Honfleur makes a great impression on every visitor
The Normandy coast boasts many gems but no prizes for guessing which leaves the most lasting impression. Three million tourists a year flock to Honfleur and for many it feels familiar – thanks to artists like Eugène Boudin.
Born locally, he became obsessed with capturing the purity of the coastal light and mentored painters including teenager Claude Monet. As artists left Paris for garrets in the town’s timbered houses, they formed the “École de Honfleur” and by the end of the 19th century the area was known as the cradle of impressionism.
Even today wandering the wiggly streets around the Vieux Bassin can feel like inhabiting a dreamy canvas. The pastel-coloured,16th century houses rising five storeys from the Quai Sainte-Catherine are topped with slate roofs and peppered with flower boxes. All around, antique markets, bookshops, boutiques, galleries and chocolateries jostle for space.
Reminders of a sea faring heritage abound (Samuel de Champlain sailed from Honfleur to found Quebec in 1608). Even Église Sainte-Catherine was built from wood by shipbuilders in the 1400s. They used only axes and it’s no coincidence the church resembles an upended ship’s hull.
The nearby Lieutenancy used to guard the entrance to the port when it was a medieval fortress. Not to be outdone by the impressionists, Turner once painted it in watercolours.
But, enchanting as it may be, Honfleur remains a real town. Fishermen unload their glistening catch as locals eat “fruits de mer” at the quayside warehouse. And Les Greniers a Sel, two 17th century warehouses that held 11,000 tons of salt to preserve fish, are now modern exhibition halls.
Before leaving, climb the hill to the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Bask in its serenity and enjoy a bonus view of the remarkable 7,032ft Pont de Normandie. Then hurry back.