Trail of the unexpected: Honfleur

Now is the time to visit Honfleur, Normandy's coastal gem.

Fishing ports don't come any prettier. Ancient houses of mellow stone line the perimeter of a sheltered harbour, the water of which is haunted by their reflections. Set back at either side of the shimmering haven, two tall church spires pierce the skyline. Behind them tangles of cobbled lanes spread around a hill graced by terraces of gracious gabled mansions and timber-framed houses. It's with good reason Honfleur is said to be the jewel of Normandy's coast.

So far, so perfect. But inevitably there's a downside: Honfleur – on the south bank of the Seine estuary, opposite the port of Le Havre– is hardly undiscovered. Most of the year you'll share this picture postcard with hordes of others.

Yet go there now and you'll see Honfleur without the crowds. During February and much of March, you'll walk those cobbled alleyways unhindered by dithering tourists. The cafés lining that stunningly attractive old harbour – the Vieux Bassin – will be sleepy. You won't find the full and impressive gamut of Honfleur's gourmet restaurants open during the low season, but several factors outweigh this inconvenience. The crisp winter light for a start. Then there's the ease with which you'll be able to take in the rich history. And today the town's four museums reopen after their annual winter closure.

Despite its tiny size, Honfleur was once an important seafaring centre, playing a major part in the Hundred Years War. And it was also from here that Samuel de Champlain sailed out to found Quebec in 1608. The launch of his small fleet is commemorated by a bust of the great explorer that sits together with a plaque by the old harbour wall.

By the mid 18th century, the effects of silting had put an end to the town's maritime importance. However, although it lost its status as a port, Honfleur gradually became rich artistically. Thanks to the quality of light, numerous painters were attracted here, from English watercolourists such as William Turner to the Impressionists.

Start an absorbing tour by ambling over to the church of Sainte-Catherine off the northern side of the Vieux Bassin. This week you may have this fabulous building to yourself. It was made entirely of wood during the 15th century. Honfleur's shipwrights played a big part in the construction, devising a roof like the hull of a ship – you see the similarities clearly as you walk around the interior.

You'll also get an intriguing insight into life in old Honfleur at two extraordinary museums on the southern side. They're housed in wonderfully creaky old buildings that look as if they've barely changed from the Middle Ages. The 14th-century church of St Etienne is now the little Musée Maritime. Tucked under stained-glass windows are displays of charts, knots, sea chests and ship-builder's models.

Adjacent to this is the Musée d'Ethnographie. Inside is a celebration of domestic life, with nine rooms kitted out as interior sets from the 18th and 19th centuries, complete with dressers, grandfather clocks and mirrors.

Honfleur's finest sights are a short walk from the harbour. Meander north along the old alleyways and head for a remarkable art gallery filled with masterpieces depicting the estuary. Landscape painter Eugène Boudin was born in Honfleur in 1824. It was at a small art shop in Le Havre that he met the young Claude Monet and became his mentor, bringing him to Honfleur. He drew others to the town, too, among them Johan Jongkind. Set in a 19th-century chapel, Musée Eugène Boudin displays many of works, including Monets, paintings by Jongkind and works by artists Paul-Elie Gernez and Raoul Dufy.

Just downhill, an elegant house on Boulevard Charles V was the early home of the avant garde composer Erik Satie, born here in 1866. Maisons Erik Satie is now a brilliant museum. An ingenious English audio tour takes you into the fantastical world of the composer: his music, theories, art and wit. He was a true eccentric, and the museum is almost as wacky as the man himself. You're confronted with a giant pear with wings on entering and the last exhibit is a crazy musical merrygoround devised from original plans by Satie. It's as uplifting as a glass of Calvados by the old harbour.

Travel essentials

Getting there

* Le Havre is served by twice-daily ferries from Portsmouth, operated by LD Lines (0844 576 8836; Two bus services (numbers 20 and 39) link Le Havre and Honfleur daily. For timetables, see

More information

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before