All culture vultures know Normandy has been a source of inspiration for many of the world’s greatest painters and writers. It is impossible in just one day to see every creative wonder Normandy has to offer, but we can share a plausible plan.
Follow the footsteps of artistic heroes
For the first part of your tour start in the coastal town of Étretat. Artists have lovingly recorded Étretat for over 100 years, from tiny fishing village to relaxed seaside town.
Park up either on Place Maurice Guillard next to the Tourist Info office, or just off the south end of the beach by Place du Général de Gaulle. If you haven’t already, head for the beach. Your are about to see the source of some of the world’s greatest art.
Arches and art
The bay at Étretat feels instantly familiar as the dramatic cliffs and archways of Porte d’Aval and Porte d’Amont star in galleries and reproductions around the world. Monet, Delacroix, Matisse, Vallotton, Americans George Innes and Daniel Ridgeway Knight are just a few of the painters bewitched by these views.
Along the seafront promenade information boards highlight where Monet stood with his easel and the time of day so you can closely compare his vision with your reality.
A climb worth the effort
To view the famous Manneporte arch you have quite a climb ahead. Looking at the sea, turn left and head for the cliffs at the end of the bay. Climb the staircase and at the top your view (with the town behind you) will look something a bit like this:
Etretat has long been an inspiration for writers. Look north from your lofty viewpoint to Port d’Amont and see the fearsome currents that pulled dainty Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne far out to sea.
Fortunately Algernon was rescued by burly local fishermen who he entertained by quoting Victor Hugo. Algernon became a local celebrity but the poem he wrote about that day, Ex Voto, is more concerned with the watery moments Algernon thought would be his last.
While Algernon entertained, on the beach his concerned friend and fellow poet George Powell thanked a young Guy de Maupassant who had rushed into the sea to help. Guy was invited to the Englishmen’s summer rental for lunch and wrote about this very odd experience in his famous story ‘The Englishmen of Étretat’.
Guy spent a lot of his childhood in Étretat and later built a house ‘La Guillette’ on what is now Rue Guy de Maupassant. He wrote Bel Ami at his new home in 1884 and loved transforming his land into vast gardens. One of Guy’s many short stories, the rather gruesome ‘Penguin’s rock’, is a favourite and starts from the town. Sadly Guy did not live to see his garden mature. An adventurous youth left him with syphilis and he died, completely mad, in a Paris asylum age 42 leaving behind some of the greatest short stories ever written.
Maurice Leblanc and the Hollow Needle
Another local author less well known to English readers is Maurice Leblanc. His novel ‘The Hollow Needle’ features his most famous character, the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin.
At Étretat Arsène discovers a secret of the kings of France that goes back to the time of Julius Cesar. Within the ‘needle’ at Étretat is a secret chamber and here is hidden… you will have to read the book! Maurice Leblanc’s home ‘Le Clos Lupin’ is also on Rue de Maupassant and welcomes visitors (link below, English audio guides available).
Making a good impression, in Le Havre
After an early lunch in Étretat head south to Le Havre. Not for its hard World Heritage looks but for the MuMA Le Havre art gallery. This wonderful glass box stands overlooking the port and carefully keeps within a surprising collection of world class art.
Here you can enjoy a journey through glorious art history from the torments of 15th century religious paintings, past beautiful 16th century women with timeless faces, though to the 19th century when Normandy provided a striking backdrop to the revolution of Impressionism.
A fantastic wall of Eugène Boudin’s en plein air (painted outdoors) landscapes may look conventional now but were once shockingly new and inspired Monet’s own outdoor painting.
MuMA permanent collection displays wonderful paintings by Monet we didn’t know existed; choppy seascapes, sublime lily ponds and sunsets. Alongside them are Degas nudes, Renoir portraits, scenes of Normandy by Pissarro and Sisley, views of exotic islands by Gaugin and lots more.
The permanent collection contains 20th century work and local hero Raoul Dufy is well represented. MuMA regularly hosts inspirational visiting exhibitions so we always have an excuse to go back.
A change of pace in Honfleur
To complete your day we suggest Honfleur. Just 25km south of Le Havre over the dramatic Pont de Normandie, and turn right. Here you can enter the charmingly crazy world of Erik Satie, composer. His childhood home, 67 Boulevard Charles V, is now a museum offering a visual and musical journey through his life, with many authentic avante-guarde twists.
Satie wrote the instantly recognisable Gymnopedie No.1 – the handy audio tour in English will explain more. Many of the exhibits are interactive and all are intriguing, from giant flying pears to a piano playing itself.
Alternatively, to see some pre-impressionist and a few impressionist pieces, walk a little way up Rue de l’Homme de Bois, behind St Catherine’s church and visit the Boudin museum.
Or simply walk around Honfleur’s cobbled streets and enjoy contemporary art for sale in the many galleries. Make sure you take a turn around the Vieux Bassin, here you can see artist at work. Say Bonjour! Introduce yourself and in no time you are making an offer and taking home a truly fresh piece of Normandy art.
Complete your day of culture with a meal of finest Normandy seafood, then stroll along to Le Vintage by La Lieutenance for an evening of live Jazz.
The odd tale of Guy de Maupassant’s meeting with Algernon Swinburn in Etretat
Text of ‘The Penguin’s Rock’
The torment of Baron Frefosse of Etretat a Normandy legend.
The Hollow Needle (English)
Visit the home of Maurice Leblanc
MuMA Le Havre, closed Tuesday, opens 11am all other days.
Les Maisons Satie, Honfleur, open to 7pm May-Sept, then until 6pm.
The Vintage Cafe Honfleur