Christmas Shopping in Rouen

Normandy, France

Rouen is the sort of town that most of us drive through en route to somewhere else in France - probably complaining about the traffic as we do so. A city straddling the River Seine, it is not immediately appealing.

As the capital of the French region of Normandy it can seem busy and bustling - but with easy access from most of the cross channel ports Rouen, and especially the Old Town on the northern bank of the river, is well worth a visit in its own right.

On several occasions we have spent a few days in France in the run up to Christmas - French towns are well decorated and have a bright, festive air about them. With many hotels to choose from close to the centre, a wide range of restaurants, a good selection of shops and more than one hypermarché on the outskirts - Rouen should be good for a few days Christmas shopping, we thought!
In Rouen the Cathedral Square (Place de la Cathedrale) is taken over by a Christmas Market (Marché de Nöel).

We strolled through it many times, savouring the smells of traditional French treats like crèpes (pancakes), spiced bread and hot chestnuts. Several of the stalls were occupied by visitors from the French-speaking part of Canada.
On one of the afternoons during our stay a number of side streets were closed to traffic and used for children's entertainment; ponies pulling decorated carts for little children, face painting, and small gifts from Père Nöel. Elsewhere there was an exhibition of crèches ameriques - a large display in one of the churches of nativity cribs from the Americas (mainly Canada and South America) constructed in a wide range of different materials.

Festive though the shops and streets were, there was plenty to see and do that does not involve shopping. This is the town where Joan of Arc was tried and burnt at the stake for heresy in 1431, and a large cross in the Place Du Vieux-Marché (Old Market Square) commemorates the site of her execution. Here in the square also a traditional open-air food market operates around a relatively modern church, shaped like an upturned fishing boat. The interior has a very relaxing atmosphere, with light streaming in through large, stained glass windows ranged along one wall.
Leading from the Square the Rue du Gros Horloge passes under an arch which contains the Gros Horloge (Large Clock) - one of the best known visitor attractions in Rouen. A single hour hand tells the time.
Rouen has been called the City of a Hundred Spires; maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but there are plenty! The central area of the Old Town is dominated by the Cathedral of Notre Dame, with its beautiful spire (the tallest in France at 151 metres) and towers.

Floodlighting at night makes the spire especially attractive, and there is a worthwhile view if you stroll across one of the bridges that cross the river and look back.  On several nights during our stay the main bridges were decorated with lights too.
Within easy walking distance of the centre of the Old Town is a square known as the Aitre de St. Maclou. Used originally as a cemetery during an attack of the Great Plague in 1348, it has had a number of uses since. The timbered buildings that make up the square are decorated in a macabre collection of carved skulls and bones - creepy!
Many of the streets of the Old Town are narrow and cobbled, flanked by tall wood-framed buildings that date back hundreds of years. They lean precariously, adding to the 'olde worlde' feel. The narrowness of the streets discourages the use of a car in and around the centre but with so many shops and attractions within walking distance that is no problem.
Rouen was a good city for a short break, with everything in easy walking distance; we parked our car in the hotel underground car park on arrival, and left it there until we left four days later and headed for the ferry home.
The Aitre de St Maclou, with the carved skull and crossbones that adorn many of the old timbers
The floodlit spire and towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame