Normandy, France: Visiting Le Havre and Honfleur - a tale of two cities

We've all had those days when travelling. You've been looking forward to visiting a place for ages, imagined wandering the picturesque streets, soaking up the atmosphere, people-watching, window-shopping and generally having a lovely time, but when you do finally get there, for real, the weather is so bad your daydreams are impossible to act out. Well, almost.

Come rain or shine - and on this unseasonably chilly early May morning, it's raining - Honfleur is one of Normandy's, and France's, most beautiful cities, though, with a population of about 8000, it's really more of a town. This historic fishing port is perched where the River Seine flows into the La Manche (you won't find anyone here calling it the English Channel).

We've popped to Honfleur on a shore excursion from our Viking cruise ship, which is docked at the larger, grittier port of Le Havre, 25 kilometres to the east across the Ponte de Normandie, a 2-kilometre-long feat of modern engineering bridging the Seine estuary. While Le Havre was devastated by World War II bombing, and is regarded by many French as one of the country's ugliest cities, Honfleur dodged major damage. Its medieval centre is delightfully-preserved and teems with vibrant markets and elegant cafes, creperies, brasseries, galleries and boutiques.

Although it's a magnet for visitors - French and overseas - we have the town virtually to ourselves at 9am this Saturday, as we shuffle around in our raincoats and beneath umbrellas, with drizzle falling from gunmetal grey skies. The rain adds a sheen to the winding, cobbled lanes and squares, which are overlooked by colourful gabled mansions and creaky, timber-framed houses, many decorated with flowers, awnings, fishing nets and other nautical nods. We'll have free time to explore later, but first up we follow our guide, Christian, whose near accent-less English is so good it's a surprise to discover he's Parisian.

Honfleur was founded by the Vikings and became a major seafaring hub in the Middle Ages, playing a key role in the Hundred Years War with England as well as the French settling of Quebec. Sailing from Honfleur, Samuel de Champlain established the north American colony in 1608 and Christian points out a commemorative plaque by the Vieux-Bassin, the town's idyllic old harbour. Postcards outside Honfleur's shops reveal the harbour in sun-kissed glory but even in dreary weather it's stunning, dotted with tethered yachts, and edged on its Quai Sainte-Catherine by tall, slim, slate-tiled buildings that cast a mirror reflection into the water. On a nice day, says Christian, crowds congregate outside the harbour-side bars and eateries, listening to street musicians and sipping classic Norman tipples: cider and calvados (apple brandy aged in oak barrels).

Admiring the harbour, and the photogenic alleys that slope off it, it's no wonder artists adore Honfleur. English watercolour painters such as John Constable and JMW Turner were enchanted by the light here, as were the French impressionists, including Eugene Boudin, who was born in Honfleur in 1824. There's an art museum here named in his honour. One of the first French landscape artists to paint outdoors, Boudin mentored Claude Monet, who was born in Paris but grew up in Le Havre. Boudin, it's said, introduced Monet to Honfleur and the wonders of outdoor painting.

The town's St Catherine's Catholic Church is a work of art in its own right (and, we find, a warm place of refuge). Built by 15th-century shipwrights, it's the largest timber-built church in France. Seated on pews, staring up at the intricately-carved woodwork and stained glass, Christian says a bomb fell on the church in 1944. Miraculously, it didn't pierce the roof, which resembles an upside-down ship's hull.

For me, one of the most amazing things about Honfleur is that it's made me feel hungry again - a sensation I thought I'd lost after a week indulging on the cruise. Passing the market stalls clustered around the church square, I eye and nose a variety of appetite-stirring aromas: fresh shellfish, grilled sausage, rotisserie chicken. The whiff of freshly-baked baguettes and croissants drifts from boulangeries, bistro and restaurant menus entice with the likes of mussels in cider and Camembert sauce, and shop windows flaunt neat bundles of Norman cheeses, chocolate and salted caramel.

You could easily spend the day (or more) in Honfleur, but I fancy seeing Le Havre, too, and as luck would have it, the moment we head back over the Ponte de Normandie, the skies clear and the sun appears. Today's Le Havre looks very different to the city Monet knew and painted (his 1874 gem, Impression, Sunrise depicted the harbour here and helped coin the Impressionism movement).

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In September 1944, three months after the D-Day Normandy beach landings, Allied bombs rained down on Le Havre. France's largest seaport after Marseille, it had been declared a "festung" (fortress) by Hitler, to be held to the last man. Dubbed "the storm of iron and fire" and "France's forgotten Blitz", the Allied onslaught liberated the city but killed an estimated 5000 civilians and left 80,000 homeless, engulfed in rubble.

Pioneering Belgian-born architect Auguste Perret - a tutor of Le Corbusier - oversaw Le Havre's post-war reconstruction. Prefabricated buildings, made of reinforced concrete, mushroomed along a new grid system, with uniform, beige-grey, multi-storey blocks on the streets and boulevards around the austere L-shaped city hall, which is fronted by a string of fluttering tricolour flags.

Tours are offered inside one of the Soviet-looking blocks, with the large, bright, fully-furnished Temoin Perret Show Flat at 181 Rue de Paris transporting you back to the 1950s and the home of a typical Le Havre family.

You can't miss Perret's most incredible building: St Joseph's Catholic Church. It's been called a "lighthouse at the heart of the city", with its octagonal lantern-like spire rising 107 metres above the altar. Dedicated to the memory of the war's victims, the church is particularly magical when sunlight pours through its 6500 stained-glass windows.

Perret's Le Havre revamp was controversial and derided at the time, but in 2005 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a leading example of post-war urban planning and architecture. His buildings have subsequently been labelled "concrete-chic".

Strolling around Le Havre, you'll see how other artists and architects have helped brighten the city's grey image. As well as Le Volcan, a whitewashed volcano-shaped theatre and arts centre by the late Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, there's the glass-and-steel-fronted Modern Art Museum, MuMa, which has one of France's best collections of Impressionist works. Les Bains des Docks is a gleaming new aquatics complex designed by Jean Nouvel, part of a project to regenerate Le Havre's old docklands. Fringing the city's 2-kilometre-long pebble beach are wooden huts, shaded in greens, pinks, blues, reds and yellows.

On a shuttle bus back to our cruise ship, we pass a giant sculpture by Frenchman Vincent Ganivet. Featuring two huge, multi-coloured arches, cobbled together with shipping containers, it was unveiled in 2017 for the 500th anniversary of a city that may lack the quaint Gallic charm of its neighbour, Honfleur, but has its own unique and surreal allure.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/france

traveller.com.au/cruises

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CRUISE

Le Havre is a port of call on 15-day sailings between Barcelona and Bergen on Viking Jupiter from April to October 2020. The cruise is priced from $6995 per person, based on double occupancy. Some shore excursions, including certain day trips to Paris, are complimentary, but the Honfleur guided tour costs $US79 per person. See vikingcruises.com.au

Steve McKenna was a guest of Viking Cruises.

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