Setting Sail

Rouen will again be the centre of maritime celebrations when an armada of tall ships gathers for a voyage down the River Seine

The coastal region of Normandy has a rich seafaring heritage and it celebrates its maritime history every five years with L’Armada, culminating in a parade of elegant ships, sails billowing as they glide down the River Seine from Rouen to the open sea at Le Havre.

This year’s celebrations take place from 6¬16 June and begin with the raising of Pont Flaubert in Rouen to herald the arrival of these magnificent vessels, followed by days of activities and festivities, including firework displays and concerts.

The first edition of L’Armada was held in 1989 to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution. Patrick Herr, then the city’s deputy mayor, had been inspired by the 1986 Rouen to New York tall ships race and dreamt of gathering together these magnificent vessels to reaffirm the Haute¬Normandie capital’s role as a port while encouraging the public to get involved in the celebrations. The inaugural Voiles de la Liberté was so successful that organisers decided to make it a regular event.

At the heart of this festival are the ships themselves, which now feature barges and modern warships in addition to traditional sailing vessels. They come from far and wide and include the Cuauhtémoc, a training ship from Mexico that has attended all five previous armadas; the Russian four¬master Kruzenshtern, the world’s largest sailing ship still in activity; the Nantes¬based Belem (classified as a monument historique in 1984); and Britain’s Tenacious, which was designed to allow the disabled to be part of the crew.

During the festival, the public can visit the boats for free while they are moored alongside the banks of the River Seine. Celebrations are rounded off in spectacular style on 16 June as the ships begin leaving Rouen at 9am for their eight¬hour journey to the open sea 120 kilometres away at Le Havre.

Tel: (Fr) 2 35 89 20 03, www.armada.org

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Written by Alison Hughes