October 10, 2011

A Normand Sunday



Of all the things that could lead us to take off on a day trip to the coast of Normandy, I never thought it would be Ikea.  It went down kind of like this: we needed a couple things from the Swedish megastore that could not be brought home on the RER, so we looked into delivery options.  Upon seeing the prices, we realized that it might be cheaper to rent a car.  It was.  But it was only cheaper to rent the car if we kept it for three days rather than one.  So, after a trip to Ikea on Friday, and a Saturday spent assembling our goods, Sunday found us northbound on the A13.


We decided to beeline it to Honfleur, an artistic and picturesque seaside town that managed to escape the destruction of WWII.  Unlike it's neighbor to the north, Le Havre, Honfleur is teaming with half timber and slate-clad buildings nestled along a small harbor filled with equal parts traditional wooden sailboats and modern luxury and racing yachts.  As luck would have it, we stumbled into town on the 17th annual Fete de la Crevette, that is, Shrimp Festival.



Herring smokers, cider and calvados vendors, and pedagogic Normand gastronomy tents were just a few of the attractions we found surrounding the small inner harbor, the Vieux Bassin

 

I was happy to see a healthy contingent of salty, tattooed sailors and fishermen about.  Despite the crowds and air of wealth in the town, everything remained authentically natural.  This is the real living history of the region, not an empty imitation drummed up to fetch tourist business. As a North American, it is worth knowing that the principal expeditions that lead to the French presence in the New World sailed from Honfleur.  In 1608 Samuel de Champlain set sail to eventually found Quebec city, and in 1681, Cavalier de la Salle left from the same port to end up at the mouth of the Mississippi, naming the region Louisiana after his king, Louis the XIV.
 

The shrimp stands themselves were the most crowded of the event, and if you taste the tiny sweet celebrated  crevettes, you'll understand why.  Grey when living, pink when cooked, the tiny crustaceans are undeniably delicious.


Along with a rich maritime history, Honfleur has also been home to many artists.  Often referred to as the birthplace of impressionism, the town can be seen in the paintings of Monet, Turner, and Boudin.  Also impressive is that Honfleur is the birthplace of Erik Satie, possibly the most important French Impressionist composer.  His home is now a museum filled with trinkets that speak to his eccentric sense of humor, such as winged pears and self-pedaling carousels.





It is commonly understood that Normand apples are the best apples.  It only makes sense that the cider, calvados (this regions famous breed of apple brandy), pommeau (liqueur made from calvados and apple juice) and cider vinegar would be tip top as well.  We made off with a few bottles, and yes, it is all excellent.

From Honfleur we headed north over the Pont de Normandie, a massive arching bridge that crosses over the mouth of the Seine.  As I looked down at the water, I wondered how many Parisian cigarette butts, metro tickets and whatever else was flowing out to sea beneath us.

On the other side of the Seine, we entered the city of Le Havre, famous for being decimated in WWII.  The city was rebuilt primarily with concrete and brick, giving it a feel much closer to Miami, Mexico City, or Isla Vista rather than other French seaside towns.  All right angles, straight lines, and powerful stances, the architecture has all the ingredients of a sprawling eyesore.  But, quite contrarily, I liked it.  There is something to be said for individuality, and Le Havre feels like no other city I've visited.   I want to go back with Danielle and a few film cameras and see where all the hard lines lead.





Our final destination was the small town of Etretat, which sits, cradled in a seaside valley, flanked to the north and south by soaring white cliffs, the Falaises.  With a bottle of pommeau in hand, we buttoned up and braved the whipping winds for a sunset walk along the northern Falaise d'Amont from which you can see the massive freestanding arch of the Falaise d'Aval.  Even though the clouds were too dense to see the setting sun, the changing light added to the dreamlike feeling of walking along those white cliffs, with white cows grazing near the short, sturdy castle.  As the light vanished, we headed down the hill to find an open restaurant where we could savor a steaming cauldron of mussels before heading back to the big city.  

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