I’ve written before about Honfleur, my favourite French town, but before this year I’d only visited it in summer. I arrived in France on New Year’s Eve this time, not by car as I had done before, but on a ship which sailed down the Seine from L’Havre to Rouen.
On the journey we looked out on a wondrous scene of frost-covered trees on the banks of the river, trees which at first I took to be silver birch, so thickly covered in frost were they.
I had never seen anything like this before, and it was made more fascinating by the fact that there were also pockets of greenery where the frost had not reached.
Rouen – the Great Clock
Honfleur is no far from Rouen so it seemed a good idea to take ourselves off there for the day, even though I had presumed the town would be mostly closed up for the winter. But no, the town was as busy as ever with cafés, restaurants and bars open and packed with visitors. As usual, the area around the marina, the Vieux Basin, was the most crowded and we had a problem finding a table at lunch time.
Honfleur, an essential stop on any Norman itinerary, is still a fishing port, and despite its sophisticated yacht harbour and fantastic high-rise houses surrounding it, the town has preserved its rich artistic and historic heritage in its traditional buildings and picturesque streets and squares. It is unlike any other part of Normandy, seeming to bear no relation to industrial Le Havre just across the Seine estuary or the Pays dAuge to the south.
The oldest part of Honfleur lies in the area of the Vieux Bassin, a tangle of delightful cobbled streets and alleys known as L’Enclos, the original medieval town of Honfleur enclosed within the first town walls.
Here you will find the oldest church, the deconsecrated 14th and 15th century St. Etienne’s, a Gothic parish church constructed of chalk with flint and Caen stone. The bell tower is covered with a façade of chestnut wood in the local tradition, as indeed, are many of the old houses behind it.
Behind this is the original 17th-century Greniers a Sel (salt warehouses) the royal salt stores that once contained 11,000 tonnes of salt for preserving the locally caught fish and the Atlantic cod and herring which the fleets landed.
The Bassin is surrounded by picturesque narrow houses, and without doubt this is what catches the eye of every visitor upon their first visit to Honfleur. The real jewels (and looking like jewels too because each one is a different colour) are in the row along the Quai St. Catherine, some of the houses being 10-stories high, with slate roofs and half-timbered and slate façades looking as though they might topple over at any minute.
An interesting fact about these narrow 16th and 18th century houses that are squeezed against one another on St Catherine’s quay is that not only are they all different in size, shape, and colour, but that they also have two ground floors: one opening on to the quay and another one, half way up opening behind on to either Dauphin Street or Logettes Street. Because of this, each house is privately owned by two different householders.
Honfleur’s finest architectural prize is the old wooden Church of St. Catherine which was built by shipwrights in the 15th and 16th century just outside the walls of the medieval town, using wood from the nearby forest.
This is the largest wooden church with a separate bell-tower in France. The interior architecture of the church is quite remarkable, as the shipwrights used their naval construction skills in the building of it (stone was scarce but timber was plentiful in the neighbouring forests) and in shape inside it resembles an overturned double hull. Look closely at the pillars and you will see many irregularities pointing to the crudeness of the tools used in the work. The separate bell tower, opposite the church, is an oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house and this serves as an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum – a must for art lovers.
Honfleur has been attracting painters to the area for generations. Boudin, known as the father of Impressionism, was born in Honfleur and painters such as Monet, Corot, Daubigny and Dufy were drawn to these parts by the beauty and quality of the light. Their work is well represented in the many galleries in the area. The painters usually stayed just outside the town at Ferme St. Simeon, then a rustic auberge, now a very grand and beautiful five-star hotel standing in magnificent grounds.
Honfleur was also the birthplace in 1886 of the avant-garde musician, artist and writer, Erik Satie, and there is a Museum dedicated to the man where you can immerse yourself in his quirky world. Unlike any other museum you’ve been to, this one takes you from room to room to the accompaniment of Satie’s music (via electronic headsets). stunning visual effects and extracts from his writing. Even if Satie is not one of your favourites, this is a very special experience which I’d highly recommend.
It is very easy to walk around this small town and you won’t get lost. However, like many towns, Honfleur has a Petit Train Touristique, a tractor-drawn ‘train’ that trundles around the main tourist spots, operating May-September. If only there for a day, I’d recommend this.