HONFLEUR, FRANCE April 14, 2014 – Some travel destinations have a magic all their own that captivates visitors from the moment they arrive. Honfleur, Normandy’s tiny seaport village is one of those places. So much so that it’s glorious light was a source of inspiration for the Impressionist art movement, and it has been that way ever since.
Honfleur’s picturesque charm on the northern coast of France has much to do with its colorful architecture and ancient buildings that line the perimeter of the rectangular harbor amid a perpetual pageant of changing light. Little wonder the 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.
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 to concentrate on landscapes. The rest is artistic 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. 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 discovered the mouth of the Mississippi in 1681 during an expedition that began from Honfleur.
That maritime flavor remains an important facet of Honfleur’s appeal 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 main port is the Church of Saint-Catherine of Alexandria — the iconic 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 NavalMuseum. VieuxHonfleurMuseum 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 own 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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