You may be wondering how I found myself on a charter bus from London to Paris around 3 A.M. sitting in front of a man with a “Grind or Die” snapback who argued with a Gandalf-like ponytailed man in a three-piece suit. Though my sleep-deprived mind wished to scream “This shall NOT pass” at that late hour, I drove the thorny thoughts from my mind and focused on my mission like I was James Bond (sans suit and cool gadgets). My mission - and I did choose to accept it - was to visit Rouen, a hidden gem of a city.
I dropped my things off at the Ibis Hotel, freshened up, and set off to wander the streets of Rouen. Cobblestone streets scattered with the occasional cigarette greeted my feet, along with chalkboard signs reading daily specials. I passed a cinema advertising French films and opted to meander down an alleyway wreathed with straggles of flowers. This led me to the Roman-Catholic Church of Saint-Maclou, elaborate in its Gothic architecture. Looking closer at the grim decorations, you can understand how the Black Death inspired some gruesome depictions in the art.
After lunch I meandered more, finding the Saint-Ouen Abbey Church. Large and repeating the Gothic Flamboyant style, Ouen seemed more unkempt, with vegetation sprouting through the stone at select points to trickle down the sides. Ouen had a park-like area beside it, inhabited by teenagers roughhousing in their games, a floppy-tailed puppy learning how to play fetch, and a statue of Rollo, the Viking who became the first ruler of Normandy. Rollo looked a little rough, his stone unfortunately being tattooed with careless graffiti. The air was light, though, whispering to press on.
Down alleyways I went, till I discovered one long alleyway so tight that you had to walk single-file to get through it. At the end of this straight-shot there was, on the wall, a portrait of Joan of Arc, perhaps done in the medium of spray paint. Not too far was the Historial Jeanne D’Arc, a museum in which you walk through different chambers to illuminate different sections of the life of the Maid. I did pass through, and was impressed.
Exiting the Historial Jeanne D’Arc, I entered the majesty of the Rouen Cathedral. Having seen Westminster Abbey in the peak of tourism, I see this cathedral was a breath of fresh air. Walking into a nearly-empty cathedral is something like a dream, small tongues of golden candlelight appearing in every alcove in rows upon rows. Cathedrals rock you back on your heels till you feel dizzy, are open and airy and set in stone. This cathedral in particular is tomb of kings, housing Rollo, William I Duke of Normandy, Matilda of England, and even, at one point, Richard the Lionheart’s heart. Monet painted several versions of the Rouen Cathedral during several times of day and several types of weather, so it’s clear in no matter what condition the cathedral lives through, it still stands magnificent.
The next day, my final day in Rouen, I visited the Church of St. Joan of Arc. This church, twisted and dark in architecture, was built in Rouen’s market square and a little garden just outside called Le Bouchet marks the spot where Joan was burnt for heresy. I’d set out alone in the early morning to see this spot, early enough in the day to see the fingers of dawn touch the cathedral and turn its highest spires pink with sunlight. Arriving at Le Bouchet, I read the sign where Joan’s death was summed up in one sentence and covered by the scent of the rosemary bushes and purple flowers growing nearby. I am not a particularly religious person, but visiting Joan’s final destination at such an early hour in the morning stuck in my heart. This enigma of a peasant girl turned military leader, this puzzle of a maiden who turned the tide of the Hundred Years War - all had condensed to her burning at the meager age of 19. In October, I will be 20, and able to live longer than the historical Maid.
A new appreciation rises from Rouen, the place where Joan was tested and executed. Though the city experienced its hardships and still does feel the weight of terrorist threat today, Rouen is soaked through with beauty and history of striving for a cause. It is truly a hidden gem.
Written by: Julia Toney