City in Haute Normandie, northern France. Capital of the Seine Maritime département. Population of around 400,000.
Rouen in Ancient Times:
Recent archaeological digs have revealed that the site of the modern-day city has been occupied for around 9000 years. The first proper settlement, however, was founded by the Romans in the first century AD. They named their city Rotomagus. Those ever-sensible Roman settlers opted to build on the Right Bank of the Seine, because the land across the river was boggy and prone to flooding. The location of Rotomagus is the reason it prospered. The Seine provided links both with Paris and the Channel ports. The city flourished for two centuries, reaching its peak in the third century AD. During this violent century, the invasions of Gaul began in earnest, and the city's inhabitants withdrew from the outskirts; clustering inside the city walls for protection. During the fourth century AD, Rotomagus converted to Christianism, and saw the construction of its first Christian place of worship, Saint-Victrice.
Rouen in The Middle Ages:
The Viking invasion of the city took place in 841AD. The whole of Normandy fell into the hands of the Vikings. Rollo decided that Rouen was to serve as his capital. During his time, he had the river narrowed and deepened, to reduce the surrounding marshland. This work lasted until the 19th century: quite an achievement. Under the Vikings, Rouen lived its second golden age. It became an important port, and evidence has been uncovered that visitors from as far afield as Greece, Scandinavia, and Italy flocked to the city. It was also home to a large Jewish community, centred around the Palais de Justice. Especially after William The Conqueror's successful invasion of England, Rouen's economy prospered. City-dwellers sold their fish to Paris markets, and their wine to the English. The construction of the Cathedral added to Rouen's reputation as an artistic and intellectual haven.
When Philippe August invaded the city, he returned Normandy to the French kingdom. Nevertheless, he let Rouen keep its stronghold on the western outreaches of the Seine's path. Rouen became France's second city. It continued to grow in size, and the population spread out, creating new districts in Saint-Sever and Saint-Hilaire, among other places. This expansion meant that the city centre did not become over-crowded, and there was plenty of space for monasteries and picturesque gardens. After a fire in 1200, the Cathedral was rebuilt throughout the 13th Century.
Disaster struck in the 14th Century. The Hundred Years War (which began in 1337) made commerce grind to a halt, severely damaging Rouen's development. The city's inhabitants were hungry and poor. Even worse, the Black Plague hit in 1349. In 1382, Rouen revolted. The incident, known as Harelle, led to severe reprimands from the government, including a hefty fine and an increase in taxes. Unable to afford such expenses, many citizens fled.
In 1419, the English arrived, fresh from Agincourt. After a siege which lasted six months, the city was taken. It was during this short period of English rule that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, on 30th May, 1431. The French regained control of Rouen 18 years later, and once again the city began to expand.
The 15th and 16th Centuries:
During this period, Rouen remained France's second city, and flourished even more than one might expect. It benefitted from the rule of two influential cardinals: Georges d'Amboise (1494-1510), and his nephew Georges II, who served from his uncle's death up until 1550. The pair oversaw great developments in the city's architecture, including the Tour de Beurre and the Palais de Justice. Such constructions were made possible by the successful economy. Not only were city-dwellers selling their fine linen, but they also made money from silk and metalwork trade. Rouen-made linen has even been found in Cochin, India! In search of dyes for their cloth, Rouen merchants headed as far a Brasil. This link is what enabled Michel de Montaigne to have his famous encounter with the South American Indian who inspired his essay, Des Cannibales. Rouen was a remarkably multicultural city, attracting Spaniards and Italians to move in. Rouen's intellectual life also blossomed. In 1500 there were already ten printing shops in the city.
This exciting period came to an end when the French Wars of Religion struck. The city was passed around as the opposing sides captured it. This violence put a hold on the growth of the previous two centuries.
