Saturday, July 1, 2017

On the Road: Honfleur

It’s only a short trip from Paris to Honfleur - under 200 kilometers (125 miles), but one well worth making, either by car or by train.
     For art historians, it offers a look at what so many Impressionists came here to paint.  First of all, hometown boy Eugène Boudin, actually a pre-Impressionist who influenced Claude Monet greatly in the perception of light, especially on water.  Charles-François Daubigny, also a precursor of Impressionism, captured the port of Honfleur on many canvases, basing himself at the Saint-Siméon farm which became a home-away-from-home for a whole new generation of artists, including  Jongkind and Bazille. Monet and Seurat fell under the charm of the port as well.
     It’s easy to see why.  Filled with fishing boats back then, the small inner port is now booked year-round by sailboats that sometimes reach yacht size.  When I was there last, the drawbridge to the inner harbor twice blocked car and pedestrian traffic, with waiting boats circling patiently outside the harbor as the bridge was slowly raised.  Some were locals; some flew British flags and had booked ahead of time.
     (I see someone in the back of the room waving his hand.  “Why the drawbridge?”  Because there are tides in Honfleur.  It’s at the mouth of the Seine River, but actually on the English Channel, so... tides.  There’s a lock on the drawbridge; otherwise the inner port would go dry, or at least the water level would be too low at certain times of the day.  Oh, and also because of the boat’s masts.)

The fishing port
At the north end of the inner port, there’s a tower near the drawbridge.  The memorial plaque on it reminds you that Jacques Cartier sailed out of Honfleur in 1535 and up the Saint Lawrence River in Canada, claiming the New World - at least this part of it - for the king of France.  In 1608 he again sailed, this time founding the city of Québec.  All of which makes Honfleur a small port, but a historic one.
Musée de la Marine
     On the east side of the harbor is the Musée de la Marine, housed in the old Saint-Etienne Church whose religious activities ended once and for all under the French Revolution.  It became a customs house, then, since 1976, a museum with a collection of maps, engravings, paintings and model ships that trace the town’s maritime history of fishing, naval construction, commerce and ship-related crafts.  (Closed Mondays, at lunchtime during tourist season and all morning outside tourist season).

   All around the inner port runs a wide terrace that has been taken over in its entirety by the port’s restaurants, especially on the west side.  (Parasols are provided to shelter you from the sun.)  It would be hard to find fish or seafood any fresher than here.  It’s brought in by the fishermen in the morning and picked up by the chef’s staff as the boats moor.  Seafood platters are a beauty to behold - as befits an artistic town - and a blessing for the stomach.  You can pick what you want.  If I don’t give in to a sole meunière, I usually end up with half a dozen oysters, some clams, sea snails, pink shrimp and also those little grey ones you can’t find in the States.  All washed down with some chilled white wine.
     After lunch, it’s time to see “uptown”, as I call it.

Eglise Sainte-Catherine
Head down towards the tower at the drawbridge and turn left.  You’ll see the Eglise Sainte-Catherine higher up on your left.  It’s well worth a look inside.  Honfleur being a town of boat-building, this church was hewn by workers from the naval shipyards without the use of a saw, as were the ships of William the Conqueror in 1066, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. You’ll probably notice right away that there are not one but two naves, side by side.  The first (the one on the left as you face the altar) dates from the 15th century.  It was built once the English left shortly after the end of the Hundred Years War, to replace the stone church that was destroyed in that war.  If you look up, you’ll find it looks like the keel of a boat overturned. The second nave was added about a century later, when the town’s population had outgrown the little church, and looks less like a ship and more like a modest Gothic church, although there’s still a harmony between the two, at least to me.
     Across the street from the church is its steeple made all of oak.  Yes, you heard that right: across the street.  Given the location of the church on the side of a hill, and the height of the steeple, it would have attracted too many lightning strikes.  Which is bad for an all-wood church (the largest in France).  So the steeple was built away from the church, and the bell-ringer was allowed to live in the ground level space.  You can go in and see vestiges of the old structure.
     To the right of that as you look at the building, the Rue des Lingots heads downhill.  Turn left in the first street, and walk down the Rue de l’Homme de Bois to the Musée Eugène Boudin (closed Tuesdays).  It’s a lot of bang for your 8 €.  Inside you’ll find an old repurposed chapel of the Convent of the Augustine Sisters.  As is only fitting, there are a number of works by Boudin himself, surrounded by those of his artist friends:  Monet, Jongkind, Courbet,  Eugène Isabey, Charles Mozin, Alexandre Dubourg, Charles Pécrus, Gustave Hamelin, and Adolphe Félix Cals.  Upstairs are two levels of modern exhibit space added on in the 1970's to help house the over 2,500 works of art the museum has accumulated.  Not only can you enjoy temporary art exhibits there, but the end wall, completely of glass, offers a wonderful view out over this part of the town’s rooftops to the harbor and the very modernistic Normandie Bridge beyond.
     Music lovers may already know that Erik Satie, composer of Gymnopédies, is a native of Honfleur.  To see his house (closed Tuesdays), turn right as you leave the Musée Boudin, then left down a little alley to the Rue Haute (which means Main Street in French), then left again and it will be about a block down on the right at Number 90.  Or, if you don’t like alleyways, turn left exiting the museum, go a block or two and turn right into the Rue du Trou Miard, then right again into the Rue Haute and it’ll be farther down on the left.  The house is very small, but take the audioguide that will turn on the light-and-sound show as you enter each room, giving a commentary on a bit of Satie’s life and playing some of his tunes.  You’ll get a real feel for how small houses were back then.  But the really fun part is when you reach what I remember as the final room, which has a four-seater merry-go-round that you pedal and it makes music and sounds as you go!
   When you’re done having fun with Satie, go out the exit on the Boulevard Charles V side, turn right and head back to the harbor.  Children might enjoy a ride on a real merry-go-round at the outlet of the inner port. Adults may enjoy a drink at a different place on the inner port before heading back wherever you came from.  Or you can take a boat tour out onto the Seine and under the Normandie Bridge with Cauchois Cruises, leaving from the foot of the boulevard (1½ hr).
     Cruises, water colors, hewn wood churches, seafood on the port... Any way you look at it, Honfleur and water are intimately intermingled.

Restaurants on the inner port:  My particular favorite is L'Abricotier (68 Quai Sainte-Catherine), perhaps for no other reason than habit but I’ve never had a bad meal there.

As to hotels, there are many.
Hotel L'Ecrin
If you don’t mind steep stairs and noise from passers-by, there’s Le Dauphin on the Place Pierre Berthelot, right by the Eglise Sainte Catherine.  It has some bedrooms on the ground floor, which might be handy for people with mobility problems, but then again Honfleur is not necessarily kind to people with mobility problems.
Otherwise, try L’Ecrin a few blocks further “inland”, on the rue Eugène Boudin.  It has parking and a small pool put in recently, plus a garden where you might just get breakfast, or tea, if the weather is clement.

Musée Eugène Boudin:

Satie House:

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