An arty break in Normandy is easy with Brittany Ferries. With the largest choice of crossings to France, you can mix and match your route, with journey times from just three hours to relaxed overnight cruising. Take your UK driving license and drive to the port, onto the ferry and off again at the other side – it’s a hassle-free way to travel, with no restrictions, leaving you free to explore at your own pace.
For art lovers, 2020 is the year to come and explore Normandy – 3 April marks the start of the Impressionist Festival, which takes place across the region until 6 September and is one of the largest events in France’s cultural calendar. A tribute to an art movement that was ahead of its time, this year’s festival (whose theme is ‘Everyday Colour’) will celebrate art in all its forms through a diverse five-month programme catering to all ages and tastes, which will feature 20 Impressionist exhibitions, 30 contemporary exhibitions, performing arts, concerts, lightshows, street art, conferences and much more.
There’s no better place to begin than the entry port of Le Havre, considered the birthplace of Impressionism itself – step off the ferry and get straight to the heart of the action. Le Havre was the setting and inspiration for Impression, soleil levant, Claude Monet’s 1872 painting which gave its name to the movement. A chic seaside resort for Parisians, it was also Monet’s summertime home and today, the André Malraux Modern Art Museum (MuMa) houses the second largest Impressionist collection outside Paris.
Stretching east from Le Havre, the chalk-cliffed Alabaster Coast passes through towns and villages famously immortalised on canvas by the Impressionists: Yport, Fécamp, Varengeville-sur-Mer, Pourville-sur-Mer and Dieppe, where the work of Manet’s student Éva Gonzalès will be exhibited. It’s an ideal road trip itinerary combining art with stunning sea views as you move from place to place. Special mention goes to the pretty seaside town of Étretat and its spectacular cliff formations, a particular source of inspiration to Boudin and later Monet.
West of Le Havre, the coast between Cabourg and Trouville-sur-Mer is a succession of 19th-century seaside resorts popularised by the bourgeois trend for sea bathing. Scenes from the trendy resorts of Deauville and Trouville-sur-Mer with their sandy beaches, seafront villas, coloured beach umbrellas and promenades were painted by a number of Impressionists including Monet and Boudin. Further on is Honfleur, a quaint fishing port with traditional architecture that became another artistic hotspot. Fortunately, it still looks much as it did when Monet was there – and the Eugène Boudin Museum is a must-see here.
Artists also flocked to Rouen, fascinated by the new industrial sites across the city and the wealth of architectural gems in its medieval old town. Between 1892 and 1893, Monet rented a small workshop opposite the cathedral and produced some 30 canvases, painted at different times of the day and in different weather conditions to capture the changes in light. Leave time to visit the Rouen Fine Arts Museum – with an original canvas from the Cathedral Series – and the Saint-Sever neighbourhood on the left bank, Rouen’s docklands painted by Pissarro. From 16 May, don’t miss Yadegar Asisi’s new Monet-inspired 30-metre high circular painting at the Panorama XXL, that shows the west façade of the cathedral and its surrounding buildings at the end of the 19th century.
No art lover’s trip to Normandy would be complete without a drive further inland to Giverny and the Fondation Claude Monet, to admire his famous water lily pond. A foray into Monet’s house is worth it for its brightly decorated dining room alone, not to mention the many Japanese wall prints. Giverny is also home to the Musée des Impressionnismes, an art museum dedicated entirely to Impressionism.
The best way of exploring Normandy’s arty treasures is in the comfort of your own car, packed with everything you need. The region is easily accessible via Brittany Ferries’ ports of Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth – and your UK driving licence is still valid for use on French roads. So book your crossing and relax on the short hop across the Channel. With manageable driving distances between all of Normandy’s Impressionist towns, all that remains is to decide which exhibition to visit first.