). The E49 price is amazing when you consider the low value of the Euro while we were there and that this price includes tips and taxes. It is an equivalent of about $35 (pre-tip and tax) in the U.S. Our first courses started with La Mancha oysters along with duck liver foie gras and veal terrine. These were followed by entrees of tuna with asparagus salad and green tomato, and a wonderful honey-glazed roast pigeon with pigeon butter sauce and figs. Between the two us, we selected eight of the offered 21 cheeses (amazing, but our favorite was still epoisse). Desserts were equally delightful with a Grand Marnier soufflé and a vanilla custard millefeuille. For wine, we chose a 2010 Monthele Chanson red Burgundy. A wonderful way of celebrating our trip’s first dinner in France.