Port of Honfleur
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The villages along the Seine on the popular river cruises between Paris and Normandy are so wonderful that it's almost impossible to pick a favorite. But, when you visit Honfleur, it's easy to understand why this seductive seaside village on France's northern coast has such tremendous appeal.
First, this medieval town -- with its narrow half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets -- has great bones. Unlike many of its neighbors in Normandy, Honfleur was spared during the bombing of World War II. The old harbor, set in a sheltered cove off of the Seine's tidal estuary, is Honfleur's center stage, as it has been for centuries. There, you'll find fishermen, artists, tourists and locals alike soaking in much the same scenery (often from a cafe) that attracted celebrated painters like Delacroix, Sisley, Corot and Monet.
From the harbor, where Samuel de Champlain departed in 1608 to found the city of Quebec in the New World, the lushly planted village rises upward between two hills. Nestled in its tidy, picturesque streets are art galleries, artists' studios, boutiques, restaurants and fine souvenir shops. History has left its footprint, too, with the largest wooden church in France, salt warehouses that date back to the 17th century, and the Lieutenance, the last remaining part of a 16th century castle that fortified the town.
Honfleur, population 9,000, is the start or end of itineraries on river cruises between Paris and Normandy. Travelers are bussed between Paris and their riverboats, negating the need for a hotel in Honfleur. Ships tend to dock for as many as three nights because Honfleur is the departure point for ship-run shore excursions to such landmarks as the D-Day landing beaches, the American Cemetery and the museum that houses the famous Bayeux tapestry.
Three nights in Honfleur? Nothing wrong with that. While its prestigious past goes back 1,000 years, Honfleur has that special something that keeps it fresh, interesting and exciting.
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The best souvenir shopping on the Seine cruise is in Honfleur. Not surprisingly -- this is France, after all -- many of the souvenirs involve food and drink. Popular local items include butterscotch made from Normandy butter, a mackerel pate that tastes great on a baguette, bagged salt and Normandy's signature beverages: cidre, a sparkling apple cider; an apple brandy called Calvados; and Pommeau, a mixture of the cider and brandy. Also ubiquitous in the souvenir shops are the blue and white striped shirts popularized by French sailors. For real quality, check out the nautically inspired clothing at the Saint James boutique at 12, rue de L'Homme de Bois or 8, rue de la Ville. If you want to splurge on anything from paintings and jewelry to kitchen knives and shoes, this is the place to indulge. Shops typically open at 10 a.m.
French -- and pretty much exclusively. Little English is spoken, even in the restaurants and shops. But with gestures and a few of the French basics, it's easy enough to communicate. One important reminder: Before ordering a glass of wine or asking someone where the toilet is, say "Bonjour." It means "Good day" or "Hello." It is considered impolite to launch into a conversation without offering a greeting first. For some fun, try out "cou cou" in that high-pitched voice humans usually reserve for dogs and babies. It means hello and goodbye and is insider French. Another neat expression: "O la vache!" It translates as "oh the cow" but means "holy cow" or "oh my gosh."
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The French use the euro. For current currency conversions and wallet-size cheat sheets, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Historically, ATM's have been the cheapest way to get local money. However, many banks are now charging fees ranging from $1 to $5 every time you use an ATM in a foreign city. As a result, you may want to limit the number of withdrawals you make.
Where You're Docked
River ships routinely dock at a quay that adjoins the old harbor right in the center of town. On rare occasions, due to tides and timing, ships may have to dock at a commercial pier some distance away. That pier has no facilities.
It simply doesn't get any better than this. Shops, museums, restaurants, cafes, pharmacies and a grocery store are all within a couple of blocks of where you're docked. To get your bearings, find the tourism office with the big "I" (for information) just across the street from where ships berth. To its left are an ATM and a full-service grocery called Petit Casino that has a nice selection of wines. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., except on Sundays when it closes at 7 p.m. To the right from the tourism office and up a little hill is a pharmacy. Just look for the green cross. While everything you might need or want is right in front of you, be sure to climb toward Sainte-Catherine's Church and away from the dock to appreciate Honfleur in full.
