A string of Normandy towns provide a relaxed ambience on a laid-back river cruise through France.
It’s early on a mid-October morning in Honfleur, a little fishing village on France’s Normandy coast that looks out across the English Channel.
The sun will not appear for at least another hour.
The only movement and sound come from the rattling delivery vans on the cobblestone roads, a hint of the town’s medieval past, and the drone of diesel motors from the fishing boats as fishermen work under bright lights to clear away the last of the morning’s catch.
A council worker walks the streets, plucking up pieces of rubbish. Everything must be pristine for the new day and the local and international tourists who will wander the streets of the old town.
The worker stops briefly to read a sign attached to La Lieutenance, a former gateway to the town that was part of the 16th century house of the city governor and which is undergoing maintenance.
Honfleur was founded by Vikings and later was the launching point for French exploration to Newfoundland and Canada that led to the founding of Quebec in 1608.
The restaurants that line the tiny harbour appear a long way from opening. Lights are on in only a few. A worker appears from one and plonks herself on a seat outside to enjoy a coffee and a cigarette in the cool, quiet morning.
In time, the placards spruiking the day’s specials will be out and the rush will be on to attract the late-season tourists.
Honfleur is only about two hours from Paris by car, although at the peak of the season the journey can take much longer as Parisians head for the ocean.
At the heart of the old town is the Church of St Catherine, built around the 1450s and constructed entirely of wood. Its interior gives the appearance of an inverted ship’s hull.
Honfleur is the farthest point in Scenic’s Gems of the Seine river cruise, which starts and ends in Paris. Its river cruise ship Scenic Gem is specifically built to enable it to enter Honfleur’s small harbour.
Before and after Honfleur, Scenic Gem stops at other towns including Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy and famous for the trial and execution by burning at the stake of Joan of Arc in 1431, and Caudebec-en-Caux, another Viking-founded town.
Rouen now celebrates the life of St Joan — she was canonised in 1920 — and commemorates her death. Activities centre on the Church of St Joan of Arc, built in 1979 at the spot where the flames took her life.
The church interior again features a wooden ceiling giving the appearance of a ship’s hull, but the highlights are the grand 18th century stained glass windows removed from the city’s cathedral for safety during World War II, and an understated yet powerful statue of a woman surrounded by flames.
Natural beauty is the highlight of Etretat, on the Alabaster Coast, reached after a stop at Caudebec-en-Caux
Etretat has its fair share of old timbered buildings and the town is alive with restaurants, cafes and little shops tempting you with chocolates and pastries and all manner of tourist knick-knacks.
But walk through the centre of town — it won’t take long — and head for the ocean and you arrive at a pebbled beach framed on either side by towering cliffs with two spectacular arches that look remarkably like the Gothic architectural style seen on so many churches and cathedrals.
There are in fact three arches, the third visible either by walking to the top of the cliff to the left as you look out to sea or, if the tide is low, by walking through a small tunnel from the beach that takes you underneath the cliff.
Be warned, at times there is no light so it’s difficult to find your way and the trip can only be made at low tide. But you emerge onto another beach and a spectacular view of the third arch. It’s well worth the journey.
- For 2017, the 11-day Gems of the Seine river cruise is from $6945 per person, twin share with a business-class upgrade available from $3995 per person. scenic.com.au and travel agents.
DisclaimerChris Manly was a guest of Scenic.
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