Travel tales

An artistic weekend in Honfleur, Normandy

An artistic weekend in Honfleur, Normandy

A picturesque harbour tightly packed with sailing boats. Rows of tall, thin, slate-fronted houses and stone salt stores. Waterside restaurants with colourful awnings and tables spilling out onto cobbled streets. Honfleur really is as pretty as a painting – and if you know much about art, then you might well recognise it from a few famous canvases. It started life as a fishing town, but the beauty of its historic port and Normandy’s luminous light made it a magnet for Impressionist painters. They immortalised the town in paintings which hang in galleries around the world – and the town’s still an artistic hotspot today.

cafes

Cafés along the waterfront

Honfleur’s artistic fame is all thanks to landscape painter Eugène Boudin, who was born in the town in 1824. He was one of the first landscape painters to paint outside ‘en plein air‘ and was famous for his beautifully captured skies and seascapes. In the 1850s he befriended an 18-year-old Claude Monet. Back in those days Monet had been painting charcoal caricatures, but Boudin encouraged him to try landscapes instead – and the rest is history. Monet fell in love with Honfleur and brought artist friends like Courbet, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir to visit. And as the Impressionist movement took off, Honfleur’s fame grew.

There’s a museum dedicated to Boudin in Honfleur’s Place Erik Satie if you want to find out more about him. Paintings and sculptures from the 19th- and 20th-century featuring the town and the area are on display. As well as works by Monet and Courbet there are lots of Boudin’s canvases and sketches of the harbour, coast and countryside. There’s also a special exhibition at the museum until 3 October 2016 as part of the annual Normandy Impressionist Festival – this year’s festival theme is Impressionist portraits.

Honfleur harbour

Honfleur’s harbour – or Vieux Bassin

Honfleur’s art scene isn’t just in the past, a community of painters, sculptors, photographers and jewellery-makers are still drawn to the town today. You’ll usually see an easel or two set up in the Vieux Bassin, with painters capturing the same scenes the Impressionists did 200 years before. There are also galleries and studios open to visitors, though head into the backstreets to find the best – and best-value – places. And if you want to try your hand at creating your own masterpiece you can take a class with a local artist.

Away from the harbour, Honfleur’s most famous landmark is the wooden Église Sainte Catherine. It’s France’s largest wooden church and was built by local shipbuilders, who used their day-job skills to create a  unique ceiling which looks like two upside-down ships’ hulls. It was only ever supposed to be a temporary structure after the previous church was destroyed in the Hundred Years’ War, but 500 years later it’s still standing. The town also has a museum dedicated to another famous resident, composer Erik Satie, which uses a mix of slightly surreal sound, light and image exhibits to tell the story of his life.

Église Sainte Catherine

Église Sainte Catherine

It’s not just Honfleur which captured the imagination of the Impressionists, the stretch of coastline in this part of Normandy had more than its share of admirers too. They painted a series of different seafront locations in the area, and it’s an easy day trip to follow in their footsteps. To the west of Honfleur you’ll find a row of 19th-century seaside resorts like Deauville, Trouville and Cabourg – also known as the Parisian Riviera. Their sandy beaches, wooden boardwalks and whitewashed bathing houses were a favourite subject for Boudin. They’re still a great place to dip your toes in the sea or feast on local moules et frites.

Or to the east of Honfleur, the Alabaster Coast is France’s version of the White Cliffs of Dover, with the same dramatic white rocks. It stretches for 80 miles and includes the towns of Étretat and Fécamp, which were captured on canvas by Monet, Boudin and Pissaro. On a sunny day the picture’s of bright white stone arches, sailing boats and blue seas. But when the weather’s bad it’s just as beautiful with moody skies and crashing waves. It’s enough to inspire even the most reluctant artist to reach for a sketchbook.

The Alabaster Coast in Normandy, France

Étretat on the Alabaster Coast

The details

Where to stay: Follow in the footsteps of Boudin and Monet at the Ferme Saint Simeon. This 17th-century farm started life as a 17th-century leper colony before it became a travellers’ hostel for painters, poets and musicians. Monet paid a bargain 40 francs a month, but things have gone a bit more upmarket since then. It’s now a swanky five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel with a spa and Michelin-starred restaurant.

Where to eat and drink: The tiny third-floor Bistrot des Artistes gets its name from artist Anne-Marie who acts as waitress, hostess and chef. With only seven tables and a great harbour view, you need to book in advance for big portions of local specialities. Honfleur is part of Normandy’s Calvados department, so don’t miss a taste of the area’s namesake fiery apple liqueur. Call in at the Cidrerie Crêperie for mugs of cloudy cider and paper-thin sweet crêpes or savoury gallettes. And stock up on local cheeses, butter and cured meats at the farmers’ market through the town’s backstreets on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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Following in the footsteps of Impressionist painters like Monet and Boudin with an art-themed weekend break in the pretty Normandy town of Honfleur, France – ontheluce.com

This post is brought to you in association with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, one of the quickest ways to get across the Channel from England to France.

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Kerin
    August 8, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Inspiring as always Lucy – I always enjoy your posts. Thanks so much!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 10, 2016 at 10:13 am

      Thanks Kerin, hope things are all well with you!

  • Reply
    Darlene
    August 8, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    What a charming place. Thanks for the great pictures and description.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 10, 2016 at 10:12 am

      Thanks Darlene, it’s one of my favourite spots in Normandy!

  • Reply
    Jordan Wagner
    August 8, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THIS!!! Honfleur is one of my favorite places in the entire world 🙂 My parents were engaged right at the harbor in Honfleur almost 30 years ago

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 10, 2016 at 10:13 am

      How lovely! We stayed in an apartment overlooking the harbour a few years back and it was so pretty, I was totally obsessed with watching the views out the windows with the light changing and the boats coming in.

  • Reply
    Sara
    August 8, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    I visited a view years ago when we had a few spare hours prior to our ferry from Le Havre. I always said I’d love to go back, but you’ve renewed my resolve to do so now! A great overview, thanks!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 10, 2016 at 10:10 am

      Thanks Sara, it is such a beautiful spot!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    August 11, 2016 at 12:15 am

    Honfleur is so close to me – closer than a lot of UK cities but just across the Channel. I really should make time to visit and see the sights in your fabulous photos.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 14, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      It’s such a pretty place! I’ve been a couple of times and didn’t have the best weather for either but it’s still a beauty.

  • Reply
    Rachel Gault
    August 15, 2016 at 1:30 am

    This looks so beautiful! On my bucket list, for sure!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 17, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      It really is just like walking into a painting!

  • Reply
    Iloenchen
    August 17, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    This is very beautiful. Honfleur seems like such an interesting place, I can’t believe I haven’t heard of it before. I’m definitely going to remember it if I ever make it to Normandy. Thank you for the great post!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 17, 2016 at 6:27 pm

      Thanks – Honfleur is so lovely, hope you get to make the trip someday!

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