A small harbour tucked out of sight off a major river doesn’t immediately sound like a must-see visitor attraction, but walk round the corner into Honfleur’s Vieux Bassin and you get the full-on wow-factor of Normandy’s most picturesque port.
Subject of so many holiday postcards and calendar illustrations, the Old Harbour is overlooked by narrow houses hung with slate up to seven storeys high. Cafes fringe the quaysides where small yachts and cabin cruisers provide splashes of colour for the artists at work at their easels. It’s all too idyllic for words.
If you’re travelling into Normandy with Brittany Ferries, Honfleur is under an hour’s drive from the ferry terminal at Caen-Ouistreham; a short hop over the Seine via the Pont de Normandie from the ferry port at Le Havre. But what else is there to do apart here from linger at a cafe table and soak up that glorious maritime scene?
Pick up a free annotated map from the tourist office and follow one of the three colour-coded discovery trails to explore the Old Town; the Seine quay and gardens; or – uphill for a viewpoint – the green space of Mont-Joli.
The old fortress that guards the harbour mouth was under scaffolding during my most recent visit. Behind it, the wooden church of Sainte-Catherine is a big draw for visitors, built like an upturned boat by 15th century carpenters. Entrance is free but don’t expect to have it to yourself.
Narrow streets lined with tempting small shops and cafes lead away from the harbour. Don’t miss the Eugene Boudin Museum in Place Erik Satie, named after the local landscape artist who inspired young Impressionists like Claude Monet. I really liked the mix of Boudin’s own painting – atmospheric seascapes and beautiful skies – with works by other artists inspired by his home area.
Sad to say though that the Erik Satie Museum, housed in the musician’s birthplace, made a different kind of impact. I know and like some of Satie’s music, but knew very little about his unusual life. And after moving through the surreal succession of themed rooms, I really didn’t feel I knew very much more, even with the English headsets. I’m sure the fault is entirely mine, but if you visit and get to grips with it, do please explain it to me!
More accessible to me was the Maritime and History Museum, housed in the former church of Saint-Stephen overlooking the harbour, and the reconstructed Norman rooms in the Ethnography Museum. Sooner or later though, you will end up at the river that has influenced life here across the centuries.
Walk along the quayside beside the channel leading from the outer harbour to the Seine to see the fishing boats and small craft coming through the lock. Ocean cruise ships moor up on the Seine, just a short walk across the park to the Old Town. Take time to explore the riverside Garden of Personalities where busts of famous people connected to the town stand beside helpful bilingual panels. And if you have children in tow, don’t miss the tropical paradise of NaturoSpace to walk among butterflies and free-flying birds.
When hunger beckons, you’re spoilt for choice. Quayside restaurants are always popular, but wander too up the backstreets. We had a superb meal at Le Breard on rue du Puits which serves a gastronomic fusion of French and Asian cuisine.
There are hotels and guest houses too for every budget. We stayed at Hotel Monet, a motel-style property on the upper edge of the town but only five minutes’ walk from the centre. Accommodation is simple but comfortable and quiet; the family-run reception friendly and helpful; and there is free courtyard or roadside parking. With double rooms starting at just €65, it’s a great base for motorists on a budget.
Many visitors to Honfleur are seduced by the seaside resorts of the Calvados coast, but I can also recommend following the Seine inland and picking up the Thatched Cottage Route through the unique landscape of the Marais Vernier marshland. This self-drive tail dotted with pretty properties winds up at the Maison du Parc, discovery centre for the Boucles de la Seine Normande Regional Natural Park. Here you can pick up the start of the Fruit Route which follows the meanders – the boucles – of the river through small orchards and past majestic abbeys, including the romantic ruins of Jumieges. Beyond lies historic Rouen – but that’s another story!