British holidaymakers have long had a love affair with Normandy, but many travellers who sail into Le Havre or Dieppe miss out on the local department of Seine-Maritime, heading west towards the D-Day beaches or south to the Loire valley and beyond.
But the sheer chalk cliffs and pretty harbour towns of the Alabaster Coast or Côte d’Albâtre are a delight, beloved by the 19th century Impressionist painters who came here to paint the ever-changing light. Less well known than other parts of the region, this unspoilt coast is the perfect destination for a short French fix or a stopover on the way home – a last treat before heading back to reality. Tempted?
Try these highlights from my summer mini-break:
1 – Cook up a cocktail at Fécamp’s flamboyant Benedictine Palace, built in the late 19th century by local wine merchant Alexandre le Grand in honour of the liqueur blended by Benedictine monk Dom Bernado Vincelli in 1510. The secret recipe that uses 27 herbs and spices was lost in the Revolution but found by Le Grand amongst some old books. When he’d perfected the mix, Le Grand set up a distillery and built a lavish palace to house his private art collection. The 90-minute cocktail workshop includes a self-guided tour of the art museum, and is given in French and English.
2 – Ramble along the rose fringed footpath beside France’s shortest river in Veules-les-Rose, latest community to be admitted into the elite band of France’s Most Beautiful Villages. It may only measure 1149 metres in length, but this modest waterway powered a number of mills on its short journey to the sea. Rose fringed streets, elegant properties, and a buzzing Wednesday morning market all add to the atmosphere.
3 – Soak up the genius of Eugene Boudin’s glorious paintings of sea and sky at MuMa, the Museum of Modern Art André Malraux in UNESCO-listed Le Havre. Boudin encouraged the younger Monet to paint out of doors and was dubbed the ‘Master of Skies’ by his admirers. And don’t miss the stunning combination of textured concrete and rainbow stained glass at the nearby Church of Saint Joseph, the masterpiece of architect August Perret who designed a new urban plan for the city after the devastation of World War II. Hungry? I recommend Les Enfants Sages in Rue Gustave Lennier for good value food in a rare pre-war house with shady garden.
4 – Eat like a local in Dieppe and sit down to a steaming bowl of Marmite Dieppoise, a scrumptious mix of local fresh fish in a cream sauce, served with steamed potatoes and bread. You can’t get a more authentic version than at the cosy restaurant of the same name.
5 – Take the free funicular to the cliff top above Le Tréport and watch the panorama unfold beneath you of crescent beach and chalk cliffs, river estuary, bustling harbour and rooftops. Then tread in the privileged footsteps of the final French Monarch, Louis Philippe, at the Château d’Eu, just 3km inland. His favourite home has been stunningly restored and overlooks formal gardens and an extensive wooded park.
6 – Feeling romantic? Then choose heart-shaped Neufchâtel cheese, the only AOC variety produced in Seine-Maritime. At least 60% of the milk must come from traditional brown and white Norman cows with their fetching eye patches.
7 – Get an inside view of Fécamp’s fishing industry at The Fisheries Museum, opened last year in a former fish smoking and packing plant beside the harbour. The visit starts at the panoramic viewing gallery on the top floor and winds slowly down on a fascinating journey to the waters of Newfoundland and back again.
8 – Follow the five Impressionist trails around Seine-Maritime – free booklet from Visitor Information Centres – to find reproductions where their easels once stood. If time is limited, head straight to Etretat to enjoy the changing light on the famous arch on the Aval cliff, immortalised by Claude Monet. I also enjoyed a dramatic sundown view over an aperitif at the Domaine Saint-Clair Le Donjon, a hilltop hotel with intimate gastronomic restaurant.
9 – Enjoy garden inspiration at Le Parc des Moutiers, a glorious hillside property at Varengeville-sur-Mer, just outside Dieppe. The Arts & Crafts house was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens; the gardens by Gertrude Jekyll. And, I’ve never seen topiary to match the swirls, squares and circles at the fabulous Jardins d Etretat on the Amont cliff east of Etretat beach. Inspired by Monet, they were founded by actress Mme Thébault who planted the first tree here at Villa Roxelane in 1905, (not suitable for wheelchairs).
Gillian stayed at the 4-star Mercure la Présidence in Dieppe, on the seafront beneath the hilltop castle. And at the Hôtel d’Angleterre, a cosy boutique hotel a short walk from the promenade in Etretat.
General tourist information from www.normandy-tourism.org. Cross from Portsmouth to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries economy service, or from Newhaven to Dieppe with DFDS.
Read about Le Havre – Birthplace of Impressionism and full of surprises.