Summer delights in Honfleur, the ancient gateway to Normandy, France

Velvety in texture, deliciously sweet and with the faintest hint of iodine, the deep-sea Saint-Vaast oyster, nurtured in the pure waters off Normandy, is a thing of beauty.

On this immaculate summer morning I'm tucking into a dozen of these plump little beauties in the certain knowledge that nothing, just nothing, is going to top this moment of gastronomic bliss; until a gulp of locally brewed Sagesse Pilsner, turns the dial up to 11.

"Magnifique, incroyable!," I call to the stallholder, exhausting my limited supply of French adjectives.

The morning produce market outside Saint Catherine's Church is an enticing introduction to Honfleur, a beautifully preserved medieval city at the mouth of the Seine, and the ancient gateway to Normandy.

Honfleur marks, roughly, the halfway point on Scenic's 11-day "Normandy and Gems of the Seine" cruise, which begins and ends in Paris. Once the Scenic Gem has docked, guests have the chance to join a walking tour of the town or a side-trip to the seaside resort of Deauville. On the following day, there are escorted tours of several D-Day Landing sites, including Omaha Beach, the D-Day Museum in Arromanches and the Normandy American Cemetery.

Rediscovered (and immortalised) by artists such as Monet, Dubigny, Corot, Dufy and Turner during the 19th century, the quiet fishing port soon became a popular holiday destination for Parisians. Today, 4 million visitors throng Honfleur's cobbled streets over summer.

Locals seem to take this annual influx in their stride, as the coach parties arrive, visiting yachts motor in the picturesque harbour, Le Vieux Bassin, and the crowd at the Wednesday morning farmers' market swells.

"In Normandy we are not afraid to open our doors to people," says Adeline, my local guide. "Hospitality, landscape and architecture – all of these thing make Normandy such an interesting place."

Shaped by a 1000 years of war, invasion and revolution, it's no surprise that the people of this region are so defiantly proud of their identity. Even my platter of freshly shucked oysters flies the Norman flag.

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The fresh produce at today's market provides an insight into Normandy's natural abundance from land and sea. Apart from its celebrated seafood (Normandy produces a quarter of France's oysters), the region is renown for its poultry, lamb, pork, cheeses, cider and, of course, calvados; this apple brandy has been distilled here for more than 500 years and is traditionally drunk to refresh the appetite during a lengthy Norman feast.

"You drink Calvados in one shot," says Adeline. "It burns a hole in your stomach and this way you can keep eating. We name this the Norman hole [Le Trou Normand]."

Only cheese is perhaps treated with as much reverence as calvados, which is still made on family-owned cider farms dotted around the countryside.

Apart from the produce market, visitors will find plenty of small restaurants, cafes and patisseries in Honfleur – along with boutiques selling sailor shirts and caps, rustic pottery, buttery biscuits and every type of calvados imaginable.

The port also provides an abundance of architectural gems, such as massive salt warehouses, timbered medieval houses and the distinctive narrow terraces that line Quai Saint Catherine; in the 16th century local regulations limited the width of buildings to 7.6 metres.

"They are actually one house built on top of another," says Adeline. "With one entrance on the quay and another round the corner on the Rue du Dauphin."

A little further up the hill is Saint Catherine's Church, dating from 1450. This eccentric structure, the largest wooden church in France, has a vaulted oak ceiling resembling an inverted ship's hull and a quaint bell tower.

Honfleur's long and colourful past includes Viking invaders, the Hundred Years' War, Erik Satie and clutch of trans-Atlantic explorers, so just take your time. History lurks down every alleyway.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London Heathrow via Singapore, with plenty of connections to Paris. Phone 1300 767 177 or see britishairways.com

CRUISE

Scenic's 11-day "Normandy and Gems of the Seine" cruise sails from Paris to Paris via Honfleur and includes escorted day trips to the Somme battlefield and Omaha Beach, plus shore excursions to Monet's Garden, Chantilly Castle, Rouen, Honfleur, La Côte Fleurie and Auvers-sur-Oise. Prices start at $6945 per person, twin share. Tariffs include all meals and drinks, Scenic Freechoice activities, airport transfers, tips and gratuities and free Wi-Fi. Phone 1300 382 493 or visit scenic.com.au

Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic.

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