Birth and history of Le Havre
With the creation and development of its port in 1517 (commissioned by King Francis I), the city was founded. A military and commercial hub until the Revolution, the port knew its real rise with the colonial and international trade of coffee, cotton and wood, and the construction of warehouse docks, the first of their kind in France. It was a transatlantic port for over half a century for passengers attracted by the new world; and connected by train to Paris by the mid-19th century, Le Havre became a seaside resort where watersports rapidly developed.
The city was 80% destroyed during the bombings of September 1944 and its reconstruction was treated as a national priority, entrusted to Auguste Perret, master of concrete, a material to which he later gave his letters of nobility. Between 1945 and 1964, the Perret workshop completed the project with 100 architects and it became a symbol of the country’s rebirth. They created a landscape ensemble of exceptional coherence, in which the buildings expressed multiple variations of the same architectural language.
Le Havre: a UNESCO World Heritage Site
On 15 July 2005, the Porte Océane was recognised by UNESCO for the modernity of its architecture. Le Havre was never the same again, with journalists even hailing it ‘Manhattan on Sea’. To best appreciate the architecture, visit the model apartment (showcasing the lifestyle and designers of the 50s) and the Heritage House, climb to the 17th floor of the tower of the City Hall to admire the urban planning from above, visit the Place de l’Hotel de Ville and Avenue Foch (the Champs-Élysées of Le Havre), and admire the church of St Joseph with its 12,768 stained glass windows, another masterpiece by Auguste Perret and Marguerite Huré.
Le Havre: city of architects
The modernity continued with Oscar Niemeyer and the Volcano (theatre and media library), and Jean Nouvel and the docks, an aquatic complex inspired by Roman baths.
Le Havre: birthplace of Impressionism
Don’t forget that in 1872, Monet revealed his extraordinary perception of a hazy morning on the port in Le Havre. “Impression soleil levant” was born, arguably the first work of modern art. Boudin, Monet’s master, was born in Honfleur but also developed his talent in Le Havre. The exceptional light of the mouth of the estuary is decisive, as would be written and claimed by Raoul Dufy a few years later. Le Havre, its port, its beach and the regattas inspired the likes of Pissarro, Sisley and Jongkind too – the MuMa, located near the Place where Monet set up his easel, houses France’s largest Impressionist collection after the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Over 450 works represent the movement. Until 3 November 2019 you can see the fascinating ‘Raoul Dufy Le Havre’ exhibition, tracing the presence of this renowned artist’s birthplace throughout half a century of creativity.
Le Havre: a green city
Le Havre turned to the world. Go to the Hanging Gardens, a former military fort of the 19th century, converted into gardens of the world in tribute to botanists explorers from Le Havre and returned from their expeditions with rare species of plants. Greenhouses of culture, greenhouses of collection, strongholds dominating the estuary of the seine and the bay of Le Havre, the sight is impregnable there.
Another curiosity is the Japanese garden, a rather surprising, original, quiet and peaceful place set back from the travel circuits, well hidden away from view near the headquarters of the GPMH.
Le Havre: a foodie destination
The city’s fish market is a must-see. Don’t miss visiting the Maison de l’Armateur with its impressive 18th-century architecture, just in front of the market.
Les Halles Centrales is the place to browse and buy the best local produce: vegetables, cheeses and meats, not to mention freshly-roasted coffee, since Le Havre has long been involved in coffee trade. Every Sunday, the market extends outdoors with some of the local producers.
As a port city and crossroads of different worlds, Le Havre’s food scene is rooted in the terroir but extends to the exoticism of the islands. Michelin-starred Jean-Luc Tartarin is one of the city’s top chefs creating beautiful dishes with local produce.
“If I had to show the sea to a friend for the first time, I’d choose Etretat,”
wrote Alphonse Karr, French novelist and Figaro journalist. Thus Etretat was suddenly put at the forefront of the stage, in the spotlight – and the reputation of this exceptional natural site was founded. Still ‘wild’ and difficult to access in the 19th century, it nevertheless inspired painter Eugene Isabey, later attracting Courbet, Boudin, Monet, Valloton, Matisse and many others. Etretat’s reputation was really solidified in the second Empire and the late 19th century, when it obtained tourist letters of nobility. Some personalities (Jerome Bonaparte, Jules Michelet, Felix Faure) stayed for a few days or weeks, others (such as Offenbach) built beach-style villas here. Writers contributed greatly to its fame: Guy de Maupassant celebrated the cliffs by comparing the Porte d’Amant to an elephant plunging his trunk into the water. For Arsène Lupine, the gentleman burglar and hero of Maurice Leblanc’s novels, the hollow aiguille is “a rock over 80 metres high, a colossal obelisk standing on a granite base”. This mysterious structure concealed treasure belonging to the kings of France. What destination wouldn’t dream of such natural advertising? The proximity of Le Havre and Rouen, and the creation of a railway line, later disengaged Etretat, frequented in the late-19th century by the Parisian elite and international aristocracy.
This exceptional natural site, following arches formed by the Manneporte, is world-famous for its natural chalk ‘sculptures’ captured by numerous painters and writers. Accessible on foot, the cliff upstream has a chapel at its summit, Our Lady of the Guard, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and paying tribute to sailors. Not far away is a monument paying tribute to airmen Charles Nungesser and François Coli, heroes of the First World War, who tried to cross the Atlantic in their plane ‘White Bird’ on 8 May 1927. They were last seen flying over the cliffs but nobody knows what happened to them. A monument was erected in their memory – like the chapel, it was destroyed in 1942, and replaced 20 years later by a 24-metre-high white spire.
From here your gaze settles on the beach, the city, offering a spectacular view of the aiguille, the Porte d’Aval and the golf course. At low tide at the foot of the cliff, you can see the unexpected traces of oyster beds – in fact in the 18th century, oysters were grown here before being shipped to Versailles for Marie Antoinette.
Framed by the cliffs up and downstream, the beach has the smallest pebbles on the Alabaster Coast, round and perfectly polished. From Easter to November it’s common to see paddle-boarders and sailors enjoying their favourite sport – and depending on the weather, it’s not unusual to see surfers!
Visitors come to Etretat to admire its world-renowned wonders of nature, astonishing cliffs and equally impressive aiguille. But there are other local places that deserve a visit: the Clos Lupine, former home of writer Maurice Leblanc; the gardens of Etretat, the Notre-Dame church, the Château des Aygues, Les Halles, the museum...
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