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How does it feel to view a scene as depicted through the eyes of an Impressionist Painter? To step into the colors and tones of a painting by Gustave Courbet, Eugene Boudin or Claude Monet? I was destined to find out and thus began my journey to the seaside town of Honfleur, a place of inspiration to artists and dreamers alike.
Honfleur is located in Normandy, a quick train or car ride away from Paris. It’s the perfect weekend destination for those seeking a change of scenery, from the bridges of Paris to the port of Honfleur, with many varying scenes along the way.
We arrived to Caen, explored a medieval chateau from the 11th century and journeyed onwards via car, spending the day driving along the D-Day beaches under a bright, temperamental sky. An afternoon spent in awe amidst recent history.
As we drove into Honfleur at dawn, I held my breath, unaware if my expectations would exceed me, as can so often be the case. As we entered the Vieux Bassin (Old Harbour), the real heart of this seaside town, we fell in love. Both my romantic companion and I come from small villages on the sea and are not so easily impressed, but this surely was a hidden paradise.
We made our way along seemingly one-way cobbled streets to our home for the next few nights, a historic manor house with a palatial air, just minutes away from the Old Harbour. I felt as though we had been invited by distant relatives (those you hear much about but never end up meeting) and felt very much at home in our elegant chambre de bonne.
A star-filled sky signified that it was time for a romantic dinner. Honfleur is replete with restaurants at prices Parisians could only dream of, especially when you consider the selection of shellfish! Naturally, we were craving fish in this, historically known as a fishing and trading village. Most of the eateries along the port looked inviting; how to choose? In my adept traveling experience, to try the tastes of the town, the key is to find the place most frequented by the locals. Rather than seek counsel from a guidebook (which can surely serve its purpose) we asked fellow passersby for dining recommendations, and voila! A delicious 3-course dinner was savoured, beginning with an amuse-bouche and ending with a cheese plate, from Normandy of course!
We rose to find the sun shining, prompting us to discover the town in its morning hues. Normandy is not known for its weather, hence we felt very privileged. As could be forecast, the clouds soon turned to rain once we arrived at the farmers market to taste the local cheeses, camembert being one of my favorites! (Is there anywhere in France where you cannot simply live off the local produce?)
The rainstorm provided an ideal occasion to explore the Eglise Ste-Catherine, an old church standing in the square for over 500 years, rebuilt of wood after being destroyed in the Hundred Years’ War. What’s most extraordinary about this structure, aside from it being the largest wooden church in France, is its double-vaulted roof and twin naves, resembling a couple of overturned ships’ hulls. I love the subtlety of significance!
It is here where the école de Honfleur was founded, contributing to the widely revered Impressionist movement. Hence the number of art galleries lining the cobbled streets. It is no wonder that artists fell in love with this picturesque coastal town, also the birth place of Eugene Boudin in 1824. He was aptly called the “king of skies” for his highly admired skyscapes. A collection of his paintings, as well as works by Dufy and Monet, can be found in The Eugene Boudin Museum, several blocks from the old harbour.
Braving the rain, we decided to explore another landscape admired by Monet. We drove north through endless winding roads, arriving at the small village of Etretat. Little did we know what grandness lay in our midst. On either side of the pebbly beach, twin cliffs loomed high, from the sea to the sky. The Falaise d’Aval, compared by French writer Maupassant to an elephant dipping his trunk in the sea, and the Falaise d’Amont. Sights to behold!
Returning to Honfleur, following yet another meal of crepes generously filled with confiture de pommes au calvados, a regional specialty, we drove along the Pont of Normandy. This in itself is a thrilling experience. Opening in 1995, this modern marvel stretches in a soaring 2-km arch over the Seine from Le Havre to Honfleur. In moments you are transported from the industrialization of Le Havre to the calm of Honfleur.
Having seen, done and eaten so much, the next 24 hours were spent in peaceful observation, as is the French manner. Sitting on the port where time ceases to exist, sipping on a local cidre or 20-year-old calvados. Much time too was spent lost amidst the maze of cobbled paths surrounding the port. The brightly colored buildings evoke the historic Normandy. Honfleur was barely damaged during WWII and thus little has changed over the centuries.
Honfleur provides a setting in which to dream. That is, after all, the reason to visit. To lose yourself in a landscape that feeds your imagination while providing respite from daily life. To discover its hidden secrets is to take the time to find them.
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