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.
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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 are also a special exhibitions during October’s Normandy Impressionist Festival.
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.
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.
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. Cosy restaurant La Tortue does an amazing apple délice with Calvados as well as good set menu deals. Or 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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