Don't Miss in Honfleur
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.)
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.
For a different perspective, Jolie France 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.