Pigs were put on trial: How much do you know about Rouen, Norwich’s twin city?

Half-timbered houses in Rouen Photo: Rouen Tourisme et Congres

Half-timbered houses in Rouen Photo: Rouen Tourisme et Congres - Credit: Archant

During the Middle Ages in Rouen, 60 pigs were put on trial for engaging in sexual relations with humans.

Rouen Cathedral light show Photo: Metropole Rouen Normandie

Rouen Cathedral light show Photo: Metropole Rouen Normandie - Credit: Archant

The bizarre bestiality trials saw the accused human and their porcine co-defendant facing the music together - both with a lawyer to represent them.

I'm not telling porkies - it is a fact, told to my partner and I by the entertaining and arch guide Frederic Furon as he introduced us to the wonders and blunders of this remarkable city.

I have since decided that Guilty Pigs would be a great name for a rock band, but I digress.

There is of course much more to Rouen than cross-examining a pig. But I confess that, despite it being a twin city to Norwich for 60 years, I knew next to nothing about it.

The ruins of Jumieges Abbey Picture: Steven Downes

The ruins of Jumieges Abbey Picture: Steven Downes - Credit: Archant

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Rouen has an impressive roll-call of twin cities, including Baton Rouge and Cleveland in the US, Gdansk in Poland, Hanover in Germany, Ningbo in China and Salerno in Italy.

But Norwich was its first - with the union sealed in 1959.

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This was my first ever visit to the historic city with Gaulish roots, Viking foundations and a magnificent mixture of Norman, medieval, Gothic, half-timbered and baroque architecture.

What has kept me away? If the same applies to you, what has kept you away?

The ruins of Jumieges Abbey Picture: Steven Downes

The ruins of Jumieges Abbey Picture: Steven Downes - Credit: Archant

For this is a city that could not be a more appropriate choice as Norwich's first twin. Both have Viking/Norman heritage that shows in their breathtaking cathedrals. They are also pot pourris of history and mystery, old and new, food and drink, shops and solitude. Both inland ports, they were given life by river trade (though the Seine makes the Wensum look like a leak).

Rouen is blessed with eight free museums - more than enough meat for culture vultures to feast upon.

My favourite was an unlikely choice. I am not an art expert, so Musee de Beaux-Arts - a treasure trove of works by impressionists - extended my horizons.

Once I'd got over the disappointment of not seeing work by Mike Yarwood or Rory Bremner, the museum was a joy to behold. There's no expert critique to come: it's enough to say that I saw lots of paintings and sculpture that appealed to me. That's the point, isn't it?

The HQ of Metropole Rouen Normandie Picture: Steven Downes

The HQ of Metropole Rouen Normandie Picture: Steven Downes - Credit: Archant

Another highlight of the city was the historic centre, whose warren of winding streets are narrow - and feel more so because of the tall, overhanging half-timbered houses and shops.

The old city is a triumph of indomitability. For Rouen suffered a fearsome Second World War bombardment, and the reconstruction is sensitive and convincing. Many of the buildings are new blocks with old half-timbered fronts "stuck" on.

But the standout building is Notre Dame Cathedral, a vast, towering, unimaginably intricate edifice that was briefly the tallest building in the world.

I am reliably informed that it is a fine example of flamboyant Gothic - as are the Palais de Justice and the church of St Maclou.

Hotel Bourgtheroulde in Rouen Picture: Steven Downes

Hotel Bourgtheroulde in Rouen Picture: Steven Downes - Credit: Archant

The scale of it is breathtaking, but the tiny detailing of the exterior stone carving is what caught my eye.

It was consecrated in the presence of William the Conqueror and contains one of a number of tombs of Richard the Lionheart (this one originally contained his heart, which he left to the city in his will).

Two suitably big names for a city that was once the second in France and the Norman capital of the area.

Rouen has also been called the Granary of Europe, having exported grain all over, and Paris's port - thanks to being a strategic bse on the river route to the capital.

It is a truly superb city, one of the few that deserve to rub shoulders with Norwich.

It's not hard to get to - via road, rail and ferry - and well worth the effort.

In case it worries you, I'm reliably informed that pigs are no longer prosecuted, so there's no reason to delay.

Facts about Rouen

? The locals call it "R'on", with a nice roll on the "r"

? Rouen was once France's second city and the capital of Roman Gaul - called Roto Magus

? Richard the Lionheart, who was not too bothered with England, left his heart to Rouen - literally - after his death. It was interred at Rouen Cathedral

? Joan of Arc was brought to Rouen by England's allies the Burgundians in 1431 for interrogation and eventual execution

? To ensure no veneration of her remains, Ms d'Arc was burned three times, before her ashes were dumped in the Seine

? Rouen has a population of more than 650,000

? The city hosted the French Grand Prix from 1952-68

? It was the birthplace of Edward IV of England, the novelist Gustave Flaubert, the footballer David Trezeguet, and Francoise Hollande, the 24th President of France.

Armada 2019

Another very good reason to visit Rouen this summer is the Armada 2019.

A flotilla of up to 50 of the world's most spectacular tall ships will sail into the city along the Seine, along with numerous other warships and cadet training ships, for a festival from June 6-16.

The first event was in 1989 and this is the 7th. In all, visitor and spectator numbers are predicted to hit 10m, including those lining the banks of the Seine, visiting the ships and enjoying 10 days of entertainment, including fireworks, concerts and games.

Access to the quay and to the ships is free, with visiting allowed from 10am to noon and 2pm to 6pm.

On June 16, the Armada ends with an awe-inspiring parade of all of the vessels from Rouen to Le Havre, with people lining the banks all along the route.

Travel factfile

? We spent our first night at Le Clos des Fontaines hotel and spa in Quai de Boisguilbert, Jumieges. It's a tranquil and beautiful hotel - visit www.leclosdesfontaines.com.en

? The car ferry crossings were with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, then Le Havre to Portsmouth. Hassle-free boarding, comfortable cabins and excellent facilities - www.brittanyferries.com

? Our meals were at: Bistro du Siecle, Duclair, between Jumieges and Rouen (Facebook: bistrodusiecle); La Couronne, Rouen - the oldest inn in France (www.lacouronne-rouen.fr.com); Le Sixieme Sens, Rouen (www.le-sixiemesens.fr)

? The two nights in Rouen were spent at Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, an exceptionally beautiful five-star spa-hotel in the city centre.

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