Honfleur – an unexpected delight

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What a well kept secret! Ports don’t come any prettier than Honfleur on the Seine’s estuary. The harbour sits in a great location, tucked away on the southern side of the Seine’s estuary. Pronounced “one of Normandy’s most charming fishing ports” by Frommer’s, Honfleur has been delighting visitors for centuries, including painters Boudin, Monet and Corot.

These wonderful flowers caught my attention when we arrived at the Tourist Information Centre for our tour. To arrange a tour, contact Clémence at communication@ot-honfleur.fr

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Our guide took us along Rue de la Ville and pointed out the different styles of house frontages – evidently the house owners would use expensive materials such as slate, to show the town how wealthy they were. Sometimes the owners would put symbols such as the fleur-de-lis on the front facades.

I loved this quirky statue of a mariner – he looked very lifelike.

We unfortunately didn’t have time to wander into the shops as we had been delayed getting to the area because of traffic jams – it was the beginning of the school holidays and we had to take some alternative routes to get from Giverny to the Honfleur area. Thank goodness for mobile phones and GPS! However, our trusty Kia was very comfortable and because it was a hybrid, we didn’t need to keep stopping for petrol. I was very impressed with the economy of both the hybrid vehicles I travelled in, in France.

We walked past Musée de la Marine but couldn’t go in as they were preparing for the opening of an exhibition the next day. I did take a photo of the ceiling (as well as a photo of the poster outside) which was designed in the style of an upside-down boat keel – this type of design gave strength to the building and meant that much larger buildings could be built. This design came about because of the knowledge of the local boat builders. The museum used to be a warehouse for salt storage. Ten million kgs of salt could be stored in the 3 warehouses (10,000 tons).

This is from the tourist board website about the salt warehouses.

The two Greniers à Sel (Salt Warehouses) in the rue de la Ville are large 17th century stone buildings built by the Ferme des Gabelles under the approval of Colbert. They replaced the smaller warehouses mentioned in Honfleur as early as the 14th century. They were the fourth and last large salt warehouses in Normandy. Most of the stones used to build them came from the former fortifications of the town and the oak framework was based on shipbuilding techniques. 10,000 tons of salt (10,000,000 kg) could be stored in these two warehouses and a third one, destroyed by fire in 1892,

The salt trade developed at the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th centuries with the introduction of cod fishing on the banks of Newfoundland and at the mouth of the St Lawrence River. The two Greniers à Sel, listed as historical monuments since 1916, have been the property of the town since 1952 and were restored at the beginning of the 1970s. These imposing buildings house exhibitions, concerts, conferences and many seminars and congresses throughout the year.

We continued along Rue de la Ville to a large square (on the left) the origins of which I can’t remember exactly, but I think that originally there may have been buildings on it. The yellow fronted cafe was on one side of the square and the other two buildings were facing it. The detail of the patterns on the front of the building were used to show the wealth of the owner.

On the way to Rue de petites Boucheries, we walked through an open area where there is a concrete bench, with a cow’s head!P1030499 small

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Rue de petites Boucheries is where the oldest stall in the town is.

There used to be two but one was destroyed in a fire.

The remaining stall has had graffiti painted on it, but the information board had a pre-graffiti photo. P1030501 smallContinuing along Rue de la Prison, we passed the Musée d’Ethnographie. It was closed. 😦 It had an overhang which is quite common in buildings of this age – the town taxed the building owners on the amount of house on the ground level so, as happened in many countries, the owners extended the house on the upper levels.

One of the most visited part of Honfleur is the former medieval fortress, and within this area you will find the Hôtel de Ville, the deconsecrated church of Saint-Etienne (left in the photo below and nowadays the Maritime Museum), the remains of the old prison (nowadays, the Normandy Cultural Museum) and the original 17th century Salt Halls (Greniers à Sel), now used for exhibitions, conferences and concerts.

The building on the right, is Hôtel de ville – which actually just means, the Town Hall, or City Hall.

I love taking photos of interesting pieces of art as well as doors.

