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.
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.
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