Honfleur is absolutely walkable, and the heart of town around the harbor is completely flat. For those who might need it, there is a taxi stand next to the library, which is attached to the tourism office.
Watch Out For
A few of the public toilets in town are the primitive sort: a porcelain hole in the floor with footpads. The toilets with the handicap sign offer more traditional treatment. There are also nice toilets at the tourism office. Be sure to carry local pocket change with you. Many of the public toilets cost a small fee to use.
The oldest part of Honfleur is centered on Vieux Bassin
, the harbor. With its sidewalk cafes, old shipbuilders' houses and colorful carousel, it's pure eye candy. Rue des Petites Boucheries, in the center of Old Town, was once lined with butcher stalls. Only one stall remains today. Rue de La Ville, another street worth exploring, houses two robust stone buildings constructed to store salt needed as a preservative by local sailors for cod fishing in faraway Newfoundland. Most of the stones used in the construction of the 17th-century warehouses came from a fort that protected Honfleur in the 1500's. The warehouses are now used for meetings, concerts and art exhibitions. Stroll along the harbor itself, and you will appreciate it for the fishing port it still is. In season, the daily catch -- shrimp, scallops, oysters, sole, mackerel, cod, turbot, monkfish and sea bass, among others -- is sold on the landing. There's also a fish market on Saturday mornings.
For such a small town, Honfleur has a surprising number of museums that will deepen your introduction to the region. Housed in a 14th-century church at the old harbor, Musee de la Marine
traces the history of the port through ship models, paintings, weapons and naval instruments. Next door, the Musee d'Ethnographie
has nine rooms in 16th- and 17th-century houses crammed with costumes, furniture, folk art and domestic objects that tell the story of early Honfleur. There's also a small prison. A discount ticket buys entrance to both museums (open from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday). The Musee Eugene Boudin
, at Place Erik Satie just above Sainte-Catherine's Church
, is named after Honfleur's best-known painter. Boudin, one of Monet's early influences, is represented along with many other great Impressionists who were drawn to Honfleur by the quality of light in the estuary. The museum also has a large collection of Normandy head-dresses, costumes and furniture. (From mid-March through September, it's open daily, except Tuesdays, from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 6 p.m., but hours do vary by season.) Visit www.musees-honfleur.fr
for details on all three museums.
Sainte-Catherine's Church, dating from the 15th century, was constructed by shipbuilders with modest resources. Construction was based on shipbuilding techniques, and it shows. The vaulted roof looks much like the hull of a ship. The church, except for the stone foundations, is entirely built of timber from the nearby Touques forest. The largest wooden church in France, it is also known for its twin naves. Several markets take place at Place Sainte Catherine outside the church: a traditional outdoor market on Saturday mornings, a market featuring organic agricultural products on Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and a flea market on the first Sunday of each month.
Been There, Done That
For a different perspective, Jolie France
[http://www.joliefrance-calypso.com/] sails outside the harbor with guided cruises of the estuary, nearby villages and, best yet, the striking Normandy bridge. Built in 1995, the bridge links Honfleur to the ocean port of Le Havre. At one time, it held the record as the world's longest cable-stayed bridge. The boat departs June through October at 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. The 90-minute tour has commentaries in French and English.
Erik Satie may not be a household name today, but this eccentric early 20th-century composer was a native son who worked with some of the greatest artists and composers of his time: Picasso, Braque, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. In Maisons Satie
, an offbeat museum located in Satie's birthplace, visitors are guided room to room to the sound of his music with commentary about the man, the music and his times. The museum, at 67, boulevard Charles V, is open every day but Tuesday between May 1 and September 30, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and October 1 to April 30, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The tour takes one hour. Headphones in English are available.