The 17th and 18th Centuries:
Despite retaining its position of second city to Paris, Rouen began to stagnate. The population ceased to increase, and remained at around 75,000. The dynamism of previous centuries faded away. However, while little was happening at home, the city's merchants continued to make a name for themselves with their far-flung travels. In 1639, it was Rouen-based adventurers who founded Saint-Louis in Senegal. Abraham Dupuis, who came from Rouen, helped the Chinese to chase the Dutch out of Taiwan. Most of all, the influence of inhabitants of Rouen was felt in North America. Cavelier de La Salle was responsible for "discovering" the Mississippi, and founding the area he christened Louisiana. Similarly, many Rouen folk emigrated to Canada. Evidence of this can still be found today in that some Canadian-French vocabulary is remarkably similar to 17th Century Norman words (see Creole). Back in the city itself, the main developments were in two areas. Firstly, the hospital system was improved, with the sole, medieval establishment being joined by a number of other clinics. The second area of growth is even less exciting; many beautiful private town houses (hôtels particuliers) were constructed for inhabitants whose trading had made them wealthy enough.
Rouen from the 18th to 21st Centuries:
The Revolution in Rouen was not too bloody. A new system of city government was established. There was a number of arrests, but no executions were carried out.
An industrial revolution took place during the 19th century. For Rouen, this was mainly centered around the textile industry, and more specifically, cotton. There was a population explosion on the Left Bank, due to the influx of workers from the surrounding countryside looking for jobs in the textile factories.
However, the most significant developments in Rouen life during the 19th Century were more cultural than economic. The Musée des Beaux Arts was established, as well as the Theatre. Even more importantly, Rouen was home to numerous successful artists. The authors Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant called the city home. The most celebrated work by the former, Madame Bovary, offers an important role to Rouen. The impressionists also flocked to Rouen. Monet's series of paintings entitled Cathédrales de Rouen is highly regarded.
During The First World War, Rouen played host to injured French and British soldiers retreating from the fronts in northern France and Belgium. All was relatively quiet between the wars. Industry grew even further.
World War II, however, did not pass so uneventfully. On 9th June 1940, German troops began their occupation of the city. Their reign of terror lasted for four years, and included kidnappings, torture, executions, and deportations. Many fled Rouen, and those who were left suffered. When the allied forces began their bombings towards the end of the war, 1500 people died during the air raids. The Cathedral was damaged, and a large portion of the Left Bank was destroyed. On 30th August 1944, the city was finally liberated. By Canadians, fittingly. Rouen was in ruins.
Massive redevelopments have restored Rouen to its former glory. Many of the architectural gems were oblitterated during World War II, but there remains enough of the old city to get a feel for how it used to be. Winding cobbled streets lined with timbered houses offer a taste of the past. The Musée départmental des Antiquités is packed with artifacts recalling the city's history from the Roman period until the 17th Century. For later works, the Musée des Beaux Arts is well worth a visit. The Cathedral is excellently described here. There are also many smaller churches worthy of note, especially L'Eglise Saint-Maclou and L'Eglise Sainte Jeanne d'Arc. Other sights include Le Gros Horloge and La Place Jeanne d'Arc.
What I love about Rouen is that it is able to combine such a fascinating history with a vibrant modern existence. The 40,000 students living here guarantee an exciting night-life. The live music scene is great, with venues such as Brooklyn Café and Le Bateau Ivre packed with a very mixed crowd from Wednesday to Sunday. Check out OXP, Ewoks, Ratsim, or Bakou, and tell a musician in a hat that Helen told you to come. Apparently there is good clubbing to be had, if that's your cup of tea.
The shopping is also rather good, especially because there's such a huge choice. If malls are your thing, head to Saint-Sever in the south of the city - that place sells pretty much everything. If you fancy a more authentic experience, the cobbled streets just north of the Cathedral have big names like Zara, Bata, Naf Naf, Habitat and Printemps. The other advantage of shopping here is that there are plenty of little cafés where you can drink an expensive espresso and rest your feet.
Get the lowdown from the Tourist Office, which is conveniently plonked right opposite the main entrance to the Cathedral. Personally, I think the best thing to do is to get a map from these helpful people, then go off exploring on your own. One final word of advice: this city is steep. Heading North, into the central Right Bank from the Seine is uphill all the way. Stout walking shoes recommended.
The Michelin Green Guide to Normandy
Many visits to the city. It's where my not-really-boyfriend-thing lives.