Le Havre as a Port Stop
Normandy Part #6
This blog posting represents the sixth and final article in the “Le Havre as a Port Stop” series and focuses on the port city of Le Havre and nearby Honfleur.
When your cruise ship docks at Le Havre, you will not be short of things to do or places to go and see. Therefore, I cover this port stop in six blog postings as there are simply too many options. I have broken the primary choices into the following categories:
Normandy - The Landing Beaches
Normandy - Other WWII Related Sites
Normandy – The Cities/Villages to Visit (Carentan, Rouen and Bayeux).
Paris – The City of Lights in a Lightening Fast Day Tour
Normandy - Le Havre and Honfleur
It took me a while to decide to stay and tour Le Havre even though it is a regular stop for cruise ships and river cruises. The city has a lot of competition from other places in Normandy, with Paris also within striking distance. People arriving in Le Havre, including myself, tend to head to the more well-known destinations. Paris, Rouen, Caen and Bayeux readily come to mind. Eventually, I decided that I would stay in Le Havre and see what it had to offer.
Located on the right bank of the river Seine, Le Havre was not a natural harbour and started life as a fishing village where the river met the ocean. Fish from the river and ocean provided food for the inhabitants. The first harbour was built between 1517 and 1519 when King Francis the First (who reigned from 1515 until his death in 1547), decided to have a harbour built close to the existing village. The harbour, and town that started to flourish around it, was called Havre-de-Grâce. Over the years the harbour was enlarged and improved under the auspices of various kings and rulers and by the 20th century, it had grown to be a small city with the harbour capable of handling the bustling river traffic and sizable ocean-going ships.
World War II was not kind to the city. The Belgian government fled there after the fall of Ostend and Antwerp so it became a specific target for the German military. Once the Belgian government fled Le Havre and the city was under German occupation, the harbour became a target for the allies. Consequently, it suffered heavy shelling and fighting from whichever side was trying to take/retain control of it. Over two thirds of the buildings were destroyed, leaving the city devastated. When you tour the city now, you will see that most of the buildings are newer structures and clearly built after the war. These buildings tend to be concrete as they were built in the modernist style of the famed architect Auguste Perret, (nicknamed the “Concrete Poet”). As such, Le Havre presents a stark contrast in appearance to other cities in Normandy that have retained their historic timbered buildings and gothic inspired structures.
Now that I have given you a very brief history, let’s deal with some practical matters that relate to your visit to Le Havre once your ship docks. Le Havre is not one of those “step off the ship and walk into the city” type of ports. It is about 2.5 km to the train/bus station, so if you have difficulty walking, you may want to arrange for some type of transportation. If you do want to walk, you may find that it is not that straight forward as there are times when dock side access is restricted. You may be physically capable of walking but unable navigate the dock to port entry due to restrictions in place on the date and time of arrival. I chose a cab which I took to the cathedral to begin my tour.
Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the older structures in the city and was one of the few buildings that remained standing after the war. That is not to say it did not suffer damage and it required repairs, evidence of which is still evident today. Restoration was completed in the 1970s. Despite the repair work, it’s 16th century origins are still apparent, as are some of the 17th century additions. This church is one of the buildings I recommend people tour when visiting Le Havre.
You can still walk along the river Seine, but for me, the beauty of the city that attracted Claude Monet and other Impressionist artists, was lost in the war. The city still holds charm but the quiet, still beauty captured by the artists is long gone and I am not a fan of the concrete replacements.
A visit to the André Malraux Museum of Modern Art is another touring option. Easily walk-able from the cathedral, it is a modern glass and concrete building set near the water and offering up a splendid view. I watched the ferry to Portsmouth depart and enjoyed a waterside stroll. The museum was well worth the visit. I chose not to take a guided tour as it was a whopping €137. I could have taken it in French for €60 but I still felt that was a pretty steep price.
There is shopping available for those who like to shop. Closest to the dock, is Centre Commercial Docks Vauban which offers up a wide variety of items. The other shopping option is Espace Coty which is located about 1.6 km north of the cathedral. If you want to do a little shopping and sightseeing, it is strategically easier to take a taxi to the museum, tour it, then walk to the cathedral and when finished there, proceed to walk north to the shopping center. You will be further away when you finish but you will not be carrying your purchases with you when you are touring.
If you have spent some time looking in Le Havre but want to venture a little further afield, consider taking the train or bus to Honfleur, a picturesque village about 30 minutes away.
As you walk around Honfleur you will see a statue of the Viking Rollo, which was raised as a tribute to the origins of this village. Honfleur was settled by the Vikings in the 9th century and it is believed the name of the village is derived from the Norse name of Honna flóð.
Once established, the village developed into a port due to its strategic positioning at the mouth of the Seine. Both the English (who captured the village twice), and the French, used Honfleur as a port to bring in and send out trade goods. It is believed that many a bottle of French brandy (or wine), made its way to England via this port. Prior to my trip, when researching Honfleur, I came across a September 1755 article in The Scotsman newspaper that spoke of a cargo being seized from a ship that arrived in Britain from Honfleur. Because of the heavy scrutiny by authorities in the port of Calais, smugglers or free traders would choose Honfleur as a port to import/export goods usually subject to duties.
Ships making their way to the New World often set sail from Honfleur. For example, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain set out on a voyage that led to the beginning of the French settlement in Lower Canada (now called Quebec).
Over the years the village grew but not to the extent of other places such as Le Havre. Consequently, Honfleur has retained a lot of its old-world charm and ambiance. That is one of the reasons that artists such as Claude Monet chose to paint scenes in and around the town. Walking along the water, you can easily see scenes that take you back in time.
Walk along the harbour, visit the medieval quarter of old Honfleur (the Haute which is steeped in history), or stop and tour St. Catherine’s Church. Erected in the late 15th century, it is a vaulted timber structure. Given that at the time it was built, the main church in each village or town was usually constructed of stone, it is unique. At the time of its construction, it was, and remains, France’s largest timber church. Funnily enough, this church replaced a stone church that had been destroyed during the hundred years war. The church has a separate bell tower which is located opposite the church and perched above the bell ringer’s house. You can buy souvenirs on site. I wonder how it escaped being named Notre Dame?
One final recommendation is a stop at the Eugène Boudin Museum. Boudin, a talented artist, was born and raised in Honfleur. His love of his hometown was infectious and he is responsible for other artists painting in that area. The museum is small but has a wonderful collection of 19th to 20th century art painted by artists such as Boudin, Monet, Courbet, Hambourg and Joongkind.
I had been told that a visit to Honfleur need only be a couple of hours but I spent a day there and thoroughly enjoyed it.
A special thank you to Steven Lewis and Monty Malloy for providing me with photos to use in this blog posting.
As always, if anyone has any comments or wishes to add information on either Le Havre or Honfleur, please feel free to add in the comments section or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org