Anna Hyman reflects on the light and charms of Honfleur.
It was still dark when the ferry docked at Caen, or more accurately Ouistreham, its actual port, a mere six miles outside the city.
We had taken Brittany Ferries overnight crossing from the UK – Portsmouth to Caen – so that we could maximise our short-break holiday in Honfleur. By taking cabins on the overnight ferries we had worked out that we could gain two extra days in Normandy. Fantastic.
We drove through a pale opalescent dawn witnessing the small coastal towns gradually waking to a new day and were at the hotel that the Brittany Ferries Short Breaks team had booked for us well before 8am. ‘Help yourself to coffee’, we were told at reception. So we did, and sat surrounded by brochures and guide books planning day one.
An enchanting lovely harbour town
Honfleur is an enchantingly lovely harbour town on the wide mouth of the River Seine. Famous for its soft light it has long been a favourite haunt of painters attempting to capture the picturesque houses lining the old harbour (Vieux Bassin) where the fishing boats, yachts and pleasure craft bob up and down in the water.
Many a voyage of exploration set out from Honfleur: one in 1503 was to Brazil, others to Canada, another to what was to become the American state of Louisiana.
Honfleur was said to have the best and biggest fleet of ships in Normandy. Trade flourished with Canada, the West Indies, African coast and the Azores to such an extent that the Vieux Bassin had to be built to cope with all the activity.
But because of its location Honfleur was an important town long before those days. Its name, then Honnefleur, was probably derived from Norse – ‘Honna’ possibly a local family name and ‘flow’ a creek or small estuary. Apart from its sheltered location it also grew in importance as a defensive post guarding access to the Seine. The English certainly realised its value: twice in the 14th century and once in the early 15th century it was ruled by English hands.
From the 18th century other invaders descended on Honfleur. But these were peaceful visitors – artists drawn by the quality of the light, the picturesque port, the Seine and the lovely surrounding countryside. Their names, including Bonington, Turner, Corot, Boudin, Dubourg, Monet, Vuillard, Dufy and Lagar, read like a veritable Who’s Who of painters.
Even early on that first morning of our visit artists’ easels were set up, their owners trying to capture the Vieux Bassin’s elusive light, the sense of movement and colour, the tall, old houses on Quai Sainte-Catherine and the Lieutenance (part of the original fortification) as the backdrop. Those of us less skilled pointed cameras.
A wooden church
The houses on Quai Sante-Catherine have always intrigued me. One frontage looks out over the harbour but the other half of the building fronts onto the streets at the back – rue du Dauphin and rue des Logettes – two houses built back to back.
We wandered round into those back streets, stopping frequently to peer into gallery windows, as we made our way up the wooden church of Sainte-Catherine. It dates back to the 15th century and was built by the townsfolk, after the departure of the English, using timber from the local forests and their ship-building skills to construct it. It is now the largest church in France constructed from wood. A few yards from it stands its wooden bell tower. Both are well worth a visit and it is fascinating to climb up into the old bell tower to see the criss-cross of massive beams used for its construction.
Normandy foody specialities
At the end of our stay in Honfleur we were to return with shopping bags to the place Ste-Catherine round the church for the Saturday market – a lively affair which spills out into the side streets of cours des Fossés and rue de la Ville. The food, fruit and veg stalls surround the church; clothes, jewellery, CDs and household goods down the side streets.
We also took the opportunity of diving into the wonderful food shop Gourmandises Normandes in place Berthelot, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of the best foody treats from Normandy – crisp biscuits, melting chocolates, preserves, pâtés, soups, terrines, sweet and yummy Confiture de lait (dulche de leche) and cheese (including the four main local cheeses – Camembert, Pont l’Évêque, Livarot and Neufchatel, each bearing the coveted AOC certification.
Another Aladdin’s cave of delights which kept drawing us like a magnet was the intoxicating La Cave Normande. But here we were in search of cider and calvados. I think we visited La Cave at least four times sampling the different brews under the enthusiastic tutorage of Albin Serrant. We became fond of Albin and his enthusiasm which bubbled up as lively as the bubbles in a bottle of his cider. During our visits he had taught us about the different blends of calvados and how to drink it – as an aperitif, between courses, as a digestif. We had to make several visits – at 40% proof even two or three tiny samples were heady stuff. And that was without trying the different ciders and pommeau.
The Bayeux Tapestry and the Swiss Normande
One day we turned the wheels of the car to Bayeux and its famous tapestry housed in the Musée de la Tapisserie. Do not miss it. The visit takes in a slide show, maps and models and a film show before visitors reach the Tapestry gallery itself. With the help of the excellent audio guide it takes about 20 minutes to view the Tapestry, but thanks to the pause button it is possible to stop and examine the intricate work more closely.
We were lucky we visited in the autumn when the crowds were few so we had plenty of time to admire this incredible piece of craftsmanship.
Craftswomanship actually, because it is believed to have been made by Queen Matilda and her ladies in waiting during the 10 years following the 1066 Norman Conquest of England. The main stitches used are a couching stitch, known as the Bayeux stitch and a stem stitch used for outlining and for facial features, limbs and inscriptions. The needlecraft gives an amazing glimpse of a time gone by – men and horses charge into battle, arrows and spears fly, swords are raised, men turn and talk together on their fleet of ships, the old king dies – sorrowing women at his feet, branches of trees intertwine and in the borders dragons spew out fire, a bird taunts a fox.
By means of pictures and inscriptions using eight shades of red, yellow and blue wool embroidered onto a linen cloth made up of nine sections measuring some 50cm high by 70m long, the story unfolds. It shows King Edward worrying as to who would succeed him on his death; of his brother-in-law Harold’s ambition to succeed to the throne; of Edward choosing his second cousin Duke William of Normandy as his successor and the events that followed culminating in Harold’s death by the famous arrow. Originally the Tapestry was probably even longer. But part of it is missing perhaps just a few scenes depicting William’s coronation on Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey.
Following the Tapestry we moved over to the city’s spectacular cathedral, part of which dates back to the 11th century, to see where, probably in 1077, the Tapestry was first displayed.
We took the scenic route back to Honfleur through La Suisse Normande. The scenery may not be as dramatic as in Switzerland but it is still very lovely, especially where the River Orne has cut its way through the rocks of the massif creating sheer gorges, cliffs and peaks. The designated routes through the region take in narrow country lanes well worth following for the spectacular views.
A wet day made us turn our attention to indoor pursuits. We called in at the maritime museum housed in the oldest church building in Honfleur – St Etienne – to learn more about the town’s great maritime history before turning our attention to the Ethnographic museum beside Honfleur’s old prison. It took us ages to tour the nine rooms packed with the traditional furniture, costumes, books and household goods of the 18th and 19th centuries.
An exhibition was about to take place in the Salt Warehouses and we peeked in for a glimpse inside these two massive buildings built to store the salt needed for the cod fishing on the Newfoundland banks.
We also visited the magnificent Musée Eugène Boudin, named after one, if not the most famous of Honfleur’s painters. Along with works by Boudin and other famous Impressionist artists there is also a gallery devoted to more modern works as well as a large collection of costumes and furniture from Normandy.
Be warned, the entrance to the Maisons Satie is not in the street that bears his name but in boulevard Charles V. It is both a musical and visual tribute to the eccentric composer Erik Satie who was born in the town. Armed with headsets we set off up creaking staircases to discover Satie’s world in a highly original and entertaining way. Don’t miss it, it is superb.
Come to think of it ‘superb’ exactly sums up Honfleur too! We didn’t want to leave.