Continuing on my recent French tourist trail, I headed north up to Normandy. I was in search of one the most famous French painters, amazing locations, but I had a few towns to visit on the way. My first stop was Honfleur, how can I describe it? Take beautiful Dutch merchants’ houses that are found on the canal side in Amsterdam, add in the beautiful costal situation of Northern France, add loads of colour and wonderful French food and hey presto, you have Honfleur.
Hiding around the coast from Le Harve, this beautiful medieval town is simply charming. The town is spectacular to walk around during the day and in the evening the brightly lit restaurants offer the ‘catch of the day’ to the many tourists who have been luck enough to have found this idyllic little gem.
Formerly a shipbuilding centre with a very strong nautical theme, this is one town many painters seek out to capture on their canvasses. Not to be missed sites are the seventeenth-century church of Santa Caterina, and the 17th century Basin surrounded by elegant sailing craft.
After a wonderful days walking I was ready for a quiet lie down and a glass of wine. My accommodation was a delightful little hotel in Honfleur called the Hotel Monet (www.hotel-monet-honfleur.com) If you want a beautifully quaint and extremely reasonably priced hotel, then this is the one for you. With prices from as little as €40 pps you can bag yourself a wonderful little hotel in this beautiful part of France.
I had a superb nights sleep and rose early in the morning as I had more travels in mind and much more of Normandy to visit.
Next morning I was off again and heading for Le Harve. Most people head there to leave France to go back to the UK or Ireland, but I was traveling there as a tourist. My aim for visiting Le Harve was actually to discover its beauty.
This city was heavily bombed at the end of the Second World War and the city centre was practically re-built during the 1950’s under the direction of architect Auguste Perret. In 2005, Perret’s modernist city centre was the first post-Second World War city in Europe to be awarded Unesco World Heritage status.
It’s clear that’s Perret’s interest was in concrete, Its clear to all that he really liked this medium. Some of his masterpieces included St Joseph’s Church and the MuMa Art Gallery with its Impressionist collections.
This beautiful art gallery was renamed the Musée Malraux in 1999. It then changed names again in 2011, its 50th anniversary to become the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux—or MuMa for short. A very contemporary space, it is a pleasure to walk round and admire the beautiful paintings stored within. (www.muma-lehavre.fr)
Boudin (Monet’s mentor) was born in Honfleur, however he began painting and developed his talent in Le Havre. A few years later, Monet started the founding movement of Modern Art with his painting “Impression Sunrise”. This painting is kept in the Marmottan Museum in Paris, and as because of this it is often forgotten that it was painted in Le Havre.
Le Havre, its port, its beach and its regattas have inspired all the major painters of this movement (Pissarro, Sisley, Boudin, Monet, Jongkind, etc.). Monet and the impressionist painters have given art a new lease of life by challenging centuries of codified academic painting. Though impressionist painters kept a strong link with the real world’s painting, they managed to free themselves completely from the fetters of the past by picking the themes of their paintings in every day life.
St Josephs Church in Le Harve is quite simply astounding, built to act as a memorial to the five thousand civilians who died in the conflict. The church was designed by the chief architect for the reconstruction of Le Havre, Auguste Perret, teacher and mentor to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The sombre interior is in the Neo-Gothic style. The tower is 107 metres tall and acts as a beacon visible from out at sea, especially at night when illuminated. This is a must see building.
As I was on an impressionism tour of Normandy it would be unfair to miss out on a short trip up to Etretat, 28 km from Le Harve. The spectacular coastline and chalk needle at Etretat were immortalised by Monet and the resort beach attracted artists including Eugène Boudin, Gustave Courbet and of course Claude Monet. Two of the three famous arches are seen from the town, the Porte d’Aval, and the Porte d’Amont.
During the 1930’s, in the era of the train, a line was built from Paris out to the coast for the great and the good to enjoy the fresh sea air and to view the white cliffs of Dover. The train line went through Rouen the town which was to be next on my impressionist tour.
Rouen and the Seine Valley have attracted and continue to attract many artists with their colours, culture, lights and way of life. It has attracted all the masters. Turner, Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Sisley and for some of them to the point of obsession. Today, the Museum of Fine Arts and its Depeaux gallery still hold the second largest Impressionist collection in France for the pleasure of tourists and the pride of the people of Rouen.
Several works by Claude Monet, numerous creations from the École de Rouen and the Normandy Impressionist Festival marvellously illustrate the reciprocal love between the capital of Normandy and Impressionism. This city really has it all. Wonderful paintings and a connection to the historic lady herself, Joan of Arc.
I was fortunate enough to join a walking tour of Rouen with a true expert, Catherine Brandon-Delattre. Catherine expertly gauged the level of interest and the speed at which the visitors wanted to walk. This is a knack that not many guides have, but mine did. Catherine was superb, I remember sitting for coffee outside the High Court in Rouen as Catherine told us the history of the splendid building, whilst lady barristers crossed the forecourt with their “bundles”.
After a splendid walking tour, which covered everything beautiful Rouen had to offer, I had made my way to dinner at the oldest restaurant in France. La Couronne (www.lacouronne.com.fr) loved by the great and the good. Darwin Cauvin the Maitre D, directs La Couronne as a theater, every day, every night, La Couronne is a feast. Grace Kelly herself, called the place magic. Little has changed in the restaurant since 1345. Outside La Couronne was the spot where Joan of Arc was burned in 1341.
So as you can imagine it’s a pretty special restaurant and tables are hard to get. Thankfully my connections in Normandy tourism had secured me a table from where I was able to watch the ceremony of the Le canard à la presse, it’s a dish I had never seen prepared before. Let’s just say it’s roast duck and look up the rest on YouTube, its interesting.
So after dinner as I walked back towards my hotel, I came across a crowd of people staring at a church, quite a number of churches and impressive buildings in France put on spectacular light shows at nightfall which are projected onto the facades. They are truly spectacular. It is quite difficult to describe just how amazing the shows are but Google the one in Rouen and you will see what I mean. Captivating and spectacular are two words that describe the amazing view. It’s something you must see as describing it is near impossible.