As chocolate box pretty tourist places go, Honfleur pretty much has it all going on. It enjoys an idyllic location upstream on the River Seine, with easy connections to nearby attractions such as Paris and fabled, storied Rouen. It has amazing restaurants, stunning botanical gardens, and a deep, dusky blond dream of a beach that has to be seen to be believed.
Yet even these scenic, beautifully sited plus points are not what really gets me about Honfleur. It has the most amazing stance for a small coastal town. Set around three sides of a rectangular inner port, the buildings rise up to three and four storeys in height. In shades of grey, slate and electric blue and capped with typical, gabled roofs, they seem to rear up like ancient sentinels above the hugger mugger that exists all around and below them.
And what a sight that is. Cafes, bars and umbrella shaded restaurants spill out in what at first looks like a chaotic jumble across acres of sun washed, cobble stone streets. There’s a market that has tables almost groaning under the weight of an armada of freshly caught and landed fish of all kinds. Fruit, vegetable and flower stalls add a fantastic wash of colour to all of this, their scents softening some of the more pungent smells from the catch of the day.
There are arts and crafts shops, complete with quirky mannequins spilling out of their doorways. A suit of rust dabbed armour here and a hand carved, brightly painted model of a wooden paddle steamer there. Oysters and Pernod; fur coats and old women walking grizzled, yappy poodles that yelp uselessly at the seabirds that wheel and dive above the brightly coloured trawlers cutting through the early morning waters of the inner port.
There are lovers strolling arm in arm, and children riding the big, brilliant carousel that sits on the water’s edge. Tourists from river boats and the occasional cruise ship spill like a human tidal wave across this cobbled stage, and into the side streets that run off from it like so many spider’s webs.
There’s a man playing a mean, moody accordion and, by the old fortress, you can hear the deep, sultry growl of a tenor sax. Waiters in starched white aprons are delivering lobsters to tables patronised by people wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country. Brilliantly coloured shop awnings rise and fall with lethargic grace in something that vaguely resembles a warm breeze.
But it’s the water and the sky that really get you. In the first days of spring, each has a kind of luminescent, almost ethereal quality that gives it a surreal look and feel. The steel grey waters of the vieux port can take on a silky, silvery sheen almost imperceptibly, and at a moment’s notice. The line between sea and sky is as sharp and defined as a knife blade.
It is this amazing natural beauty that drew painters like Monet to Honfleur like moths to a flame. He painted Honfleur’s whimsical little waterfront many times, and in all sorts of weather conditions. And nobody else captured it’s very essence to such sublime perfection; artist and venue seemed to somehow collude to create a series of artistic smorgasbords that have few, if any, equals.
It seems somehow natural and right that the local gardens were named after him. Running along from the town centre almost to the sea, they create a lush, tranquil expanse that gives the vibrant, upbeat harbour a very popular and verdant green lung. Plants and fauna explode across this dense, rolling green carpet like some amazing, technicolor artillery barrage of colours, shapes and scents, Here, the chattering of birds is quite possibly the only thing that will disturb your sense of calm and contentment.
But make time for a stroll along that vast, dusky beach, with the breeze ghosting across it and the deep, rich hues of a slowly setting sun falling into the sea like some aged old actor, bowing out after giving the performance of his life. There are hopeful fishermen and even more hopeful gulls, wheeling in the pale red evening sky like squadrons of dive bombers. The silence and the serenity of the moment is almost poetic.
Saunter back into town, and the mood has changed to a more upbeat tempo. Pools of shimmering light dance across the ink black waters of the harbour as darkness steals across the sky like a quiet, diligent thief, intent on making the day his own. Fishing boats are made fast against the quays, their squat bulks throwing shadows across the floodlit cobbles.
Small motor boats bob like lethargic, idle swans in the lee of the castle. oars stowed fast against the edges of their gunwhales. The sounds of cool, mellow jazz flood the evening air as crowds of locals and tourists alike bar hop from one locale to the next. Down on the quay, the now brightly lit carousel has an allure for children unseen since the days of the Pied Piper himself.
That’s Honfleur for you. It’s gorgeous, distinctly Gallic, and full of marvellous, feel good soul food. It has history, charm, beauty, and a sense of sheer, whimsical wonder that seem to make it something of an aberration; a part of Normandy, for sure, but one somehow almost impossibly afloat in its own time, style and space. Simple, lovely, and worth a few days of anyone’s time.