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NORMAN ARMADA; TOM Bodden at the Tall Ships festival in Rouen.

IT is approaching midnight and the quay at Rouen is alive with activity.

Families still promenade the banks of the river Seine, transformed for one of the world's great free spectacles. The Tall Ships had been gathering for days and we were fortunate enough earlier to sit dining near the port of Le Havre as their sails crept invitingly over the horizon.

Last month's Armada festival in the Normandy capital of Rouen was the prequel to the great ships' passage to Liverpool in the Tall Ships Race. The ships are presently en-route for Norway before heading south later this month to the Netherlands.

The great three and four-masted vessels, which had sailed from around the world, sported some classical names to match their imposing grace. The Artemis and Atlantis from Holland; the Christian Radich from Norway; the Grand Turk from Britain; the Cuauhtemoc from Mexico; and the 108m-long Mir from Russia. The Royal Navy's own HMS Southampton also put in an appearance.

Spectators mingled in the warm night air around the busy bars, cafes and hospitality marquees along the quayside after viewing a firework spectacular.

The success of this maritime festival is remarkable, rivalling only the Tour de France cycle event in visitor numbers.

At the last Armada in 2003, the tourist authorities in Rouen estimated nine million visitors passed by the ships, compared to six million in 1994.

The city's inhabitants and tourists mix with some 6,000 sailors from 15 countries, bringing a cosmopolitan charm to the occasion.

No wonder Cardiff council has approached the Welsh Assembly Government seeking support for a bid to be one of the host ports for the Tall Ships' Race in 2012.

The Tall Ships' Races are organised by a subsidiary company of Sail Training International, which was created to enable the education and development of young people of all nationalities, religions and social backgrounds through sail training.

The riverside at Rouen has been renewed on both banks of the Seine to welcome the festival, staged every five years since 1989. And hundreds of thousands line the river to watch the Grand Parade of ships heading out to sea.

But there is far more to this medieval regional capital, boasting some of the most exceptional Gothic buildings in France.

The city, just an hour or so from Paris, is the birthplace of author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), who penned Madame Bovery and who walked the streets such as the Rue Martainville in search of inspiration and "le mot juste". This year a new bridge, the highest vertical lift bridge in the world, was opened and named after the city's writer son.

The Impressionist master Claude Monet (1840-1926) often stood in front of his easel across the square from the Notre Dame cathedral seeking to capture the subtle changes in light on its facade.

The cathedral, begun in the 12th century, is the gothic masterpiece of the city with its 151m high spire.

Each night during the Armada festival, and until September, the cathedral is illuminated.

La Cathedrale de Monet aux pixels projects the colours of Monet's two dozen and more paintings of the building on to its frontage.

Some of Monet's works, and those of other Impressionists, can be found in the city's Musee des beaux-arts, where hours can pass by enjoying its many exhibits.

And those with time to linger in Le Havre after a ferry crossing can find a treasure trove of impressionist artworks at the port town's Andre Malraux museum.

Rouen was famously, or infamously, the city where Joan of Arc was burned to death on May 30, 1431. A plaque and 20m high cross mark the exact spot of the execution near the Place du Vieux Marche, the old market square, which is turned into a welcome area for the sailors during the Armada.

In 1979, the church and state cooperated in the construction of a new modern church in the square, although it still houses some 16th century stained glass from the church of St Vincent which once stood there.

Just across the square from the monument, those looking to sample some of France's best local cuisine can visit the oldest inn in France, La Couronne, where the walls are decorated with the autographed photographs of the rich and famous who have been among the clientele (31 Place du Vieux Marche 00 33 235 714090, www.lacouronne.fr).

From the old market square, the Rue de Gros Horloge is lined with street cafes and leads east to the cathedral.

The main attraction in the street is a Gothic belfry which houses the Gros Horloge itself, a mediaeval clock with a single finger which has overlooked the city centre since 1389.

It is hard to believe Rouen suffered like many great cities during the bombing in World War II, which destroyed its bridges across the Seine and most of the city between its cathedral and the quays.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Tom Bodden travelled courtesy of Maison de la France, Normandy, Seine et Maritime tourist boards, and Rouen tourist board (00 33232 083240, www.rouentourisme.com).

He flew with easyJet (www.easyjet.com), one-way to Paris from pounds 20.99 ex-Liverpool

He stayed at Hotel Paris Pullman at Charles De Gaulle airport (00 33149 192929, h0577 @accor.com); Pasino Le Havre Casino (00 33 235 260000); Suitehotel Quai Boisguilbert (00 33 232 105868, www.suite-hotel.com); Domaine de Forges, Forges les Eaux (www.domainedeforges.com, 00 33 232 895050)

MONET'S GARDEN OFFER

Visit Monet's Water Garden, with a four-day escorted coach trip from September 5 from just pounds 189. Price includes return coach travel, three nights B&B in Rouen area and excursions to Giverny for Monet's Garden plus Bayeux and Honfleur.

More details from Daily Post Travel Service on 0151 227 5987

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Tall ships line the water side in Rouen, the Gothic capital of Normandy(inset)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Aug 2, 2008
Words:977
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