Honfleur: The picturesque port that inspired Impressionist art

Although often overlooked, Honfleur should not be missed. Photo: Honfleur Harbor

HONFLEUR, FRANCE November 17, 2013 – Honfleur is one of those places that immediately captivates visitors, even though it has a limited number of things to see and do. In fact, Honfleur itself is the attraction.

Not that the picturesque harbor on the northern coast of Normandy lacks history — it is a fascinating little seaport village. It really has more to do with the charming colorful buildings that line the perimeter of the rectangular port amid a perpetual pageant of changing light. Little wonder the Impressionist artists of the 19th century were drawn to the region.

Today, more than a century and a half later, artists still favor a spot at the northeast corner of town beside the Old Dock of the harbor. Here they paint the same scene that has captured the imagination for nearly two hundred years. And yet, somehow each new interpretation seems to maintain a certain individuality despite myriad renditions that have been transferred from palette to canvas over the decades.

The Old Dock Honfleur

When native son Eugene Boudin was advised by Dutch painter Johan Jongkind to practice his craft outdoors, or en plein air, it marked the early beginnings of Impressionism. Later Boudin befriended Claude Monet, who was only 18 at the time, and convinced the young prodigy to give up doing caricatures and concentrate on landscapes. The rest is history.

Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, which depicts the harbor in nearby Le Havre, gave the Impressionist movement its name, though it was initially intended as a derogatory description.

Honfleur’s glorious light is typical of the region where white cotton ball clouds can become sinister rolling gray thunderheads in mere minutes. The ever-evolving shades of shadow and light represent the character of Honfleur and provide a kaleidoscope backdrop that rivets the imagination.

Situated on the estuary of the River Seine that flows through Paris, Honfleur thrived at the beginning of the Hundred Years War when Charles V bolstered the town’s defenses for strategic purposes. It was first mentioned in the early 11th century, but it was not until the middle of the 12th century that Honfleur became a major shipping lane for goods moving from Rouen to England.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Honfleur was an important departure point for several major explorations. Binot Paulmierde Gonneville sailed to the coast of Brazil in 1503. Three years later, Jean Denis, who lived in Honfleur, traveled to Newfoundland and through the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and Cavalier de La Salle, and discovered the mouth of the Mississippi in 1681 during an expedition that began from Honfleur.

That maritime flavor remains an important facet of the appeal of Honfleur today. The tiny seaport thrives with sidewalk cafes, charming galleries, narrow streets and architectural allure.

A walk around the harbor is all the orientation one needs. Just behind the harbor is the Church of Saint-Catherine of Alexandria — the main landmark of the village. The distinct wooden structure with its engaging bell tower was constructed shortly after the Hundred Years War using naval building techniques. A second nave was added later in the 16th century. 

Honfleur has four museums of note. Museum Eugene Boudin pays homage to the master who brought notoriety to the city with his art. Naturally, the town would be incomplete without a Naval Museum. Vieux Honfleur Museum focuses on the village’s history, while the Erik Satie House gets mixed reviews from travelers desiring to know more about the life of the eccentric early 20th century musician.

Saturday is market day until 1 p.m. Regional farmers bring fresh meat, fish and produce to the center of town, which adds another distinct layer of personality to Honfleur’s already seductive charms.

Occasionally a festival will pop up, but for the most part Honfleur is content to exist within its bewitching magnetism.

Access to Honfleur must be done by motor transportation, or by boat, but there is rail service to nearby Deauville and Le Havre.

You see, Honfleur is one of those in-between places … a place that evokes optimism, a place where the whole world just seems to be right.

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).

 His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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