Although heavily damaged during the second World War, the city of Rouen still has a spectacular Medieval and Renaissance sights. One of these is set in a Renaissance street-arch, a beautifully decorated astronomical clock. Known as Le Gros Horloge, the mechanism was made in 1389, making it one of the oldest, working clocks in Europe.

Walking the streets of Rouen the Medieval and Renaissance history of the city is unmissable. All the more surprising given that many conflicts in north western Europe have involved Rouen in one way or another. These include the ninth century Viking raids, the Hundred Years war during the Middle Ages, the Wars of Religion in the Renaissance period, the Franco Prussian war of 1870, and World War II when it is estimated about 45% of the city was severely damaged. Bullet and shrapnel scars can still be seen on some of the buildings in Rouen.

The streets of the Medieval quarter still has three or four story, timber-framed buildings that look decidedly unstable, leaning either left or right or into the street itself. Rouen has always been a relatively prosperous city, despite and because of its place in the various conflicts its inhabitants have witnessed. This wealth was largely based on a textile and wool industry that got going in the early Medieval period, and flourished well into the Renaissance competing with other northern centres such as Flanders. Signs of this industry are still evident around the city. Representations of sheep, for example, feature prominently in the decoration surrounding Le Gros Horloge.

Running between the Gothic cathedral made famous by Claude Monet and the old market square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake is a pedestrianised street called ‘Rue du Gros-Horloge’. This quaint street with many timber-framed buildings is named after Le Gros Horloge, a Renaissance clock set in an arch over the street.

The clock set in the Renaissance arch.
The clock’s movement was made in 1389, and installed in the adjacent belfry that was constructed at the same time. The bells in the belfry were the first set of municipal bells in Rouen. At this time there was no dial to the clock. With the construction of the arch between 1527 and 1529, the clock was moved to the arch and attached to two identical dials – one on each side of the arch. Each dial is about two and a half meters in diameter.

The dials are rich in astronomical symbolism. A single hand points out the hour of the day, moving over 24 golden sun-rays and encircled by a blue starry night. The phases of the moon are indicated on a small sphere directly above the dial. On the opposite side, below the hour of VI, a panel reveals the day of the week, symbolised by the god of the day: Monday is represented by the Moon, Tuesday by Mars, Wednesday by Mercury for Wednesday, Thursday by Jupiter, Venus by Friday, Saturday by Saturn and Apollo indicates Sunday.

The sheep everywhere, including one at the end of the hour hand, signify the importance of wool for the city’s prosperity. At the apex of the arch, on both sides, a passover lamb is included in city’s heraldry.

The clock and belfry.
A ‘behind the scenes’ tour of Le Gros Horloge is possible – there is no need to simply admire the clock from the street. The entrance to the clock is at the base of the belfry (opening hours vary throughout the year, so check the website). And audio-guide is included (French and English) lasting about 40 minutes, and takes the visitor through the belfry and the pavilion, the dials room, the bells chamber, and the clockmaster’s workshop and flat. From the top of the belfry, and on a clear day, there is an outstanding view of the city of Rouen and the Seine River.

An interesting point of French grammar to end on, particularly for anyone who knows the difference between masculine and feminine nouns in French. Le Gros Horloge is masculine, I have not mixed up my les and las. In French clocks today are indeed feminine, so la horloge. But this has not always been the case. Prior to the 18th century, clocks were masculine. Perhaps the next time I make an error with a le or a la I will try and excuse my error by saying I am learning old French?

Artistic Splendours of France Tour – Day Twelve

Looking up the ‘grand allée’ towards Monet's house.

One of the most popular views of Monet’s Garden and house, the so-called ‘grand allée’.

After a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the seaside town of Honfleur, and an early breakfast on the quays we headed for nearby Rouen. Our first stop was the temporary exhibition of Impressionist art in the Musée des Beaux Arts, after which we spent some time exploring the city and its amazing Medieval and Renaissance architecture. One of the highlights is definitely the façade of the cathedral, the façade that Claude Monet painted some 30 times at different times of the day in varying lighting conditions. A fitting prelude to our afternoon in Giverny, visiting Monet’s House and Garden in early summer bloom, and the Musée des Impressionnistes and another excellent exhibition of Impressionist art.