THE LAST time I saw Honfleur, the place was dull and grey. I could not see what the fuss was all about. Why did the guidebooks rave about it? It was just another twee tourist-ified fishing port with the usual grot-bag souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants.

The alarm bells had rung when I ran into the first batch of artists on the quayside crouched over their easels, measuring up distances with their thumbs halfway up the paint brush or whatever it is artists do to show that in the painting department they are the real McCoy.

This was some sort of Hollywood version of France. All it needed was old men in berets with strings of onions on their bicycles - or people in berets and striped T-shirts with a baguette or two tucked under the arm shouting 'Name of a dog' or 'Sacre Bleu]'.

We dashed back to the car and sped on to some less affected spot, bemoaning along the way that one could not hope to find the Real France in Disney-esque places such as Honfleur.

Autres temps, autres moeurs. Ten years on, I am not quite sure who has changed: me or Honfleur - probably me; but when I paid a return visit to Honfleur during August, I was bowled over.

Arriving at night perhaps had something to do with it. The artists had folded their easels, the day-trippers had cleared out, the harbour was illuminated by the soft lights of the waterfront cafes and restaurants. Somewhere an accordion played, a fishing boat hooted its horn as it chugged out to sea; on the warm night the smell of frying crepes hung among the aroma of coffee and calvados. Corny, but so what?

So by the time the place had filled up the following morning - but not quite as filled up as I recalled from the previous visit - I was prepared to forgive Honfleur almost everything.

It just looks so damn good. Picture the harbour, le Vieux Bassin, crowded with yachts, overlooked by rows of tall, narrow part-timbered slate-roofed old houses.

It is a place that must be explored on foot, at leisure. For preference leave your peregrinations until early evening when the crowds depart.

Dawdle at the harbour, gaze at the Lieutenance - a handsome 16th-century residence once the home of Honfleur's governor - and ponder a visit to the Maritime Museum. There is plenty more to see. The 15th-century Sainte Catherine church was built from wood by local shipwrights to give thanks for the end of the Hundred Years War against England. The belfry, also of wooden construction, stands nearby.

The other major sight is the Eugene Boudin museum, with a collection of paintings by Honfleur's most famous son, a key figure in the Impressionist movement. The Impressionists were drawn to Normandy by the stunning clarity of its light. (As well as Boudin paintings, the museum has other exhibitions - during August there was a cracking display of old biscuit tins.)

The real pleasure of Honfleur, however, is not looking at anything in particular but simply strolling around. The main hazard to pedestrians is that ubiquitous French peril: dog mess. Take your eye off the cobbles to gaze at a shop window and - kersplatt] - you could be right in it.

Follow the western jetty through the jardin public and walk for a mile or so out of town along the Seine until you reach the beach, where you can linger over views of the estuary and beyond to Le Havre.

From here you can walk up to the Cote de Grace, which has even more stunning views across the estuary. On the way back into town, walk via the Rue Adolphe Marais which brings you past the Ferme-St-Simeon.

This building is now an extrememly swanky hotel, a Relais et Chateau place where the rooms cost up to pounds 325 per night. However, it was once the Ferme St Simeon - the inn of Mere Toutain - where Boudin would drink cider with artists such as Sisley, Pisarro and the young Monet.

After this bracing evening stroll, it is time for dinner. There is no shortage of eateries: the Honfleur tourist office leaflet lists more than 50 places.

For all its apparent easy familiarity with tourists, the catering business in Honfleur is not always a well-oiled machine. A pizza place on the Rue Haute seemed authentically Italian with a wood oven and an extremely Italian chef. Unfortunately, the incompetence of the staff was astonishing. We rolled up just after opening time at 7.30pm, and we were still waiting for our food more than an hour later.

I will never forget the expressions on the faces of the people at a neighbouring table who were finally served after an interminable delay. The waitress gracelessly plonked their pizzas down on the table in front of them. With knives and forks poised, they prepared to feast, but two seconds later the waitress was back, cruelly snatching the pizzas away from beneath their gaping mouths without a word of apology. She had put them on the wrong table.

If we had not all been so weak from hunger, we might have laughed.

If you tire of Honfleur, it is a drive of less than 30 minutes to the twin attractions of Deauville and Trouville further down the coast. Deauville is marvellous: the Normandy Hotel, the casino, the racecourse and the famous wooden walkway, les planches, which runs the length of the seafront.

Neighbouring Trouville is less swanky, more of a working town than Deauville, but it has its own pleasures including a casino and its own Promenade des Planches on the beach.

In Honfleur, as night begins to fall, the eye is taken by navigation lights flashing from the top of two large pillars which tower over the Seine. In two years' time a new bridge will be opened, the Pont de Normandie, bringing traffic from Le Havre almost straight into town.

In the last century, pleasure steamers brought day-trippers here from Le Havre. Parading on the beach in their bright summer dresses, shading themselves with their coloured parasols, they created a perfect picture for the Impressionist painters.

Soon the trippers from Le Havre will descend on Honfleur in their Peugeots and Citroens, dressed in hypermarket shell suits and trainers. This new invasion is likely to create a less memorable impression.

Getting there: P & O European Ferries (0304 203388) normally operates three services a day from Portsmouth to Le Havre: a three-day return for a car and two passengers costs from pounds 84 to pounds 91. At the moment, Brittany Ferries (0705 827701) runs three sailings a day from Portsmouth to Caen (with the exception of Wednesdays when there are two). A three-day return for a car and two adults costs pounds 83.

Accommodation: If money is no object, stay at La Ferme Saint-Simeon, rue Adolphe-Marais (31 89 23 61) where rooms cost from pounds 117 to pounds 323 per night. Of the other 25 hotels in and around Honfleur, the best is Castel Albertine, 19 cours Albert-Manuel (31 98 85 56) with rooms from pounds 38 to pounds 65. For modern practicality, try the Mercure, 4 rue des Vases (31 89 50 50) with rooms from pounds 35 per night.

Further information: Office de Tourisme, place Arthur-Boudin, Honfleur (31 89 23 30); French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (071-491 7622).

(Photograph and map omitted)

Comments