We ran from Monet to Baudelaire. Then on to a French king, a scientist, a novelist. Rain pelted us with giant spots as the squall passed through the Parc des Personalités. Puffs of grey and white cloud, blown up from nowhere, blocked the sunshine. It had been a bright day but now we were seeking shelter. Then minutes later, the sun was out again.
This was Honfleur. Artists used to come here for the inspiration it gave them and the particular light found in this port on the north coast of France where the Seine meets the sea. We came to see the steep, cobbled streets and the squashed, crooked houses along the quayside, sometimes eight times as high as they are wide. The Quartier St Leonard was previously the artists’ area and is still full of ateliers and shops selling paintings and sculptures. There is a school of Graphic Art. It is also the place to stay and our ‘Chambre d’Hôte’ was an eclectic place full of the quirky and unusual, a metal dragonfly on our wall, embroidered lace slips on our pillows. Plus a delicious breakfast.
Food was a theme and we were spoiled by the variety of seafood. Unfortunately, my husband won’t eat creatures that live in shells so the magnificent platters were banned in favour of fresh fish. We ate at the delightfully named ‘Absynthe’, perhaps a reflection of the drinking habits of the bohemians who visited Honfleur in the past. I didn’t spot the spirit on the drinks list!
Drink is important with both Calvados and Normandy cider on sale everywhere. We learned that an eight year old Calvados is still ‘young’ – rough fire-water to burn the throat. If you can afford to buy a twenty-five year old bottle, that’s a taste worth savouring. We also learned something about cider, that ‘sec’ is drier than ‘brut’ and that it will keep about a year (although possibly not in our hands).
Near the elegant Hôtel de Ville was a permanently sited carousel. I usually dislike these tacky entertainments but this one from 1900 was two-tiered and immaculate. There was a constant stream of riders keen to mount the horses rising and falling to appropriately muted fairground music. This was typical of Honfleur. It seems to have avoided the ‘tat’ that seaside towns everywhere adore. Even the second-hand market on Sunday morning had a classy air about it. Sure there are tourists and the English make up many but it is also a resort for the French. It is a comfortable place where huge pleasure comes from sitting in a street café, drinking coffee or something stronger and watching the activities of passers-by.
We were drawn to the Musée Eugène Boudin to see the impressionist paintings. It wasn’t just good weather that had attracted artists to Honfleur. It was captured in all its moods and colours. Brilliant sunshine to grey, stormy skies – much as we had seen and enjoyed it. We understood the inspiration.