HONFLEUR - Trading Port to Touristic Treasure

Cruising is a wonderful way to experience tidbits of the world and, if you are fortunate enough, find a rare gem of a town that will entice you to return.

Every cruise line offers tours at their destinations and who would not want to visit Paris when the opportunity presents itsel?

Docking in Le Havre, the buzz of excited travellers was almost surreal. Paris, synonymous with France, was the number one destination for many, and the buses were lined up and ready to whisk away the excited crowds. Now, you have to remember that Paris is a good few hours travel by bus from the port and having taken this into consideration when booking our excursion, we opted for the less chosen tour to Honfleur and Deauville. When travelling, especially to places that most people have not heard of, you need to think of yourself not as a traveller, but rather – an explorer - because, in effect, that is what you become when you choose to go outside your comfort and knowledge zone.

Le Havre is a busy port city and definitely one worth exploring and while the beaches are popular during the warmer months, the city itself is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage list due to having been rebuilt after the Battle of Normandy in 1944. The tour bus took us through the commercial and factory district along the Seine and once over the bridge, the scenery changed drastically to what one would expect from a French countryside. Farm fields, houses with thatched roofs, centuries old architecture reflective in the villages we passed – and though the day began dreary and rainy, it was not detrimental to our new sought experience.

About an hour drive along the Seine River and then crossing the Pont de Normandie (which carries a slight, but more modern resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco), we arrived in beautiful Honfleur. A short tour, including a detailed narration of the town’s history, took us through cobblestone streets and provided us with some interesting facts about this quaint provincial town. One cannot help but be mesmerized by the beautiful row of buildings reflected in the water that greet the visitor once you make your way through the small alleyways into the main square flanked to one side by an antique carousel and a collection of beautifully kept sailboats in the marina. Maybe surprisingly, at one time in history, this small fishing town that dates back almost a thousand years, was a commonly known trading port, only to be replaced with the more industrialized port in Le Havre in the later years.

la Lieutenance on the harbour

Carrousel Palace 1900

A point of little known fact is Honfleur was actually an important trading centre in the 17th century counting Canada, Africa and Azores among its trading partners. Samuel De Champlain actually sailed out of Honfleur for his transatlantic journey to the New World in 1608, and set up a settlement in Canada, later to be known as Quebec City – instigating the shipping trades between Canada and France.

Many of the houses along the alleyways have had second storeys built up onto them and they are easily identified by looking out for the overhangs which were formed by having support beams for the second storey jutting out to allow for more living space. Nothing made more impact on me, though, than the row houses that face the water. I am sure that is the reason this setting has been also the choice for artists like Monet and Boudin. The serenity mixed with an explosion of colour, character, vitality, and the vivacity encompassed in such a small setting is a feast for all the senses. What was even more interesting was the fact that these houses have multiple uses as they are built on a slope. There are cafes facing the waterfront, while the backs of the houses serve another purpose and have separate entryways for the shoppes, bistros, and galleries.

The tour took us to St. Catherine’s church which had been built by shipbuilders in the 13th century. True to their form and experience of building ships, it is quite interesting to note that the inside of the church resembles an upside down hull of a ship. Another fascinating and noteworthy concept is the manner in which this church was built not using saws as tools for cutting the wood but rather axes instead. Thought had gone into the safety of the parishioners and bell towers were built separately to prevent possible fires from spreading into the congregation. It is quite the interesting building and despite it being a tourist attraction, it still remains a place of worship and is used regularly for that purpose.

St. Catherine's Church

Apple Wine

After the tour, the explorers are set free to wander the streets and take in the sights, sounds and tastes of the local fare but, most importantly, Normandy’s apple wine cider and a variety of apple liqueurs and wines. As you stroll through the streets, you will notice that aside from the obligatory gift shops and cafes, the majority of the shops are ateliers/art galleries/art shoppes and wine shoppes. Even for those who do not speak a word of French, the local artisans welcome you to browse and the wine shoppe keepers encourage you to enter in and indulge in a small crystal glass of their finest wine or liqueur. This bears repeating. Yes, as you enter, the shopkeeper opens up a drawer in an armoire and pulls out their best crystal and offers you choices of apple wine or liqueur. The specialty of the Normandy coast is apple wine that comes in a bottle with a fully grown apple inside the bottle. A bit of advice - even if you do not drink wine, this is definitely a conversation piece and I encourage you to bring one home with you. You cannot get this anywhere else in France.

Honfleur has truly become as much of a tourist attraction as most ports of call, and yet, it still has retained that provincial town atmosphere with its quaint cafes along the waterfront. The bistros boast the fresh catch of the day piled high for all passersby to see and entice them to come in, enjoy a cool drink and a good meal. (Caution – it is pricey, but then again, this is a tourist town, so if you plan on enjoying the local fare, make sure your wallet is prepared). Even though it is not the busy port it once was, Honfleur is still a common port of call for river cruises of the Seine and several of these vessels were moored here for the day.

As with any port of call, there are some that you just want to return to – whether it is to learn more about its history or visit museums or explore the parts that you missed. Honfleur is a town worthy of a return visit.

A note to those who travel with mobility aids – this is, as mentioned, a town that goes back ten centuries - days of cobblestones on sidewalks and roadways alike. Small alleyways were the norm. Stairs are common and accessibility, though attempted in some areas, is not pursued to the point that people visiting from Canada or the U.S. are used to. Therefore, if you are travelling with a mobility device, whether it is a walker, a scooter, or a wheelchair – be prepared to face a bit of adversity and expect that this will be a bumpy ride.


Bryce Willison contributed this story to as we encourage other visitors to the website to do. Bryce added this comment as a footnote to his Honfleur feature: "As someone who deals with disability on a regular basis, I would like the world to be accessible but I am also a realist and understand that many of the destinations I would love to see were not built to code. So unless I want to impose limitations on myself and my family by travelling mostly around modern North American cities that are code compliant - I will be an explorer in various ways - exploring new towns, and exploring new ways of doing things to be able to enjoy all the sights and sites this world has to offer.

Life is too short and the world is a big place to see."

Images - Bob Rice
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