The charming harbour town of Honfleur has attracted artists since the Impressionists, and is just as popular with food lovers. Join them for a short break or a stopover on a trip to southern France
What to see and do
Honfleur is a great place to amble around, with plenty of picturesque backstreets to get lost in. You feel like you're stepping back in time amongst the cobbled streets and crooked buildings. The heart of the town is the historic port, or Vieux Bassin. It's surrounded by tall seventeenth-century slate-fronted houses overlooking the harbour, and fringed by galleries and cafés in converted salt stores. The harbour is packed with sailing boats and was historically a launch point for sailors heading to the New World. It was later a fishing port and fishermen’s wives still sell the day's catch straight from the boat today – a historic law means that only they have the right to sell it.
If you want to get out onto the water yourself, then you can take one of the boat trips around the harbour and out to the nearby Pont de Normandie (details available from the tourist information centre on Quai Lepaulmier; 02 31 89 23 30). This 2km-long bridge links Honfleur with Le Havre and was the longest cable bridge in the world when it was built in 1995. It's still an impressive sight, supported by pylons which are higher than the Eiffel Tower.
One of the town's most interesting buildings is the Eglise Sainte Catherine, the largest wooden church in France. It was built after the previous church was destroyed in the Hundred Years' War, and was only supposed to be temporary, but is still standing 500 years later. The builders were local shipbuilders and they kept the maritime theme with a ceiling that looks like two upside-down ships hulls. They had to build the church's bell tower separately nearby out of stone to hold the weight of the bells.
Honfleur has inspired artists for centuries, with Impressionists such as Monet, Courbet and Jongkind forming the École de Honfleur (Honfleur school). The Musée Eugène Boudin (Place Erik Satie, 14602 Honfleur; 02 31 89 54 00) displays works by Boudin, who was born in Honfleur and is famous for his beautiful seascapes. There are also paintings by other Impressionists, as well as works by other local artists and historic artefacts from Normandy, all located in a nineteenth-century church.
There's still a big community of artists in the town today, from painters and sculptors to photographers and jewellery makers. You can visit their galleries and studios, or if you want to give it a try yourself then many offer art classes.
Another famous local resident was the composer Erik Satie, who lived and worked in Honfleur. The house he was born in is now the Musée Erik Satie (67 Boulevard Charles V; 02 31 89 11 11), which uses surreal exhibits of sound, light and images to tell the story of his life.
Where to eat and drink
On Wednesdays and Saturdays there's a colourful farmer's market in Place Sainte-Cathérine, which is a great place to stock up on picnic supplies. It also specialises in traditional Normandy produce like delicious cheeses (with Camembert and Pont L'Eveque among those produced nearby), butter and apples in various forms – from tasty tartes aux pommes to Calvados.
There are lots of restaurants in prime spots around the edge of the harbour, but they tend to be touristy and quite expensive. They’re a good spot for a drink while you watch the boats come in through.
For a gastronomic experience, Michelin-starred Sa.Qua.Na (22 Place Hamelin, Honfleur; 02 31 89 40 80; www.alexandre-bourdas.com) is presided over by chef Alexandre Bourdas, who combines his experience in working in Japan with local ingredients. It's all very modern in style, from the food to the décor. Tasting menus are €60 or €90 and include fusion dishes like sea bream in coconut and lime broth.
For more down-to-earth dining, there are some good local restaurants serving fresh produce from Normandy. The area is known for its seafood, especially mussels and scallops. La Tortue (36 Rue de l'Homme de Bois; 02 31 81 24 60; www.restaurantlatortue.fr) specialises in fish and, unusually in France, also has a good range of vegetarian options. They offer good-value menus for €17 and €36. Or try the Bistro des Artistes (14 Place Pierre Berthelot, Honfleur; 02 31 89 95 90), run by a local artist who also acts as waitress and chef! It can be a little bit chaotic at times but serves good bistro-style food with a lovely third-floor view across the harbour.
And a good place to start or end the night is Le Vintage (8 Quai des Passagers, Honfleur; 02 31 89 05 28), a great jazz club by the harbour. It's a relaxed place for an aperitif and also does tapas-style food, with music each night.
Where to stay
As a fellow Lucie (albeit with a ‘y’), I admit to having chosen this one partly for its name, but La Maison de Lucie (44 Rue des Capucins, Honfleur) turned out to be a gem. Formerly the home of writer and poet Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, you still feel like a guest in someone’s home. Set on a hill with views across Honfleur, rooms are beautifully decorated. The pretty central courtyard is a peaceful place to sit, and there’s also a small spa and jacuzzi in the cellar. Double rooms from €150 a night.
Or for a good value choice, try motel-style Hotel Monet (Rue Charrière du Puits, Honfleur), about five minutes’ walk from the centre. Its comfortable rooms each have a patio, where you can have breakfast in summer. And the owners are friendly and helpful, with lots of tips about what to see in the area. Double rooms from €62 a night.
When to go
Honfleur can get very busy during the summer when hoards of Parisian tourists descend, and is quiet during winter – and subject to some cold and damp Normandy weather! The best times to visit are when there are not so many tourists in spring and autumn, with autumn also being the season for the delicious local mussels and scallops.
How to get there
By ferry: Honfleur is only 25km from the ferry port at Le Havre, from where ferries to Portsmouth take about 3 hours (www.ldlines.co.uk). Or it’s an hour’s drive to Caen (Ouistreham), and then just under 6 hours to Portsmouth from there (www.brittany-ferries.co.uk).
By train: take the Eurostar to Paris (2 hours 15 mins, from £69 return), then cross Paris to Gare St Lazare (take the by RER train line E, or a taxi is around €8). The nearest station to Honfleur is at Deauville/Trouville, which takes 1 hour 45 mins by direct train (return tickets from £29). Then you can get a local bus (www.busverts.fr) or taxi on to Honfleur.