Exploring the Rouen of Joan of Arc

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It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I travel, I still get butterflies over the prospect of an approaching adventure. I’ve long associated the purple twilight of the sky just before the sun rises with waking up early to catch the first bus, plane or train to my next destination. And seeing long stretches of highway open up before me with only the taillights of the cars ahead to stop me makes my heart beat a little bit faster. It’s a thrill, a rush, it’s adrenaline, the unknown.

I think I’m addicted.

The history junkie in me got more than excited as we followed in the trail of the Vikings through the Norman countryside. I knew that the semi-legendary King Rollo made this route, though in reverse, in 876 when he conquered Rouen and then eventually Paris as well. King Charles the Simple of France thought that if he made Rollo a Duke and gave him all of Normandy then Rollo would leave Charles’ beloved Paris alone. Remember, they called him Charles the Simple, as in simple-minded. Of course Rollo sieged Paris (many times), and was active into his 80’s, which is quite old for anyone but nearly unheard of for a Viking warrior chief.

The Seine River by Rouen looks nothing like the same Seine River today in Paris. Near Rouen, it is markedly more marshy, more of a river, less of a force of nature constrained by man-made structures and man-made ambitions. By Rouen, it looks more of what Rollo would have ordered his agile, shallow Viking ships over as he led his man to his eventually victory over much of France.

Rouen kind of looks to me like if Saxon Germany had swallowed the Canadian Maritimes. The architecture is very medieval, but the colours are all Nova Scotia!

Rouen is also the more infamous location of Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake. I followed the history of Joan in Rouen through the cathedral, the chapel, the abbey, the towers she was imprisoned and tortured in, right to the location of her spire that tied her to the fire of her certain demise. I found Rollo at times along the way too, including his tomb, and a statue that someone had thoughtfully tied a scarf around. It is winter after all and even Vikings get cold! If you are looking for a tomb for Joan of Arc while in Rouen, tough luck. The cardinal was sure to throw Joan’s ashes into the Seine after she burned to make sure that no one would try to worship her. Although unsuccessful in that endeavor, there remains no remains of Joan to bury.

After the torrential rains started coming down, I found my way into Rouen’s fine arts gallery. I even found myself among the company of a few modern artists, who were painting inspired by the works of Monet, Renoir, Degas and other around us. Monet is well known in Rouen, particularly since he painted the same cathedral nearly three dozen times! In fact, it was Monet’s work that inspired the donations for renovation work on the church, and the reason why the cathedral still stands today.

The most macabre part of the day though was hands-down the Aitre St. Maclou, an ancient ossuary in Rouen. Although it had been used on and off as a burial ground since the Romans laid their heads here, when the Black Death wiped out three quarters (three quarters!) of Rouen’s population in 1348, the courtyard was used with certainty. By 1533, three galleries surrounding the ossuary were also used to house the increasing land of the dead. Today the site is an art school of all things. Creepy!

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