Gustave Flaubert reportedly once said that he wrote his novels to resemble a particular color. "In 'Madame Bovary,' " he remarked, "all I was after was to render a special tone, that color of the moldiness of a wood-louse's existence." He may well have achieved that with his depiction of illusory love in his novel. But Rouen, France -- Flaubert's birthplace and the setting for a good portion of "Madame Bovary" -- evokes a different mood altogether.
I got a sense of that mood on a recent visit to the historic capital of Normandy. After a 90-minute train trip from Paris, my family and I arrived in Rouen with a ready desire to explore. We put our bags down at our cheery hotel, the Mercure Rouen Centre Cathédrale, in a room overlooking the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Rouen, also known as the Rouen Cathedral. One of the most commanding sights in Rouen, this towering flamboyant Gothic church with its lacy stonework has not only been masterfully portrayed by Flaubert (complete with a historical tour given by a beadle, an "everlasting guide," to Madame Bovary and her soon-to-be lover) but also by such disparate painters as Claude Monet and Roy Lichtenstein.
Rouen is on the Seine, so we decided to walk along the narrow cobblestone streets toward the river. As we ambled past the rows of half-timbered houses, which evince a sweet innocence, an accordion player on the corner and stands selling multicolored macarons, I was immediately charmed.
After sitting down for a bite to eat at La Place, an Asian-inflected brasserie, I took a look at the map to get my bearings. I discovered that, through the window of the restaurant, we were gazing out on Old Market Square, a little area bound on one side by a terrific food market with a single table tucked into a nook allowing six people lucky enough to nab it to sit and enjoy the many offerings, including duck foie gras and petits choux with crab. Next to this market, there is an unexpectedly modern building with a large cross rising up in front of it. This marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431.
Because Rouen was heavily damaged in World War II and then rebuilt, the town offers an odd yet compelling juxtaposition of sacred history and modern architecture. For example, the St. Joan of Arc Church, the building behind the cross, was designed in the '70s by Louis Arretche so that it would, in part, resemble the flames that overtook the saint. This bold structure, completed in 1979, has a roof that twists up in the center as if it were being drawn toward the sky by an invisible centrifugal force. Surrounded as it is by medieval buildings, it looks a bit like a spaceship that has landed in Rouen.
Inside the church, however, is another story -- and another era. Upon entering, we faced a wall showcasing 13 16th-century stained-glass windows. These were salvaged in 1939 from St.-Vincent Church, which was destroyed when Rouen was bombed in 1944. (Thankfully, these panels had been removed and stored elsewhere during the war.) Sunlight pours gloriously through the biblical illustrations of the stained glass, bringing the stories to life in vivid hues of crimson and deep blue and yellow.
Joan of Arc is one of the most celebrated of Rouen's notable residents from the past. The keep where she was threatened with torture is now called the Joan of Arc Tower and can be toured throughout the week (except on Tuesdays). Plans are also underway for a Joan of Arc Visitors' Center to open, housed in the archbishop's palace.
As we exited the church, the afternoon had turned rainy. Despite this hint of a wood louse's moldiness creeping into my day, I pressed on, to look around a bit on my own. I stopped for a chocolate croissant at La Tarte à Papa, one of the many patisseries whose aromas wafted into the streets.
Afterward, I wound my way back through the center of town, walking past the showy Palais de Justice, the former seat of the parliament of Normandy, and back to the grand cathedral. I explored the church's interior and discovered that one of the towers is nicknamed the Butter Tower because it is said that citizens who did not wish to give up butter during Lent were able to buy back this indulgence by donating money to the church. At the tourism office across the street, I learned about the Museum of Flaubert and the History of Medicine, a 10-room gallery where one can see the room in which Flaubert was born as well as the hospital where his father worked as a surgeon. It is also possible to visit the Flaubert Pavilion, a small country house in Canteleu, about 15 minutes outside Rouen, where Flaubert lived and wrote for 35 years.
The afternoon drizzle had turned into an early-evening downpour, so I stopped for a drink at the Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde, a boutique hotel converted from a 15th-century mansion. Inside, guests sipped wine on black leather couches with bright red walls surrounding them. The long bar on the side, lighted from within, looked like a giant ice cube. The floor was largely transparent so that I could see into the pool below as well as spy on the couple lounging beside it in their robes. I felt a little as if I'd walked onto the set of "The Bachelor."
Heading back to my own hotel, I once again found history jutting up against modernity: On my way toward the Gros-Horloge, or the Great Clock -- a magnificent astronomical clock constructed in the 14th century and set in a Renaissance archway -- I passed the seemingly endless shops that populate the center of Rouen. So, on the way to visit the belfry adjacent to the Gros-Horloge, which contains one of the oldest clock mechanisms in Europe and offers a terrific view of Rouen from the top, you can also pick up a few things at places like H&M, Benetton and Esprit. This high-low pairing might have made the onetime Rouen resident Marcel Duchamp proud; he did, after all, introduce the urinal to the art world. Duchamp is buried, along with Flaubert, in the Rouen Cemetery.
The next day, I went out solo again while my family ate breakfast at our hotel. I visited the Roman Catholic church of St.-Maclou -- an impressive Gothic building that was unfortunately largely obscured by scaffolding during my visit -- which took me just east of our hotel. In doing so, I realized how Rouen suddenly opens up and expresses itself anew, even just a block or two in another direction from Notre-Dame.
Before heading back to Paris, I took my daughter, then 2, for a ride on the old-fashioned wooden carousel, with its exquisite miniature painted animals, next to the St. Joan of Arc Church. As we went around, first seeing a vibrant flower market, then the modern restaurants surrounding the Old Market Square -- a place Flaubert himself must have strolled -- then the cross commemorating Joan of Arc's death with the Seine in the distance behind it, it felt as if we were spinning through the centuries, time simultaneously standing still and racing past.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
If you're looking for luxury, the Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde (15, place de la Pucelle; 33-2-35-14-50-50; hotelsparouen.com) is a good choice. It's located in the heart of the city and offers a full list of spa services. Doubles start at 180 euros, about $232 at $1.30 to the euro, per night during the week.
Hôtel Mercure Rouen Centre Cathédrale (7, rue Croix- de-Fer; 33-2-35-52-69-52; mercure.com) is a standard 125-room hotel in an excellent location with 13 rooms and 4 suites overlooking Notre-Dame Cathedral. Doubles begin at 134 euros, but there are often last-minute offers for lower rates.
WHERE TO EAT
Gill Côté Bistro (14, place du Vieux-Marché; 33-2-35-89-88-72; gill.fr/en/bistro.php). The chef Gilles Tournadre and his wife, Sylvie, have cornered the market on culinary experiences in Rouen with four establishments all within walking distance of one another: the high-end Restaurant Gill, Le 37, La Place and this contemporary bistro. Gill Côté Bistro can be found near the St. Joan of Arc Church. Dinner for two costs about 50 euros.
La Couronne (31, place du Vieux Marché; 33-2-35-71-40-90; lacouronne.com.fr). Julia Child and Meryl Streep-as-Julia-Child (in the film "Julie & Julia") have both eaten at this historic restaurant. "It was the most exciting meal of my life," Child wrote of her lunch here. This very formal restaurant offers a 25-euro lunch as well as a "Julia Child's Menu" for 65 euros.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.