After the vast flatness of Normandy, Honfleur, tucked into a valley and looking out onto the mouth of the Seine, is a dramatic contrast. It’s tipped as being one of the places to visit in Normandy on just about every top ten list we could find, and even driving in down the hill through an avenue of leafy green peppered with flower pots we could feel the excitement building. Surely somewhere that takes so much care over the outskirts would have to be beautiful at the centre?
It should, and it is.
We could see peeks of the old town as we drove in but it wasn’t until we’d parked by the fish market (great location, take a ticket and pay later parking, has loos, full marks all round) and walked around the corner that we saw the harbour for the first time.
And what a sight. It is quite simply one of the prettiest stone walled harbours I have ever seen, and I come from the west country where we have a few of those.
The painted houses that form three sides of the harbour seem to reach impossible heights, I kept counting the storeys and then stopping and starting again because surely you couldn’t have a house with 9 or 10 floors. You can, and several of them do, all single room width, climbing higher and higher. Well when there’s water one side, your neighbours on two sides and steep rock on the other, where else can you go but up? I have a pet theory that they were all built as a result of some serious keeping up with the Joneses. Pierre builds a new attic so Jean does the same, and then Claude has to match them and outstrip them by going two higher, and so it continued. I can’t imagine that anyone ever built one of the insanely tall houses with a full side wall, they all look like they’re propping each other up and the height tails off the nearer you get to the mouth of the harbour so at the very least they were all built at a similar time, even if only because they needed more space.
Later in the afternoon we all sat at the top of the harbour in the shade against the wall, and while H did a proper sketch of the boats and the fort at the entrance, I roughed out a sketch of these incredible houses Sketchbook Club Style, picking and mixing a few houses from across the row to give an impression of Honfleur and I’m so looking forward to inking in all those little windows and gabled roofs.
But while we were admiring houses, and I was trying not to drool over the completely gorgeous and wonderful gaff rigged boats in the harbour, the girls had most determinedly fixed their attention on something a smidgen more modern.
The Carrousel Palace dates from 1900 and is possibly the prettiest I have ever seen. The music was sweet and tinkly, the horses were beautiful, the carriage was pink, lights sparkled as it twirled and the whole thing had a sort of rosy glow to it. And an upstairs balcony. I’ve not seen one of those before and it didn’t surprise me when the girls made a beeline for the stairs.
Watching them leaning out to wave to Pip and me with smiles that would light up the sky was definitely one of those “this is why we came” moments.
And in a side street we finished off our packed lunch with some enormous strawberry sorbet cones, perfect for keeping our cool while we explored tiny cobbled backstreets, and weaved our way between the harbour and the main road. The streets are full of colour, the cafes seemed to be doing a roaring trade in Moules Marinere (tempting, very tempting) and up above the awnings were window boxes packed with lavender or bright geraniums and beautiful shop signs.
(I love this face from Kitty – she was trying to pull her funniest face!)
Further out from the harbour, modern Honfleur is a very pretty little French town. We found a wonderful bookshop and stationers and I started what in time became a rather impressive collection of French craft magazines, while the girls bought a new colouring book each and H sighed over the idea of living in a place where all his favourite paints are sold in the newsagent.
We found more tree lined streets, sculpture roundabouts, and a pretty fountain, and for the rest of the day we quite simply pottered, drinking in the prettiness and the warm sunshine.
It’s that sort of a place, and definitely on my list for a return visit.
And before we move on, out of Calvados and Basse-Normandie and up into Seine-Maritime, I’ve made the first of a few little films about our journey. Well it’s mostly about our journey – but with a little PS at the end thanks to some amazing buskers we found in Honfleur!