Delightful France cruise on Saga Pearl II featuring Honfleur & Caen – Part 2

I awoke a day older but comforted by the fact that everybody was in the same boat!

We arrived in Honfleur just before breakfast after travelling a mere 147 nautical miles from Dover. The English Channel can be so unpredictable- often moody and brooding. But last night was a perfect sail. The invigorating salty breeze and crashing of the waves lulled us to sleep and we awoke feeling really refreshed after a good night’s sleep.

Arriving by ship is the easiest way. You wouldn’t want to find a parking space here. It is always crowded like Whitby and Scarborough on Armed Forces Day. A journalist on the Yorkshire Post newspaper back in Jan of this year likened Honfleur to the east coast resort of Whitby. Both are based around a fishing harbour but that is where the similarities end. Presumably by now the said journalist has had his cataract operation. I love Whitby and am proud that it’s in God’s county of Yorkshire but Honfleur is more refined and less rugged around the edges than Whitby. More ‘ooh la la’ than ‘aye up luv fancy a chip butty’. NB not all people in the county talk like this!

Honfleur Vieux Bassin (Old Harbour) Honfleur sits on the left bank of the river Seine where it meets the English Channel. Paris is only 120 miles inland- just follow the river through exquisite rolling countryside. Saga Pearl II was berthed close to the magnificent bridge – Pont De Normandie. This suspension bridge is 1.3 miles long and has 184 support cables that fan out resembling hanging fish bones. The scenery of Normandy is spectacular. Sleepy towns sit in perfect unison with green hills and fields not seen in England for months. A shimmering coastline of cliffs and fine beaches add to the charm.

Honfleur has been on our bucket list for many a year and we were excited to visit. It is a sea and river port with Viking origins. Population today is 8,500 but it attracts over 3 million tourists each year. And it’s easy to see why. It is a meeting place for the local area, for the great and good. Old men kiss both cheeks and gossiped. Fishermen fresh from the sea repair nets, laugh, shout and whistle. An atmosphere of good-natured charm. Hard to believe we are in France! A week after Saga Pearl II sailed the scallop wars erupted just miles from here. I don’t think we were to blame.

With a sky of scattered blue, we made our way to arguably Honfleur’s greatest asset, the Old Harbour – Vieux Bassin. It is slap bang in the heart of the town and is utterly gorgeous. Much smaller than it appears in photos. That was a surprise but it’s still very charming. Narrow tall wooden houses some fronted with layers of slate overlook and protect the harbour which is full of yachts, smaller vessels and the occasional fishing boat. Glamorous windows on the past. It is a perfect place to sit, shaded by multi-coloured canopies, and watch the world go by. Boats bob in hypnotic rhythm. Masts clank and clunk and seagulls swoop for attention. A colourful array berthed bumper to bumper and side to side reflect in the grey harbour water. A magical effect.

It’s romantic too. The couple on the next table slurped freshly harvested oysters and gave each other fishy tasting snogs. Steaming bowls of mussels were everywhere accompanied with an astonishing choice of sauces. Ah the food of love. French dressings and French kisses. The town punches above its weight in terms of quality restaurants. All are superb. To the French food is a passion and it shows. Delicious regional cooking. Tastebuds rejoice! Bars thrum and the streets feel frenetic. Garlic permeates the warm air. So too the smell of the sea, and strong coffee. Honfleur is lively and cosmopolitan.

The town has an air of dreaminess with such a vibrant feel and perfect soft natural light. No wonder it’s been popular with artists including Turner and many Impressionist painters. Today there are more art galleries here than I have ever seen in a small town. Art for art sake? Maybe, but they are all thriving, all making lots of Monet, Monet, Monet. Many of our fellow passengers took an escorted tour today to his house and gardens at Giverny.

Saint Catherine's Catholic Church by Daniel Villafruela via Wikimedia Commons under licence CC BY 3.0 Saint Catherine’s church dates back to the 15th century. It’s quaint, it’s beautiful and is France’s oldest and largest wooden church. Well-worth a visit. It was built by shipwrights after the Hundred Year’s War as are many of the surrounding houses. Inside the roof looks like two upside down boat hulls bolted together. The 18m tall bell tower stands proud but alone across the square. It is now a museum of religious art.

Honfleur has been the starting point for many voyages of discovery. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain led a small fleet of ships to set up a ‘New France’ colony. The 3 ships carried tears of laughter and sorrow across the unpredictable Atlantic coupled with hopes and dreams of a much better life. He landed in July 1608 and named the site Quebec – the rest is history.

The heat was stifling and inhibiting a brisk walk. So we strolled slowly and stopped often for drinks. It is great just to wander down side streets and alleyways. All radiate from the Old Harbour so you can’t get lost. Centuries old buildings stand cheek to jowl with modern creations along higgledy piggledy streets that beckon to be discovered. Off the beaten track bars are cheaper and just as fun – a Yorkshire man abroad is still a canny shopper. These back streets are brimming with local arts and crafts too – many hand-painted and sculptured ceramics ooze individuality and style.

The regional drink Calvados can be traced back to Norman times. Ferment mashed up apples by adding yeast. Then twice-distilled liquid produced and allowed to mature for at least 5 years mainly in oak casks. Goes down a treat. Cider is very popular here too.

In one cafe the upstairs resembled a brothel. Pink coloured walls and white and pink tassles hung everywhere. Creaky floorboards, uneven walls, exposed stone, pink beams and subdued lighting. Have you ever tried washing your hands in a toilet with a dodgy hand drier so high up the walls that you had to hold your hands above your head to dry them? With a couple of blasts of hot air every 20-30 seconds I feared that I would still be here for my birthday.

Naturospace Butterfly House Late in the afternoon we took a meander down Boulevard Charles V heading for Naturospace – Le paradis tropical. On the way we found a tree-shaded spot with benches conveniently situated for a quick energy break. Naturospace is the largest tropical butterfly house in France. A constant 28C provides the perfect habitat for 1000s of winged beauties which fly all around you and even settle on your hands if you are lucky. An astonishing variety of shapes and colours from over 50 countries on all continents.

Honfleur is one of the wonders of the travel world. Imagine the sailors and fishermen and smugglers walking these streets and sailing these waters hundreds of years ago. Atmospheric, charming and traditional too. An historical gem. Location, location, location – it’s perfect. Tres touristy yes but oh so good. Honfleur leaves a big impression. France history seeps into every cobblestone, today sun-soaked and warm.

There is only one drawback with Honfleur. You will never want to leave. Escaping its seductive charms takes an effort. But escape we did, via the very welcome courtesy bus, and headed back to the equally seductive charms of Saga Pearl II waiting expectantly for our return. A day of memories. Superb!

Read Part 1

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Holidays and Saga Cruises.

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Dave Harcombe

Travelling pharmacist

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