As a French citizen, I was taught about Normandy and the role this region played in D-Day during WW2. I had visited Caen and its war museum, we also went on a school trip to the beaches and memorials as part of our history lessons. I enjoyed it greatly, even swimming in the Channel sea in March, which as I recall was pretty cold.
I also spent a few days in lovely Rouen a few years back, but I had never been to the seaside and popular spots such as Etretat, Deauville and Honfleur. I heard many times these were particularly charming places. After a few days strolling the streets of Paris, my friend and I went to Normandy as it is easily accessible by train or bus from the center of the French capital city. The weather is always uncertain when it comes to the coast or April in general, but it turned out that we were to be lucky.
I was told by several students that Le Havre was a very left-wing, multi-cultural city, but also one of the ugliest places in France. Therefore I was not sure what to expect when we decided to stay for one night. Well, guess what? I was actually suprised at how interesting le Havre is! We gave a go at Couchsurfing there, luckily our host was as friendly as can be and knew a lot about the city, he took us on a tour on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
A little history about Le Havre: more than 90 pourcent of the city was destroyed in WW2, bombarded by the British squadrons and Allies, since the harbour was a strategical place and occupied by the Germans. After the war, architect Auguste Perret undertook the rebuilding of the city center. The city council and the Saint-Joseph church were built in concrete, which gives a very unusual aspect for a French city, kind of industrial, to the center.
As you can see on the pictures above, though, a few older buildings survived the war or with damages. The cathedral Notre-Dame lost parts of the building and was reconstructed after the war. The other building is the maison de l’Armateur (XVIII century) and was turned into a museum. There is also a house, La villa maritime, which stands by the beach and was built in 1890 and it shows the wealthy side of le Havre, when rich Parisians came to the sea side a century ago to spend their holiday.
Le Havre is the second most important harbour in France and is borded by the Seine river but also the Channel sea. The view probably used to be lovely as painted by impressionists like Eugène Boudin or Monet since Honfleur finds itself opposite Le Havre, nowadays the view is very industrial looking and harsh. However if you walk along the pebble beach towards Sainte-Adresse, the stroll is rather pretty.
Our friendly host took us for a visit of the city with his Golden Retriever, Sasha, we all enjoyed the sun and the seaside.
Couchsurfing was a great option in Le Havre for two backpackers like us, considering the wide knowledge about the town our host shared with us. We would have never discovered so much information on our own. He was actually from Spain and knew more about the architecture than some people I know who lived their whole life in Le Havre.
I would say that aside from the industrial parts of town and harbour, Le Havre is rich with references to historical events and the war, obviously, but it is also modern and colourful with a popular skate park and parks. Many writers and painters stopped by or lived in Le Havre and you can feel that culture is important there. If you really like the hustle and bustle of Paris, though, you might find it really calm in the evening as the center is pretty much empty.
We had planned to spend a day outside of any city and walk up the cliffs of Etretat. It’s a little town on the Côte d’Albâtre, whose chalk cliffs are renowned worldwide and have inspired painters of the impressionist movement as well as writers like Flaubert or Maupassant. Soon the wind drifted the clouds away and we spent a sunny afternoon walking up and down the hills and along the pebble beaches.
It is a lovely, refreshing place in Normandy, where you can admire the shades of green and blue blended between the lush grass and the sea. It is always impressive to observe nature and its work over milleniums. Here the cliffs are steep and white coloured thanks to the limestone. The seagulls are all around and build their nests in the cavities as other bird species do. I always feel that cliffs give this impression of being at the edge of the earth.
We started by walking up the falaise d’Amont, which has a little church up there, meant to protect fishermen and was destroyed by the Germans in war time. The view from there on your left will show you the arch and the needle diving into the sea. We found the stairs to the beach and could smell the very unique odour of decaying seaweed. We then crossed through a passage in the cliff, to take a walk on the pebble beach and find our way back to the famous falaise d’Aval and la Manneporte. Spring had brought all sorts of wild flowers, purple or yellow which embellished the place.
The village in itself has some very lovely traditional Normand houses but is a little overpriced since there are so many tourists coming, it used to be a seaside resort for Parisians (again!) and it is very charming. You can probably enjoy a crêpe or some cider if you fancy it, since it’s the typical food/drink you will find in Normandy.
If you like exploring endless green and blue natural places, you might want to go visit Etretat! What a unique place!
Honfleur was luckier than Le Havre as far as the war was concerned. They didn’t get bombarded and therefore the typical Normand charm is intact there. You will notice how each house looks different than the other and the many small streets have a subtle charm about them. They look like they could belong in the countryside, in a way. Like Alsace, the rural typical architecture in Normandy has what we call “colombages” or constructions with half-timbering. The beams in Normandy, however, are usually vertical, unlike Alsace. We also noticed the presence of slate tiles on the facades of many houses which gives them a dark look, very elegant in the sun. And they allow other painted buildings to shine through their colours.
Below is a slide show of some typical architecture and styles you can find in Honfleur. Notice that there are houses made of bricks, which is similar to houses in Great Britain on the other side of the sea. I particularly enjoy details like colour painted doors or the timber beams, aren’t they beautiful?
There is a church in Honfleur that has a particularity: the bell tower is separated from the main building. The Eglise Sainte-Catherine’s nef was built with timber in the XVth century and looks like the hull of a boat. The appearance of that church is very medieval and dark looking, which suits well the houses around.
If you visit the Jardin des Personnalités, in Honfleur, you will get to know more about artists who lived and found inspiration in that place. Impressionism has been, of course, very important in Normandy. You will see many art galleries and shops in Honfleur. Just take a walk around town, as we did.
As we walked around we found an open private gallery, the paintress was a French and Romanian artist who used gouache a lot and I thought her paintings were vibrant, so I kept a little souvenir. Ioana, that’s her name and above you can see her lovely house with glycine flowers.
I would recommend Honfleur if you like exploring towns with charm, if you like architecture and colours, but also for a meal at the restaurant or a café. There are plenty of places where you can sit and enjoy a meal or a drink in Honfleur.
Deauville is the epitome of extravagance by the sea side. It is famous for its sandy beach and enormous houses. Wealthy Parisian families would spend their summers there and nowadays it is still filled with a bourgeoise vibe.
If you cross the bridge in front of the train station, you will find yourself in Trouville, which is a little less extravagant. Deauville has numerous marinas and people seem to enjoy sailing and recreational boating. We found an air bnb on a boat and spent the night in the marina, which was cheaper than any other accomodation and was also relaxing.
Deauville was calm at this period of the year, we only met a couple of tourists and many fishermen. The owner of the boat we stayed in invited us for the apéro (time for drinks in the evening, in France) and we talked about fishing and sailing, which was very interesting. People in Normandy are very friendly and down to earth.
Deauville and Trouville have some very nice architecture to discover and the beach is indeed quite big. I can only imagine that it is a very popular spot in the summer.
I personally enjoyed Trouville better, but it’s only my opinion and both are close so you can visit them in one go.
The beach was still windy this time of year, so we found a secret garden and enjoyed some crêpes and local apple juice.
If you like anything French, or art, if you enjoy the coast and fancy seeing something typical of Normandy, there is no doubt you will find these places interesting.
My favourite spot was definitely Etretat, though. By now you may have noticed I am a nature child.
I will leave you with some classic Françoise Hardy singing a beautiful song written by Serge Gainsbourg:
PS: If you like to meet locals and to save a little money you might want to try Couch Surfing.