Travel: 48 hours in; Le Havre
It's a gateway to Europe. But don't be fooled. It's a worthy destination too. By Gerard Gilbert
The beach! (12) It still surprises, after the heavy industrialisation of the river Seine approaches to Le Havre, that the city also fronts on to a wide attractive sea bay where windsurfers, sailors and bathers gather. Otherwise, take a stroll around the Bassin du Commerce and the extraordinary Espace Niemeyer (13), designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1982. The centrepiece of this ambitious open space is a building in the shape of a ship's funnel that houses the theatre and cinemas of the Maison de la Culture.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The frankly ugly 99m octagonal concrete spire of St Joseph (3), one of the largest post-war churches in France, may help make Le Havre look like some Eastern Bloc city (indeed, it stood in for Warsaw in the 1988 film To Kill a Priest) but it is also an invaluable landmark, visible from just about everywhere. The city was rebuilt on a grid system after the devastation of the Second World War, which makes orientation that much easier. The tourist office is situated opposite the pleasure port, on the boulevard Clemenceau (4), a 10-minute walk from St Joseph.
Hotels tend not to stand out amid the grids of uniform five-storey blocks designed by Auguste Perret, and the eye does not deceive. At the top end of the market, efficient, American-style comfort is catered for by Best Western's Hotel de Bordeaux (5) (00 332 35 22 69 33) at 147 rue Louis Brindeau, with singles and doubles ranging in price from FFr300 to FFr530 (pounds 30-pounds 53). Cheaper, more personal accommodation can be found at an old travellers' favourite, the Celtic (6) (00 332 35 42 39 77), at 106 rue Voltaire. In general, your best bet for finding good accommodation is in the streets to the west of the Espace Niemeyer.
If you do choose to take your aperitif on the Ile St-Francois, stick around for supper as the area is a veritable United Nations of international and regional cuisine. Italian, Egyptian, Swiss and Caribbean restaurants rub shoulders with ones specialising in the cuisine of Savoie, the Auvergne and, of course, Normandy. Otherwise, head for the main beach, turn right and head up the hill to the Sainte Adresse district (11), with its spectacular views of Le Havre and La Petite Auberge (00 332 35 46 27 32), the nearest thing the city has to a star restaurant, Michelin or otherwise. Make sure to book. You'll find it at 32, rue Ste- Adresse.
Ferries to Le Havre sail from Portsmouth three times a day, the cheapest crossing being a five-day return foot passenger ticket (pounds 40 with P&O Stena, 0870 2424999). A car plus driver at this time of the year will cost pounds 152 (add pounds 14 for each passenger) for a five-day return. Ferries dock in the centre of town, opposite the Quai de Southampton.(1) However, if you have a car, it might be quicker to take the two-hour fast ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe and then drive the hour or so to Le Havre. The city is about a three-hour drive by motorway from the French side of the Channel Tunnel. There are regular trains from Rouen and Paris.(2)
A good place to start, because it will help with your orientation (see above), is the huge, awesomely ugly church of St Joseph, built by post- war Le Havre's chief architect Auguste Perret as a monument to those who died in 1944 (photographs in the vestibule show the total devastation caused by Allied bombers and German saboteurs in September of that year). Staring up the inside of Perret's octagonal "lantern tower" (he thought of it as a lighthouse) is to suddenly transport yourself into a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. Alien, perhaps.
A complete contrast is provided by the Musee des Beaux-Arts (7), on boulevard JF Kennedy, a beautifully designed glass box of an art gallery flooded with natural light - and a perfect showcase for the generous collection of local painters Raoul Dufy and Eugene Boudin, not to mention canvases by Corot, Courbet, Pissarro, Sisley, Gauguin, Leger and Braque. The city has been Communist-run for decades, and this is reflected in Le Havre's low museum-entry charges.
WHY GO NOW?
Because you're probably going anyway. Le Havre is a popular summer-holiday gateway to Europe, but most motorists stop only long enough to fill up with petrol before speeding off to the more conventionally attractive parts of France. Alternatively, wait until 14-21 July when the port is hosting a huge maritime festival. The QE2 is guest of honour and assorted aircraft-carriers and tall sailing ships are included in the event to reflect Le Havre's proud heritage (the SS France used to dock here). And don't forget the eclipse, of course. Its epicentre passes over Fecamp - 20 miles up the coast - on 11 August.
The area around Auguste Perret's monumentally impressive town hall (8) (Place de l'Hotel de Ville - Moscow's Red Square has been brought to the minds of some travel writers) is where the department stores, perfumeries and clothes boutiques are to be found. The streets here have a chic liveliness that is missing in some other parts of town. For food shopping, try the indoor market at Halles Centrales (9), behind Place Gambetta, or the fish market by Quai de Southampton. Cut-price wine and beer shoppers should drive on to the English-run Wine and Beer Company depot alongside the Bassin Vauban. You'll spot the Union Jacks.
Order a Ricard or a "pression" and watch the boats come in while you sit outside the cafes and bistros along Quai de Southampton - especially during the upcoming maritime festival. (10) This part of town is called the Ile St-Francois and it still retains some of old Le Havre's seedy dockside charm.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Learn about old Le Havre, the evocative transatlantic steamer port that was 80 per cent destroyed between 2 and 13 September 1944, at the Musee de l'Ancien Havre (14) (rue de Bretagne; closed Monday and Tuesday). There are some wonderful photographs of the great Augustin-Normand shipyards, with SS France (the QE2 of her day) in dry dock.
TAKE A RIDE
The famous cliffs of Etretat, favoured subject of Monet and the Impressionists, are only a shortish drive or bus-ride away but, if you have your own transport, visit nearby Honfleur - the best preserved of Normandy's old fishing ports - by the way of the breathtaking new suspension bridge, the Pont de Normandie.
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