Even if you haven't held a paintbrush in years, the Normandy region of France can inspire you to start staring at apples and looking at cathedrals in a whole new light
“That’s fantastic!” says my neighbour in this little studio in Normandy. I am trying to paint an apple and I must say I'm quite chuffed with the way it's turning out. It won’t be of Cézanne standard, of course, but since I have not touched a paintbrush for years, artists Philippe and Isabelle Levasseur must be doing something right.
Here I am in a seaside resort called Trouville and a studio named “Bleu Vert Mer”. Imagine: you go to Normandy for a short break and end up playing with some oils on a blank canvas in a studio called “Blue Green Sea” (or ‘blue Vermeer’ as the pun intended), in a town called “hole-city”.
Seaside with soul
Thankfully, Trouville is not a hole; it’s not even a city. It’s a perfectly formed seaside resort complete with a daily fish market, timber-framed houses and a mile-long sandy beach flanked by imposing mansions. You may have heard of its neighbour Deauville, with its American film festival, hippodrome and posh shops. Well, Trouville is just on the other of the river Touques and (dare I say?) it rocks my boat far more than its glitzy neighbour. Both resorts have a well-kept beach stretching as far as the eye can see, a wooden plank promenade, festivals and activities, but Trouville somehow has a soul to go with it. I put it down to the fact that it dates back to the Middle Ages, still relies on its fishermen and has not been created last century to provide for Parisian tourists.
It is no wonder that you feel inspired when you come to Normandy. Impressionism was born here. Monet - whose painting 'Impression sunrise', executed in Le Havre, gave its name to the movement - visited Trouville well before he bought a house in Giverny and painted his famous lilies. Many French writers have spent time here in search of words for their blank pages: Proust, Dumas, Flaubert and Marguerite Duras.
But it's not just the pretty resorts by the sea that are interesting; the cities should not be ignored. When I visited Le Havre, I stood where Monet would have scrutinised the horizon to paint his view of the harbour - obviously it’s changed a bit since the 1870s although it already was a busy port then - and went to the Musée Malraux to check one of his lilies. But the works that stood out for me were the dozens of Boudin sketches. They’re not pencil on paper but quick paint strokes that capture the moment: kids on the beach or cows in Norman fields under those huge cloudy skies Impressionists are renowned for.
You see, the weather changes quickly here and the challenge was something that drove Monet almost mad. I suppose if you’re going to try and paint Rouen’s cathedral at different times of day, in different weathers and from different angles, then you’ve got to be a bit... different or mad. Or a genius. You decide!
Both cities have a lot going for them although they're not always an obvious stop on an itinerary. Le Havre town centre was flattened during the war and had to be rebuilt quickly after 1945, so it’s not the prettiest of cities - unless you have a thing for concrete - but its cathedral is certainly unique. If you've driven around Le Havre you will have seen the tall tower sticking out. It looks more like a huge office block from afar than a sacred building. But if it’s sunny, you’ve got to go in and see the light play with the colours of the stained glass windows on the concrete walls, with the backdrop of a beehive-like ceiling. The large town centre is listed by UNESCO as exceptional for the vision, the cohesion and the pioneering use of concrete of its architect Auguste Perret, so it's part of our evolving history.
Rouen was luckier during the war and its cathedral is a far more traditional gothic affair in the middle of an old town centre. All the same, the industrial areas are not attractive but - as in Bristol - these Norman cities are using their architectural heritage to revitalise the docks with cafés, restaurants and events. The Armada 2008 in Rouen was a prime exemple: some 10 millions visitors came from all over the world to see the tall ships on the Seine river with the docks in the background. It truly was a fantastic event. Both Rouen and Le Havre make me think of a phoenix. The industrial revolution has been and gone; they're now looking ahead and figuring out how to move forward in a positive fashion. I like the attitude.
Back in Trouville, I eat my croissant gazing at the sea on this sunny spring morning. The soft gold sand is stretching either side of my window, England is just beyond the horizon and under the mottled sky, the deep blue sea of the Channel is a perfect view to wake up to. I’m getting carried away here but you can’t beat a breakfast on your very own little terrace looking at the sea and a few balls of suspended white cotton in the sky. Like those Boudin sketches back in Le Havre. To think he was doing those to earn a living from the tourists on the beach. With so much artistic karma floating around, it’s probably no wonder that I ended up with a decent apple. It’ll never end up in a museum but my kids thought it was amazing, so I’m happy. Thanks to Normandy, my children think I can paint...
Where to stay
, Trouville: the only hotel on the beach; some rooms have a sea view. Rooms from €80 (special offers in low season).
Where to eat
Restaurant Le Galatée, Trouville: the only restaurant on the beach; good fresh seafood.
What to do
Atelier Bleu Vert Mer, Trouville: have a go at painting oils on canvas with tuition from artists.
How to get there
LD lines runs ferries from Portsmouth to Le Havre; Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen.