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Something for every palette

Honfleur was the inspiration for the Impressionists. Today, Mark Rowe discovers an extravaganza of tastes and textures
It is a rule of holidaymaking that you must feel a little guilty if, on arriving at a pretty seaside town, you do nothing for the next 24 hours but recline in the terrace of a waterside bar. Yet this is not the case in the Normandy port of Honfleur. Elsewhere you might perhaps think you should wander the back streets in search of authentic local culture, but pick any bar in Honfleur's old port and much of the town's considerable beauty is laid out around you.

The main attraction of Honfleur is the old harbour itself. This is surrounded on three sides by wobbly gabled houses that seem to be a couple of storeys higher than is safe - and appear to lean against one another for comfort and support. Inevitably, though conveniently, most of the fronts of the houses have been turned into creperies or terrace bars. It almost goes without saying that you can expect to pay a premium for having a drink here, but thanks to the 10-franc pound a beer in such a location is merely expensive (pounds 2.40) rather than extortionate.

Yet the extra cost is worth it. Exclusive yachts bob in the harbour alongside local fishing boats. The entrance to the port is guarded by the old Lieutenance, the 16th-century house that was once home to the governor of Honfleur. Just across the dock stands the enormous hotel de ville, as imposing a town hall as any dreamed up by Victorian burghers in Britain. A gorgeous, fin-de-siecle carousel is a reminder that Honfleur remains a popular seaside destination for the French. Artists complete the scene by setting up their easels around the quayside.

They are following a well established tradition. In the late 19th century Honfleur was a retreat and an inspiration for artists. Eugene Boudin, a forerunner of the Impressionists who taught the young Claude Monet, was born here. Pissarro, Cezanne and Renoir also spent time in town, and it was in the St Simeon Inn that many of the Impressionists were said to have first met. Little appears to have changed in the town since then, mainly because Honfleur escaped the wartime bombing that devastated nearby Caen. There are many parallels with St Ives in Cornwall: along the back streets, away from the port, are several artists' galleries, though these are scarcely as frequented as the quayside bars.

Prising ourselves away from our table, we strolled across the harbour to Rue de la Prison, a narrow zig-zagging lane that takes you past craftsmen sitting on steps as they make miniature boats. The original old shipbuilding quarter, Rue Haute, is a short stroll away, leading to the Museum Eugene Boudin, which houses a number of the artist's paintings and also a handful of Monets. A slightly bizarre exhibition of paintings of cows continues until October.

The exhibition may just be a consequence of the Normandy obsession with dairy products. You need to watch out for your waistline in Honfleur. Dinners here can be a formidable experience as nearly every dish is covered with cream, butter and apple or pear cider. We ate at Le Crystal, on Rue Haute, a family-run place where the dog sits on the bar and servings of moules mariniere seem unlimited. I could only watch in admiration as a couple on a nearby table tackled a triple-decker helping of fruits de mer.

A short, steep hike up the hill behind Honfleur to the Cote de Grace, where sailors used to come to pray for safe passage, will help work off the calories. Here you will find the chapel of Notre Dame de France, whose bell tower is a separate building from the church.

The town's principal church, St Catherine's, shares this style: the belfry stands across the street from the main building and still rings out every day. St Catherine's is the largest wood church in France, built after the Hundred Years War when there was a severe shortage of stone. Inside, look for the carved angels tucked away behind the wooden beams.

The setting for Honfleur, this nugget of old-world France, may seem a little incongruous given that a cement factory, a spectacular state-of- the-art bridge and the bustle of Le Havre are all within striking distance.

The monolithic 1.4-mile Pont Normandie suspension bridge lies to the east. It opened in 1995 at a cost of 2bn francs and now cuts one hour off the journey times between Le Havre and Honfleur. This, coupled with the expansion of autoroutes from Calais, makes Honfleur far more accessible for a weekend break from Britain. Indeed, take an overnight ferry to Le Havre, Cherbourg or Ouistreham and you can be on Honfleur's quayside in time for a breakfast baguette or crepe - but stay off the cider sauces until lunchtime.

Ferries to Le Havre are operated from Portsmouth by P&O European Ferries (0990 980555). Prices in September range from pounds 9 for a day return for a foot passenger to pounds 180 for a 10-day return for a car and two people, with pounds 10 return for each additional passenger.