A Weekend in Normandy (Le Havre & Honfleur)
by Marc Nair, 1 April 2018
A two-hour train ride from the Paris St-Lazare station, Le Havre has been a designated UNESCO World Heritage City since 2005. A critical port in WW2, almost three million American soldiers crossed the Channel and either entered or left the continent through Le Havre. Consequently, it was also bombed to bits by the Nazis, so after the war, the government asked architect Auguste Perret to design the town anew. His response was to create buildings that were minimal, beautifully brutalist and extremely functional. Add a volcano by Oscar Niemeyer in the centre of town, and you have a veritable architectural feast.
Here are the top five must-visit spots in Le Havre:
1. Musee des Beaux Arts Andre Malraux
Better known as MuMa, this light-filled museum is home to some of Normandy’s finest Impressionists. Outside of Paris, this is the most complete collection by the old masters such as Money, Pisarro, Renoir and Isley and as well as a collection by Le Havre natives Raoul Dufy and Eugène Boudin.
2. Musee Maison de L'Armateur
This five-story town house dates back over two hundred years. It’s architecture, which is rather singular and stunning (the rooms are built around a single light shaft) is a major reason to visit. The rooms have been populated with a collection of objects designed to reproduce how a family of wealthy merchants would live in the late 19th century. The objects are authentic, even if the visitors guide is confusing.
Designed in the 1980s by famed architect Oscar Niemeyer (who designed Brasilia), the Volcan is a mixed-use theatre, performing arts space and a library. Its clean lines and beautiful reflection of light and shadow make it an elegant addition to the city.
From a great distance away, St Joseph’s Church towers above the city of Le Havre, a holy lighthouse guiding lost souls home. Designed by Auguste Perret, its octagonal lantern-tower reaches a height of 110 metres. Inside the church, 6500 pieces of coloured glass light up the concrete, creating a warm glow that builds towards the spire.
Le Havre is also a town with small surprises on random street corners. Just walking about will yield a dividend of unexpected scenes.
Honfleur is a world away from Le Havre’s modern sensibilities. The town itself dates back to the 12th century, when it grew to play an increasingly important role as a township and a port. From the 19th century, artists and painters flocked to Honfleur to capture the lovely light that settles in the estuary at certain times of the day. Numerous paintings were made of the Lieutenance and the houses of the Quai Sainte Catherine.
Here are five highlights for Honfleur:
1. Vieux Bassin
The old harbour, with its bobbing pleasure boats, is Honfleur’s main attraction. On the west side, quai Ste-Catherine is lined with tall dating from the 16th to 18th centuries. The Lieutenance at the harbour’s mouth, was once the residence of the town’s royal governor.
2. Saint Catherine’s Church
Parts of this distinguished church date back to the 15th century and it has the distinction of being the largest church made out of wood in France.
On Sundays, the area outside of the church is transformed into a buzzing antique flea market.
3. Le Jardin des Personnalités
Developed over an old mudflat in the estuary, this 10-hectare area is a beautifully landscaped garden that is full of the busts of personages who were active in the historical and cultural heritage of Honfleur. But the real draw for me was the quiet and calm that emanated from the wide walkways and beautiful groves of trees.
This windswept stretch of beach just beyond Le Jardin des Personnalités seems rather unlikely for tourists, but it does attract a ton of beachcombers and dog walkers. A sense of space overwhelms. Ships pass by in the near distance, heading to Le Havre or out to sea. Time piles up here quite comfortably along with masses of seaweed and driftwood.
Honfleur is just a quaint town with narrow streets, beautiful winding roads and happy storefronts. I literally did not stop walking the entire day, because there was just so much to see.
And when you’re finally done with feasting and and snapping pics of the schooners and the sunset, grab an evening bus back to Le Havre to get your train back to Paris. Prices do go up quite a bit on the trains, so if you know your travel dates in advance, its best to book your tickets early.