With their fortunes made from shipping, wealthy Honfleur families built very narrow, very tall houses, some of them 7 storeys high, packed tight next to each other, around the Vieux Bassin. This is the heart of the port, where a front-row home overlooking the vessels was a distinct privilege.

P1030556 smallI just loved these unusual narrow houses, squeezed against one another on Quai Ste Catherine. They reminded me of the houses of Bergen, and Nyhavn in Copenhagen – but they are much narrower and taller, and actually, less colourful.

P1030527 smallThey are all different in size and shape and the very strange thing about them is that they have two ground floors, one that opens on to the Quai Ste Catherine and another one, usually from the 3rd floor up, that opens behind onto rue du Dauphin or rue des Logettes. Because of – or thanks to this – each house is privately owned by two different householders. These houses were built between the 16-18th centuries. Some of them have overhanging storeys and many have their walls protected by slates.

Our local tourist board Guide, told us the story about these ‘two-street’ houses – evidently the original owner of the land was La Duchesse de Montpensier (Louis XIV’s cousin), and she made lots of money by selling each block of land twice! Once to the owners of the lower floor houses which have their front door on the Quai Ste Catherine, and the second time to the owners of the top part of the houses that have their front doors on Rue du Dauphin or Rue des Logettes.

P1030530 smallNowadays, the ground floor houses on Quai Ste Catherine are usually restaurants or shops.

Unfortunately the light was not great for good photos so I took photos of photos (above).

The western quarter slopes up to the splendid wooden church of Ste Catherine, and this is the district where you will find the town’s main museums dedicated to the arts. I had only enough time to take these photos of Ste Catherine, but not to hear of its history except that it was France’s largest timber built church with a separate bell tower. So this is taken from this website.

One of Honfleur’s major sites, Saint Catherine’s church was built in the town’s eponymous quarter during the second half of the 15th century. It replaced the former stone-built church, destroyed the Hundred Years’ War. With the limited resources available at the time, the local inhabitants used wood from the nearby Touques forest as the principal raw material and they applied their naval construction skills. This explains the church’s remarkable architecture – entirely made of wood, it is in the shape of an overturned double hull.

The separate bell tower, located opposite the church, is a sturdy oak construction built above the bell-ringer’s house. As an annexe to the Eugène Boudin Museum, it is open to visits and houses religious works (sculptures, souvenirs from the Charities and the Notre-Dame de Grâce chapel).

Honfleur’s beauty has long attracted artists – Monet being one of them – the photo on the right, is of his painting of the church of Ste Catherine and its bell tower. (From the information board about it.)

P1030534 smallAt one end of le Vieux Bassin stands an odd-looking stone building called la Lieutenance. This name refers to the 17th century when the King’s Lieutenant used this building as place of residence.

It is however the only remnant left from the ancient rampart largely altered during the 16-17th centuries. These past alterations make it very difficult to recognise the fortified Porte de Caen, (Caen’s Gate) which used to control the entrance into the medieval fortress of Honfleur. However, parts of the walls that protected the town can still be seen on la Lieutenance.

I really enjoyed wandering the streets (narrow and cobbled!) and taking as many photos as I could. And one day I would love to go back again.

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Unfortunately we didn’t have very long in Honfleur so we didn’t look at any other areas – I would suggest allowing a full day if you have the time – there were so many things that we didn’t have time to see such as The Eugène Boudin Museum – Les Maisons Satie – The Maritime Museum – The Ethnography Museum. This link is to the Honfleur museums website.

I knew nothing about Honfleur when I arrived, and as this visit was in July 2017, I have had to refresh my memory from the excellent tourism board website (you can choose which language it is displayed in: http://www.honfleur-tourism.co.uk/

The tour I was on was one organised by Lifestyle Vacations. This is the same company that organised the first tour I did in the south of France – Provence and the French Riviera – see these posts about Biot, St Paul de Venice and the end of the tour about Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild!  And there are lots more inbetween!

Previous post for this Normandy tour is about our B&B – un Parfum de Violette.

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