Beauty amid the smoke and soot in Rouen, France

Black smoke from chemical explosion in Rouen

Some of you may remember a major European news story from September 26, 2019. An explosion at a chemical plant in Rouen, France spewed massive quantities of smoke and soot over the capital city of Normandy and beyond. We just happened to be there at the time. Our short visit to Rouen— the last stop on our Brittany and Normandy cycle trip—was made even shorter by this catastrophe. This post is a collection of photos taken over a couple of hours before we came to our senses and hightailed it to the train bound for Paris.

This is the scene as we head out from our Airbnb in the charming old centre of Rouen. It’s early and the forecast calls for overcast skies, so the darkness and ominous clouds don’t surprise us—but it’s seriously dark. We’re still oblivious to the developing crisis.

We stop for croissants. The sky is so dark. We’re beginning to think that these aren’t just your regular storm clouds.

The narrow streets and the tall, skinny houses in the old town offer us only a glimpse of the sky directly overhead. It’s a strangely beautiful scene, like something out of a medieval movie.

Foreshadowing of much more mask-wearing?

It’s not until a man approaches us, handing out masks, that we learn about the chemical fire just across the Seine River. We don’t quite know what to make of the situation. We’d only just arrived the evening before and there are so many things we want to see. We keep wandering, taking photos.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen is in the heart of the old town. It’s one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in France and has the highest spire in the country at 151 m (495 ft). It’s spectacularly imposing. French painter Claude Monet was impressed too—he created 30 paintings of the Rouen Cathedral. Several can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (more on this in another post).


Not far from the cathedral, we come upon one of Rouen’s most emblematic sites—the Gros-Horloge (the big clock). The 14th century astronomical clock rests on a Renaissance arch that spans the Rue de Gros-Horloge. The golden facade jumps out against the black sky.

We’ve seen many half-timbered buildings in central Europe, but the ones here in Rouen are distinctive with their tall profiles reaching skyward.

The magnitude of the chemical explosion hits us when we arrive at the Place de Vieux Marché where a gigantic plume of dark smoke arches over the historic square. It’s also unsettling that this is the site where 19-year-old Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431.

The modernist church, Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc, is located in the Place de Vieux Marché. Its curves are said to represent the flames that engulfed the saint. Unfortunately, the church is closed.

The Historial Jeanne d’Arc, a museum housed in the historic archdiocese of Rouen Cathedral, is also closed.

As is the Musée des Beaux-Arts (pictured in the distance). We had been excited about visiting this museum, which contains one of the most impressive public art collections outside of Paris. We continue wandering…

The Rouen Palais de Justice is a Gothic showpiece that was originally built in 1508-1509 and restored after damages sustained in World War II. These formidable Gothic period court houses and cathedrals always strike me with awe and intimidation— heightened today by the somber sky and atmosphere.

Speaking of intimidating, doesn’t the Église Saint-Éloi look foreboding (and gorgeous) under that sky?

The Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde, housed in a building dating back to the 15th century exudes beauty and luxury, and somehow looks like a safe haven.

We can see the source of the black smoke across the Seine River. News reports are warning people to stay inside. Schools, businesses and public buildings are closing. We got caught up in the dramatic scenes but now we’re scared. We probably should have left hours ago. Health officials claim that the smoke and soot are “not toxic,” but we and local residents are not convinced. We head back to our Airbnb, pack our stuff, load our bikes, and try not to breath as we pedal to the Rouen train station. We manage to get an earlier train for the 1 1/2 hour trip to Paris.

We learn that the explosion took place at the French subsidiary of US chemical company Lubrizol. Firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze at source within 24 hours but smoke and soot remained for days. Miraculously there were no immediate casualties. More than 9,000 tons of chemicals used for engine oil and industrial lubricant additives went up into the air that night. There are ongoing studies and mixed reports about the long term environmental and health consequences but Lubrizol has been charged by French prosecutors with pollution and failing to meet safety standards.

Next post: Favourite moments in Paris

Categories: Biking, France | Tags: , , , , , | 44 Comments

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44 thoughts on “Beauty amid the smoke and soot in Rouen, France

  1. Spectacular photos of both Rouen and the explosion’s aftermath. I was all set to visit Rouen last spring before Covid hit and all reservations had to be cancelled. Even with the black smoke, you’ve captured the town’s beauty. Hope I’ll be able to see it in person some day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t believe that it has been almost a year since we were in Rouen. Wearing a mask there after the explosion felt really strange and now it’s a normal thing. Crazy times! Rouen is a lovely city. I hope you’ll get to visit. Thanks for visiting my blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Scary day for sure! It’s too bad your visit got cut short but thankfully you were both ok.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Things could have been worse, so I feel fortunate that we were OK and (from what I’ve read) that there were no casualties. As with other environmental incidents, I worry about the longer term effects. Anyway, glad we got to see at least a bit of this beautiful city.

      Like

    • Yes, it is certainly a beautiful city and easy to visit given its proximity to Paris. I haven’t been to Dijon and will check out your post. Thanks!

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  3. Sad ,black sky n smoke not looks good on a beautiful city.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Caroline, Rouen is such a beautiful city and you capture it so well, with all it’s gorgeous architecture. I do not recall hearing about this incident… it looks so dramatic and ominous. I would definitely feel better knowing it was a great big thunder storm rather than the reality. I can only imagine the air quality and the pollution during and after.

    I have a lovely memory of eating oysters out of the box, straight from the market, outside that gorgeous cathedral. Hope you get to go back one day and enjoy discovering the place.

