It was D-Day — June 6, 1944 — and Allied bombs were exploding all around Rouen, capital of the French region of Normandy and site of the famed painter Claude Monet’s architectural obsession, the soaring medieval Cathedral of Nôtre Dame.
The church escaped destruction. Fans of the iconic Impressionist painter’s Rouen Cathedral series, portraying the golden facade at varying times of day and in varying shades of sunlight, can still view the artist’s inspiration today.
Rouen has been inspiring visitors for well over a thousand years — but as Normandy marks the 75th anniversary of the World War II Allied invasion, the city and its Jewish heritage are enjoying a renewed spotlight. Extensive wartime destruction notwithstanding, visitors to Rouen will find a well-preserved medieval city, with abundant historical sites, atmospheric buildings with timber facades and cobblestoned charm.
While Rouen makes an excellent hub for exploring Normandy and its D-Day attractions, the city of about 600,000 is also an easy day trip from Paris — about two hours’ travel by car or train. The Atlantic maritime climate keeps temperatures moderate through December, offering mild afternoons punctuated by rain.
Rouen was a hub of Jewish scholarship during the Middle Ages, with a Jewish population of about 6,000; as many as one in five residents of Rouen was Jewish during this period, until a cranky king expelled them all in 1306. The remains of a yeshiva from the 12th century, known as La Maison Sublime, are believed to be the oldest Jewish ruins in all of France.
Gallic tribes liked the spot along the Seine so much they settled it in the first millennium. Henry V of England annexed the territory during the Hundred Years’ War in the 1400s. Centuries later, the Nazis chose Rouen to headquarter their naval operations.
Even Napoleon Bonaparte — a busy guy if there ever was one — found time in between international military campaigns to establish Rouen’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1801. The imposing, Louvre-era building houses a virtual master class in European painting and decorative arts, with works by artists from Rubens and Caravaggio to Monet, Modigliani and native son Marcel Duchamp, who was born a few miles away.
Fans of the Catholic martyr Joan of Arc have made the pilgrimage for centuries to view the castle tower where she was tortured. The “Maid of Orleans’” namesake church, Église Sainte-Jeane-D’Arc, is a striking modern edifice that resembles a Viking ship, and honors her memory in the plaza where she was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431.
Modern Rouen is a far more tolerant place. In a tangle of lanes north of the Joan of Arc Plaza is the Association Culturelle Israélite de Rouen, home to a community of around 300 Jews with roots in North Africa. The synagogue itself, with a façade dotted with stars of David, stands out amid a jumble of modern buildings and half-timbered Norman style houses that survived the war. (A more historic synagogue is in nearby Elbeuf, a southern suburb of Rouen.)
In the 1970s, workers at the lavish Palais de Justice stumbled upon the city’s Jewish school complex, La Maison Sublime; dating to around 1100, it is thought to be the only example of a medieval rabbinic school remaining in Europe. Hebrew lettering is still visible on walls throughout the dank, Romanesque vaulted space. (The city of Rouen, which promotes La Maison Sublime among its chief tourist attractions, has been restoring the site; check beforehand to see if it is open.)
Rouen is full of such historical relics. The one you can’t possibly miss is the Gros-Horloge (“Huge Clock”), a giant astronomical clock whose gleaming, golden sun face — accented with brilliant blue and red — is plastered on an archway in the center of town, over an Italian chain store selling socks.
There’s a perpetual crowd of visitors gazing up at the ornate landmark, a marvel not only of aesthetics but also mechanics: With a movement that dates to 1389, it is one of the oldest working machines in France.
There’s plenty to see in Rouen, but not so much that a visitor can’t find time to wander down by the Seine, strolling the same quays that inspired Gustave Flaubert (another native son). And like Monet, you’ll find the cathedral hard to avoid. Its Gothic spires form an arresting skyline from virtually every angle, majestic and enduring, like Rouen itself.