If you are fond of oysters -- or huitres, as this local specialty is called -- you will find food bliss in Honfleur. The region is also known for its cheeses -- camembert, livarot and neufchatel, among them. Many of the restaurants offer fixed-priced multicourse lunches at two and three different price points. They tend to be quite filling. It's worth considering an entree (French for a starter) and, say, a cheese plate or dessert instead. As for tipping, restaurants and cafes normally include a 10 to 15 percent service charge on the bill for meals and beverages. The phrase "service compris" means tip is included; "service non compris" means it is not. A small additional tip of roughly 3 percent is welcome if you believe it is well-deserved.
There are a lot of good cafes and restaurants at the harbor. Au Vieux Honfleur
, while more formal than most, is just terrific. Located at 13, quai Saint-Etienne, next door to Musee de la Marine, the cuisine is standout with its fresh seafood and local produce and ingredients. The menu, in both French and English, is voluminous. Starters include foie gras with carmelized apple, homemade fish soup with garlic croutons, pan-fried frog's legs and cooked oysters with a leek fondue and Champagne sauce. Lunch service starts at noon. There is dining indoors and out.
A locals' favorite, L'Homme de Bois
(30-32, rue de L'Homme de Bois near Sainte-Catherine's) is a quaint and typically Norman restaurant, offering traditional French food. Starters, which change daily, include mussels with garlic, fish soup with cream, and salmon tartar. Signature dishes are the seafood platter, lamb shank and rib roast. It's an intimate place with wooden beams and mustard-colored walls, and just a few tables outside. There is no menu in English, and it's on purpose. This is, after all, an authentic French restaurant. However, the waiter will gladly translate. Lunch hours are from noon to 2 p.m.
For an elegant dining experience, little beats the dining room or outdoor terraces of La Ferme Saint Simeon
, the five-star hotel (now, not then) at which Boudin, Corot, Monet and others gathered to paint. Monet's studio is still there. The dining area overlooks gardens and the estuary, making it easy to see why it inspired so many painters. Lunch, from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., varies depending on what the chef finds at market. The fixed menu, at three different (pricey) prices, features a starter, a main dish and a dessert. The hotel on rue Adolphe Marais is a 20-minute uphill walk from the harbor.
Staying in Touch
The tourism office has a couple of computers that offer Internet service for a fee. Within walking distance of the harbor are two Internet cafes: Cyber-Pub La Diligence at 53, rue de la Republique, and Travel's Coffee at 6, place du Puits.
Best for World War II History Buffs:
This full-day tour -- tour guides joke that it will be "Your Longest Day," and they're right -- typically includes stops at the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach and La Pointe du Hoc, the headland stormed on D-Day by U.S. Rangers with heavy casualties. The excursion pays homage to one of the most historic moments of the 20th century: June 6, 1944, when Allied forces executing Operation Overlord landed on Normandy beaches in Nazi-occupied France, resulting in the nation's liberation. It is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the event, particularly at the cemetery, where so many graves are marked with the words: "Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known But to God."
Best for Art and History Connoisseurs:
The world-renowned Bayeux Tapestry at the Tapestry Museum of Bayeux is respected as much as a stunning work of art as it is a historical document. The embroidered fabric, 230 feet in length, depicts the events of the 1066 Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror. Called a "Memory of the World" by UNESCO, the tapestry was made in the 11th century, likely by monks in the south of England after the battle. The museum movie has a virtual representation of Notre Dame of Bayeux, a 12th-century Romanesque cathedral that was expanded with 13th-century Gothic additions, showing how, in the 12th century, the full tapestry reportedly was displayed. An audio tour guides visitors through the various scenes. A half-day tour, the tapestry museum is a little over one hour's drive from Honfleur.
Best for Exploring Honfleur:
The ship's program directors will often do a short walkabout for passengers, but if you're looking for something more substantial, inquire at the tourism office about its new program of guided walks.
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