In the 10 years we lived in France, and in the many trips driving through France to, or from, our Algarve home, we had never stopped in Rouen or Cahors – and it was ages since we had last visited the citadel of Carcassonne.
This September, returning from London to Loulé, we resolved to fill those holes in our French experience.
Rouen, the capitol of Normandy, is a short drive of just over 200km from the Chunnel, so we arrived in the early afternoon of a beautiful, sunny day. It is a city absolutely full of history, much of it involving, or influenced by, the English. The 100 Years’ War (1337-1453) was a period of particular turmoil.
The Plantagenets were its overlords for years during the Middle Ages. The heart of Richard I (Lionheart), King of England and Duke of Normandy, who died in 1199, is buried in a tomb in the cathedral (his heartless body lies next to his parents in Fontevraud Abbey).
In 1418, Henry V besieged the town, starving it into capitulation after six months, and annexing the city to his Plantagenet domains. Jeanne D’Arc was tried, convicted and burned at the stake in the Place du Vieux-Marché in 1431. In 1449, the king of France, Charles II, recaptured Rouen, and it has been in French hands since.
Rouen suffered badly in WWII, especially on D-Day, when its famous cathedral was almost destroyed by allied bombs. Restoration was completed in the 1980s. The Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, built and rebuilt over a period of more than 800 years starting in 1063, has features from Early Gothic to Late Flamboyant and Renaissance architecture. It is quite a mélange of styles. In the late 1870s, the cathedral was topped by a 151-metre-tall spire, which, for a brief time, made it the tallest building in the world.
It also has a place in art history as the subject of a series of paintings by Claude Monet in 1892-94. Monet, a leading impressionist, painted 30 versions of the cathedral’s western central façade, at all different times of day and lighting conditions.
Our Hôtel de la Cathédrale was perfectly situated in the heart of the old town and quite close to the Cathedral on 12 rue Saint-Romain. Old Rouen is well worth a walking tour, and the rue Saint-Romain itself is a great place to start. It is one of Rouen’s most fascinating streets, with its beautiful 15th-18th century half-timbered houses, and with the Gothic-Flamboyant Église Saint-Maclou, built 1457-1517, at one end.
Heading West from the cathedral, through very narrow old streets, you come to the short rue du Gros Horloge. The clock the street is named for was put in its current specially constructed arch in 1527. Its one hand only tells the hour, but it also gives the phases of the moon and the week. Just beyond the clock is the Place du Vieux Marché, where we stopped for a dozen oysters and a lovely glass of cold white wine.
In November 2021, Rouen was the first French city to be named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
Cahors is a 700km day’s drive south from Rouen, just beyond the much better known Dordogne river valley. Today it is a small town of about 20,000 population but is impressively sited on a promontory almost completely surrounded by a bend of the river Lot. A much larger Cahors enjoyed fame and fortune in the Middle Ages
This historic city is home to a great monumental diversity, mainly inherited from Roman times and the Middle Ages; the city’s monuments include a historic city centre, Saint-Étienne cathedral, Roman walls and the famous Pont Valentré, symbol of the town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. It is part of the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela.
The Pont Valentré was constructed between 1308 and 1378 and is one of the finest surviving fortified medieval bridges in Europe. Open to pedestrians only, it spans the river Lot, is 138 metres long and has six large gothic arches and three square towers.
The Cathédrale Saint Étienne, another UNESCO World Heritage site, is simply amazing. It was completed in about 1135 and has the appearance of a sturdy fortress rather than a church. Behind the Romanesque front façade, which resembles a heavy castle wall, there are, very unusually, two huge Byzantine-style domes covering the nave. There is no transept, so the building does not take the traditional shape of a cross.
The red wines of Cahors, an AOC since 1971, are unique in France, being made at least 70% from the Malbec grape (known also in the region as Côt). They are sometimes called “black” wines because of their very dark red colour. The wines of Cahors enjoyed a great reputation from the Middle Ages until the late 19th century. They were shipped down the Lot to Bordeaux, where they were sold widely throughout Europe. Similar to many other winemaking regions, Cahors was badly hit by phylloxera in 1883-1885. In February 1956, bad frosts killed off most of the vines. Today there is only 4,000 hectares under cultivation, about 10% of the area when Cahors was at its height.
Carcassonne, just a relatively short 200km hop from Cahors, completed our itinerary of three French cities. The Cité of Carcassonne, on the Aude river’s east bank, is the largest fortress in Europe. Although Gallo-Roman in origin, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site is a return to the Middle Ages. It consists of outer ramparts, with 14 towers, separated from the 24 tower inner ramparts by the outer bailey. Inside the inner ramparts are the Château Comtal, built in the 12th century, and the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, begun in 1096, where some exceptional stained-glass windows are located. All these ramparts and buildings are amazingly well preserved.
The fortress became famous during the Albigensian Crusades when it was a Cathar stronghold. It was forced to surrender to the crusading army of the Papal Legate Abbot Amalric in 1209, and, in spite of its mighty fortifications, has played no major military role since.
From Carcassonne, it was simply a long slog to drive, via the Hôtel Les Roches Brunes in Collioure (on the Med near Perpignan) and the Parador in Albacete in Spain to be back home in Loulé. It was a trip of beauty, culture and history.