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Among My Souvenirs

Stories of the road

The Scars of War

The ancient City of Rouen in Upper Normandy was known for its beautiful High Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral (frequently painted by Claude Monet), the tomb of Richard the Lionheart and the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. An important city from the time of the Roman era through to the late Middle Ages. A quaint little town sitting on the Seine River about an hour from the English Channel. By any standard, it was truly an important historical city to the French.

During World War II it became a stronghold of the German army occupation forces and as such did not fall into Allied hands until August 31, 1944, 6 days after Paris itself was liberated so intense was the strength of the Germans to hold their grip in the northeastern corner of France.

Though considered an Allied victory, when the troops arrived in Rouen the city was not much more than lumber and stone. Not from the ground fighting, or from the Germans. Rather from the extensive allied bombing of the city – and many cities that lived in the 100-mile zone at the edge of the English Channel throughout the war; the British by night and the Americans by day. Was it any wonder that when the Allied soldiers came into these destroyed towns: Rouen, Caen, St. Lo that their reception was not only cool but somewhat hostile?

When you go to Rouen today you find an odd mixture of old “rebuilt” buildings in the style of pre-war Rouen and newer structures. And every now and then you turn the corner and you will find the raw scars of war on the sides of buildings, and in the hastily reconstructed ceiling and supports of the great cathedral that was set aflame during the night bombing of May 30-31, 1944.

Today many come to experience the Auberge (inn or restaurant) made famous by Julia Child, La Couronne. It is one of the oldest in France dating back to 1345 and it faces the square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.

Even the Great Clock in the city center is rather hidden by the buildings that have sprung up around it. Build in 1389 and last restored in 1997, she quietly watches over the square where she once presided.

Walking around the city one could not help but still feel a deep sadness, the loss of so much that was this once beautiful and proud city. The scars of war not only touch buildings but the heritage of the land in the souls of the cities and its people.