Modernity and Seaside Bliss in Normandy’s Le Havre
The breezy port city of Le Havre in Normandy is known as one of the most unique in France. The 1944 World War II bombings left Le Havre in ruins, but plans were quickly made for its regeneration. From 1945 to 1964, a team – spearheaded by Belgian architect Auguste Perret – worked tirelessly to put Le Havre back together again, and it’s due of the ingenuity of Perret’s design that Le Havre was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.
As I walked around Le Havre’s streets, I noticed how distinctly different it felt from the ornate, cobbled towns of old France, which was refreshing. Le Havre’s modern flair is what makes it special, and the city today is both a leisurely seaside resort and thriving cultural hub - its busy port acting as the centre of all the action.
For visitors to get a feel for Le Havre as it was reconstructed, the city has put together a historic show flat named Appartement Témoin Perret – a good place to start if you want to understand one of the most important parts of Le Havre’s history. After the bombings, residents of Le Havre were left with just 20% of their original city, which meant many of them were forced to live in makeshift housing for ten years while it was rebuilt. This show flat aims to give visitors an idea of Perret’s vision, as well as illustrate what it was like to live here at the most pivotal point in Le Havre’s story. Spacious, bright, and fully-equipped, these apartments were among the first examples of post-war modernity in France. Not only is the show flat good for a historical insight, I also highly recommended a visit if you love all-things retro.
A must for culture vultures is the MuMa (Musée d'Art Moderne André Malraux), which was opened in 1845 and was Le Havre’s first museum. The city is often referred to as the birthplace of Impressionism, as Boudin (Monet’s mentor) developed his style here. Le Havre inspired many impressionist painters over the years, and for this reason the MuMa focuses heavily on works from the late 19th the early 20th centuries, housing the second largest collection of Impressionist paintings in France. Works include pieces from both Monet and Boudin, as well as Renoir, Pissarro, and many more.
As a seaside city, Le Havre really comes alive in the spring and summer months when the sun shines and warm winds blow in from the ocean. The city is home to 2km of sand and pebble beach and a 4km promenade that runs along the coast. This was one of my favourite places for taking a stroll as a relaxing afternoon or early evening activity before dinner. Bars and restaurants line Le Havre’s beach and port areas - for something local I’d recommend looking out for fish and seafood as it will certainly be fresh here.
Le Havre plays a role in two of France’s most famous sporting events, something sports fanatics should look up before arranging a trip here as these are exciting times to be in the city. The Tour de France glides through Le Havre (although not every year, so it is wise to check before making arrangements) and the Transat Jacques Vabre yachting race that runs 400 miles from France to Brazil begins in Le Havre later on in the year, around October or November. Le Havre can get busy during these periods, but the atmosphere is worth it if you don’t mind crowds.
Le Havre is a shining example of France’s leisurely coastal towns, but with an extra dose of modern edge; a unique blend of slow-paced seaside life and contemporary culture and architecture. Being just a short hop over The Channel, it’s an ideal destination for travellers from the UK looking for a short break or unique addition to their Normandy itineraries.