Weekending: Honfleur in Normandy
Walking into the harbour of Honfleur is a bit like walking into one of the Impressionist paintings it inspired. This pretty Normandy port town avoided the bombing during World War II that hit a lot of its neighbours, so still looks a lot like it did in the seventeenth century. Its central harbour is surrounded by original tall, thin, slate-fronted houses and stone salt stores. Though today the houses are fronted by the colorful awnings of cafés and the salt stores have been turned into galleries. Honfleur can packed with visitors in summer, pulled in by the picturesque scenery and great food – with fresh fish and seafood from the port, as well as other Normandy produce like butter, cheese and apples in every form you can imagine – from Calvados to tarte tatin. It’s is a great place to spend a weekend eating, drinking and wandering, with plenty of cobbled backstreets and crooked buildings to get lost among.
At the heart of Honfleur is its historic port, the Vieux Bassin. The port was once used as a launching point for sailors heading to the New World before later being used as a fishing port. There’s still a fish market on the seafront where you can buy your fish straight from the fishermen’s wives – a strange historic law means that only they have the right to sell it. If you don’t want to cook it yourself, then you can try some of the local seafood in one of the restaurants and cafés that surround the harbour. The area’s especially known for its fantastic scallops, mussels, oysters, clams and lobster.
If you want to get out onto the water yourself, then you can take a boat trip around the harbour or out into the estuary to the nearby Pont de Normandie. This cable bridge is over 2km long and arches its way across the River Seine between Honfleur and Le Havre. It was built in 1995 and is supported by two huge pylons which are each taller than the Eiffel Tower. It was the longest cable bridge in the world for a while. The title’s been passed on a few times since then, but it’s still an impressive feat of engineering and the view from the water beneath it gives you a unique perspective on the bridge.
Set back from the harbour is one of the town’s most interesting buildings – the Eglise Sainte Catherine. This huge church is built entirely from wood, apart from its the bell tower which was built separately out of stone as the wood wasn’t strong enough to hold the weight of the bells. It’s the largest wooden church in France and was only supposed to be a temporary structure after the previous church was destroyed in the Hundred Years’ War, but it’s still standing 500 years later. The builders were local shipbuilders and they used their maritime skills to build a ceiling that looks like two upside-down ships hulls.
Honfleur has inspired artists for centuries, with Impressionists like Monet, Courbet and Jongkind forming the École de Honfleur (Honfleur School). There’s a museum in the town which is dedicated to the painter Eugène Boudin, who lived in the town and painted its seascapes. Painters like Monet and Cézanne came from Paris to Honfleur to study under Boudin too and be inspired by the landscape. There’s still a big community of artists in the town today too – from painters and sculptors to photographers and jewellery makers. You’ll usually see an easel set up somewhere in the harbour, and there are lots of galleries and studios open to visitors, or if you want to give it a try yourself then many places offer art classes.
Getting there… Honfleur is within easy access of two cross-Channel ferry ports – Le Havre is 25km away and Ouistreham (Caen) 75km away – with ferries to Portsmouth taking five to six hours. The nearest airport to Honfleur is in Paris or you can get there by Eurostar, and then take the train on to Deauville/Trouville, the nearest station to Honfleur. It takes 1 hour 45 mins by direct train (return tickets from £29). Then you can get a local bus or taxi on to Honfleur. If you’re driving, it’s not easy to park in the centre of town, but there are a couple of large car parks on the outskirts.
Sleeping… Set on a hill with views across Honfleur, La Maison de Lucie was formerly the home of writer and poet Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, and you still feel like you’re a guest in someone’s home. The rooms are beautifully decorated and the hotel has log fires, a central courtyard garden and a lovely spa in the cellars, lit by stained-glass windows. Rooms range from €150 to €315 a night. Or the motel-style Hotel Monet has good value rooms from £65. Each of the 14 rooms has its own terrace where you can have breakfast overlooking the garden, and the hotel is only a five-minute walk from the harbour.
Eating and drinking… There are lots of restaurants around the harbourside where you can sit and watch the boats come in – they can be a bit touristy but are worth it for the view. Higher up is the Bistro des Artistes, a tiny third floor restaurant run by artist Anna Maria, who acts as waitress, hostess and chef. Things get a bit chaotic but the food is great, with dishes that change daily and huge portions. Set further back, Restaurant La Tortue does a good range of fish and seafood dishes, and has one of the best vegetarian selections I’ve seen in France, with €24 and €35 set menus. There’s not much nightlife in Honfleur, but check out Le Vintage in the harbour for an evening of jazz, wine and tapas.