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Saint's Alive

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Joan of Arc is not forgotten in Rouen, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

Joan of Arc is big business in Rouen. Although the Maid spent only five months here - 573 years ago - her name graces streets and squares, cafés and restaurants, cakes and cocktails, market stalls and museums, a bridge, a church and a car park. "You English murdered her," grins my friend, Guillaume, as he stirs sugar into his grand crème.

Jeanne d'Arc died a martyr's death at the age of 19, burnt alive in 1431 in the Place du Vieux Marché, a few yards from where we are sipping our coffee. A 65ft cross marks the spot. Her heart, which survived the flames, was flung into the Seine.

Next to the cross, the startling new Jeanne d'Arc church, built 25 years ago, looms like the upturned keel of a ship, with a low-slung canopy covering a vegetable market as well as the church. Inside, an unadorned pillar supports the wooden, tent-like roof, and curved pews face 15 panels of Renaissance stained glass set into huge blank windows.

By a shiny bronze statue of St Joan, a sign explains that the sculpture portrays the Maid's fulfilment as a woman, her innocence and her gentleness. I am intrigued by the conflicting images - gentle, feminine warrior; sainted heretic; and boyish rebel turned virginal national heroine.

Rouen is a sprawling industrial city, and is one of France's busiest river ports, but the medieval centre has been beautifully preserved and restored, with many buildings surviving from Joan of Arc's day - the café where we are sitting claims to have been in business since 1345.

We spend our first morning wandering through narrow streets lined with timber-fronted houses, some six storeys tall, some barely six feet wide, some with upper floors jutting out on intricately carved corbels, some leaning alarmingly to one side, many 600 years old. The cobbled rue du Gros-Horloge is thronged with tourists.

The famous clock strikes as we approach, and everyone stares up at the face that tells not only the hour, but the week and the phase of the moon. We pass the Archevêché, the archbishop's palace that contained the chapel where Joan of Arc's three-month trial was held.

The ecclesiastical tribunal was astounded at her outspoken, fearless responses, and scandalous appearance. "I blame you men, for declaring that God didn't want women to wear trousers or cut their hair," I begin, but Guillaume isn't listening. The beautiful St-Maclou church is surrounded by a jumble of ancient houses.

A beggar directs us to the Aître St-Maclou, and we find ourselves in a medieval plague cemetery, the wooden portals and friezes of once-cloistered sides roughly carved with skulls, gravediggers' tools and other macabre emblems. Later, we gaze up at the Gothic perfection of St-Ouen church.

The leafy cemetery behind this church was where Joan of Arc heard her death sentence, and also where her rehabilitation was pronounced, 25 years later. Plaques commemorate both events.

Many of the medieval houses near the cathedral are now shops, selling the colourful earthenware that has earned Rouen the title of the Delft of Normandy. After a long lunch in a shady square, we head for the Musée de la Céramique, an elegant mansion housing a wonderful collection of 16th- to 18th-century pottery, with some contemporary pieces. The explanations are in French, and I learn a new meaning for the word email, or rather émail - it's an enamel glaze.

At intervals, we come upon the magnificent façades, towers, buttresses and carved doorways of Notre-Dame cathedral, and finally we go in. The scale and grandeur is mesmerising. Late-afternoon sun filters through medieval stained glass, and canned organ music plays discreetly from speakers.

We wander towards the recumbent figure of Rollo, the Viking chief who became the first Duke of Normandy, in 911, and made Rouen his capital. His great-great-great-grandson was William the Conqueror.

That evening, as we dine on creamy cuisine Normande, Guillaume is eager to talk about Corneille, Flaubert, Maupassant and other Rouen men of letters, but I am still spellbound by the extraordinary power of la Pucelle.

Uneducated and illiterate, but claiming to hear the word of God, she cut her hair and wore men's clothes, led armies fearlessly, challenged the power of the Church and of feudal dynasties, and became one of the key figures of the medieval world, with revolutionary notions of nationalism, protestantism and feminism.

I am still thinking about her the next morning, when we visit the Musée des Beaux Arts. We linger by the works of famous local artists - one of Monet's luminous studies of Rouen cathedral, foggy sunsets over the city by Pissarro and Poussin, and paintings by Sisley, Dufy and Corot. Four 19th-century oils of Jeanne d'Arc by Thirion, Bénouville, GW Joy and Delaroche present romantic images of beauty and femininity.

Next we make for the Tour Jeanne d'Arc, the only remaining part of the huge castle that was built in 1204 by Philippe Auguste, ruler of the tiny kingdom of France. Joan was kept prisoner here until her execution.

Accounts of her trial have survived, and a framed facsimile declares her to be a "witch, soothsayer, false prophet, sacrilegist, idolator, apostate, scandalmonger, rebel and troublemaker''.

We climb the stone spiral staircase, pausing frequently to catch our breath. On the upper floors, models depict the castle and town in the early 15th century, and fascinating maps show the narrow boundaries of medieval France.

Jeanne d'Arc was born in a village on the edge of the kingdom - residents of one bank of the stream supported the English, and those on the other supported the French.

"The Burgundians were to blame," I tell Guillaume. "They sold her to the English for 10,000 gold ducats." But Guillaume has had enough of my historical musings, so I venture through a crowded souvenir shop into the small Jeanne d'Arc museum. I am the only visitor.

In a dank cellar, photocopies of Latin manuscripts are pinned next to fading posters of Hollywood St Joans. Upstairs, waxwork tableaux of Joan of Arc's life make me wish that I had children with me.

The mannequins are wearing 20-denier tights, lipstick and false eyelashes. The Dauphin, for whose coronation Joan of Arc was fighting, looks very weedy, and when I emerge into the sunshine, I have a new theory.

"I blame Charles VII," I say. "He did nothing to prevent her execution. And I bet he only rehabilitated her to secure his claim to the throne."

"In Jeanne d'Arc's day, you English were known as Goddams," says Guillaume.

On our way home, we drive up to the chalk spur between the Seine and Robec valleys. The view is spectacular. Below us, in a bend of the river surrounded by hills, the old town bristles with spires and belfries. The Seine, wide and brown, has been guardian - for nearly 600 years - of Joan of Arc's heart.

Rouen basics

Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK to Rouen. For details of train services, contact Eurostar (0870 518 6186;; returns via Paris cost from £79 and through ticketing is possible. Or contact Eurotunnel (08705 353535; If you prefer to travel by ferry, Transmanche (0800 917 1201; has year-round services between Newhaven and Dieppe, the most convenient port for Rouen.

Staying there
Hôtel Dandy, 93 rue Cauchoise (0033 235 073200; This is a friendly three-star hotel near the place du Vieux Marché; doubles cost from £49. Hôtel de la Cathédral, 12 rue Saint-Romain (235 715795; A good central choice, this 17th-century building has rooms overlooking the pretty courtyard or the cathedral; doubles from £38 to £55.

What it cost for two
Three-day return on Eurotunnel £183
Autoroute tolls £8
Two nights' accommodation £145
Meals, drinks and snacks £120
Museum entries £20
Total £476

First published by the Telegraph

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