    Peta

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Peta! Yes, a lovely city indeed. I’m glad you have good memories from your visit there. We were at the market the evening before the explosion, just as the vendors were packing up. We had hoped to return the next day, but of course that didn’t happen.
      There was a disconnect between what we were seeing (the huge plume of smoke and soot) and what we were reading/hearing from the news (no cause for alarm re. health). Very scary for the folks living there who rely on local drinking water/crops. Who knows the long term effects?!
      Thinking of you in Mexico! Hope all is OK in your little corner of paradise. Stay safe!

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  5. Perhaps you will get to return to Rouen sometime in the future to explore it. Glad you were able to leave unharmed. It’s sad to learn that those who live in the town have to also battle water pollution and agricultural distress. But, these are becoming normalized rather than the exception.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Based on the amount of smoke and soot it is very difficult to believe that there were (are) “no health risks” as stated by government officials. I’ve read news stories re. this incident about the fears of local residents and their mistrust of the government. Scary how often stuff like this happens.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I had no idea this happened last year!! What an awful event, but these photos of the aftermath are amazing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. brunettelondoner

    Wow, those pictures are beautifully eerie Caroline! Loving your posts from northern France! Hope you’re doing well 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’m happy that you’re enjoying my northern France posts. It’s such a beautiful region. I’m doing fine; thanks for asking. Hope all is well with you too.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. josypheen

    Wooow! These photos are amazing. At first they just look like really gloomy clouds, but then they get more and more ominous.

    Could you not smell the burning or chemical smells in the air?

    It looks like it would be a gorgeous area to explore again without the smoke!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, those clouds had us fooled for a bit. Strangely, we didn’t notice a smell when we first headed out; it was only a few hours later that there was an odour (and not as bad as you’d expect given all that smoke). I’d certainly love to return.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, Caroline, you sure were there right at the right-wrong time! Your pictures are so moody with that threatening sky. And Rouen looks so interesting! I know for sure I’d have been like you guys – seeing whatever I could before I finally realized I’d better leave.
    Alison

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yup Alison, the right-wrong time is a good way to put it. It’s kind of crazy how we were so absorbed by the scene and capturing it in photos. It took us quite awhile to realize that sticking around wasn’t such a good idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Your actions sound like what I might do … try to stick it out, hope for the best, take advantage of fewer crowds (and dramatic lighting!), then suddenly realize I needed to scram!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha Lexie, you captured our behaviour perfectly! It’s interesting how I tend to take far more risk when traveling than here at home.
      Been thinking about you and my American friends a lot these days. What a mess! Makes me very sad. I remember you predicting a resurgence in a previous comment. Hope you’re holding up OK.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, it sure is a mess! It’s gotten to be more embarrassing by the minute to be an American … not to mention troublesome. We left Houston (a huge hot spot right now, and yep, I saw that coming with all the bad behavior and doubting attitudes) several weeks ago to go back to Colorado to be with our son, daughter-in-law, and new granddaughter. So happy to be gone and to be in a city with sensible citizens where we can safely hike and bike and be with family. Thanks for thinking of us. Hope you all are doing OK, too!

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Jackie Frioud

    Dramatic photos, Caroline – the black sky sets off the buildings beautifully, but it must have been eery.
    I am enjoying your Brittany/Normandy posts!

    Liked by 2 people

    • So nice to see your name, Jackie! We often think about you when we’re at Bachelor Bay (though it has been too darn cold for swimming…at least for me). Be great to get together…perhaps on the beach when the sun comes out. I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts from northern France.

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  12. Wow! What an incredible post! On the edge of a disaster and you captured some stunning photographs!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! The sky made our photos pop. I’m feeling a little guilty for taking such pleasure from our photos during a crisis. Hope you’re staying safe in Columbia!

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  13. Oh my goodness, I didn’t hear about this. How scary! Also, your photos are very eerie with those plumes of smoke overhead.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Looking back at it now, I think we should have been more scared than we were. It was a strange mixture of awe, ignorance and desire not to miss out on this city that compelled us to keep wandering for as long as we did.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I remember hearing about the explosion. Even though it’s potentially toxic, the clouds made for stunning scenes. It really does look like scenes from a dramatic movie set, and above those those charming buildings…wow. Glad you got out though and that there were no injuries to people from town. When I saw the person in the mask in the picture I had to reread, thinking I’d misunderstood when you were there!! Funny how our minds change so quickly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I remember feeling really weird about putting that mask on (though grateful to the guy for handing them out). I’d never worn a mask before. Now it’s so common place and I don’t think twice about wearing one or seeing others in masks.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I didn’t know about that fire. Your photos are dramatic. You were lucky to get on an early train.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. O my goodness, I can only imagine the terror and the smell, yet your photos are deeply moving. Just a few weeks ago, Sligo fire brigade had to tackle a very large blaze at the local recycling depot, which is located not too far from where we live. Seeing the black smoke gave everyone a fright 🙈🙈 thanks for sharing and have a good day. I hope all is well 😊 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m grateful that we didn’t need to breath that air for too long and I feel for the locals—stressed about their long term health, pollution in their water and harm to their local agricultural sector.
      Your fire in Sligo must have been scary, Aiva, particularly when you live so close by. Hope there was no one hurt and they were able to extinguish it quickly.
      We’re doing fine here, thanks! Hope all is well with you too.

      Like

  17. Some very atmospheric shots!!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. OM goodness. What an experience. However the photos are pretty amazing.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I remember this accident and the concerns about the air quality, I never imagined that it could give such a picturesque sky. There’s always a bright side to the worst things.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know what you mean. It wasn’t until later when we looked at our photos more closely that we saw how the black sky was such a dramatic backdrop to Rouen’s incredible buildings. It’s a really beautiful city.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Ouch! That black smoke looks very sinister. Sad to know that your trip had to cut short 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were surprised how much there is to see and do in Rouen. Hopefully we’ll have the chance to return and visit the museums, galleries, churches…that were closed.

      Liked by 2 people

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