The old Normandy port of Honfleur is annually listed among the “plus beaux détours de France”, and is the best-preserved village along the Côte Fleurie. Remnants of its more than 1000-year history are still present in this vibrant, colourful and welcoming town at the mouth of the Seine. Known to the Vikings in the 11th century as “Honnefleu”, the town was fortified by Charles V in the 14th century, and was a hotly-contested defensive position against the English in the 100 Years’ War. It played an important role in French maritime history – local son Samuel de Champlain left from here in 1608 to explore the New World and establish the French colony of Québec. Honfleur remained an active commercial port in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the 19th century became established as a favourite haunt of artists, musicians, and literary figures appreciative of its tranquillity and charm.
The heart of Honfleur is the Vieux Bassin, the old harbour. Ringed by picturesque tall and thin houses, it is now mainly a port of call for yachts and sailboats of all descriptions, but the town’s fishing fleet also pitches up daily with fresh catch for sale, including the local specialities grey prawns and scallops. Along with the freshest sole, turbot, hake, mackerel, and other finny delights, these delicacies can be sought out from any number of ambulatory fishwives, according to the tradition. The Quai Ste-Catherine does a brisk trade in restaurants and tourist shops among its delightful timbered houses and narrow streets, and there is a fine Saturday morning market. Don’t miss the 15th century church of Ste-Catherine, partly constructed by local shipbuilders: its twin naves are in the form of upturned ship’s hulls. It was built to celebrate the departure of the English, but now everybody is most welcome to visit! The oldest part of the Vieux Bassin is the Quai St-Etienne, and here we find the charming 14th century church of St-Etienne, the oldest in the town, now home to Honfleur’s Maritime Museum, with a fine collection of ship models, figureheads, sea charts, and memorabilia of centuries of local naval history. Worth visiting as well are the remains of the church of St-Léonard, destroyed by the English in 1357, with its Flamboyant Gothic facade and its quirky octagonal bell-tower Honfleur is the birthplace of several noted cultural figures, and their lives and work are presented in a number of excellent museums throughout the town. The Musée Eugène.
Boudin was established by the painter himself with his colleague Dubourg, and has on display a number of their paintings and those of other great artists who were captivated by the magical quality of the light: art historians refer to a movement of “estuary painters” or even an “Honfleur school”, with which even masters such as Turner, Corot, and Monet himself (who studied with Boudin as a young painter) were associated.
Another famous native is the quite eccentric composer Erik Satie (born 1866), and the Maison Satie is a must to visit, with multi-media installations giving amusing and provocative insights into the mind of this quirky musical genius. Satie’s good friend Alphonse Allais, another son of Honfleur, renounced his intended profession as a pharmacist to become a famous journalist and humourist, and his “Laboratoire” is home to his collection of such curious artefacts as Voltaire’s skull at age 17, and an authentic piece of the false Cross. The madcap imaginations of these two visionaries of the comic are celebrated annually in Honfleur’s Festival de l’Humour (Festival of Laughter) in September, which takes place in the town’s famous Greniers à Sel, massive stone cellars constructed from stone from the old ramparts, and now a venue for exhibitions, concerts, and performances.
Be sure to explore the hills overlooking Honfleur: the steep walk up to the Côte-de-Grâce west of the town affords marvellous panoramic views over the harbour and the sea, and in the distance the imposing Pont de Normandie, built in 1995. The annual Sailors’ Festival, held at the end of May since 1861, is a ceremony of benediction and protection for the seafaring life, and its colourful parade of boats, floats and mannequins wends its way from the church of Ste-Catherine in the harbour up the steep path to the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
© Pierre Jeanson