Honfleur: The picturesque port that inspired Impressionist art

Honfleur is one of those places that immediately captivates visitors.

Honfleur's Lieutenance is one of its oldest buildings and a landmark of the village (wikipedia)

HONFLEUR, France, Oct. 24, 2015 – Honfleur is one of those places that immediately captivates visitors. 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.


Belfry of Sainte Catherine's Church (wikipedia)
Belfry of Ste. Catherine’s Church (Wikipedia)

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 200 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 persuaded the young prodigy to give up doing caricatures and concentrate on landscapes.

Le Havre at Sunset by Eugene Boudin (wikiart)
“Le Havre at Sunset” by Eugene Boudin (Wikiart)

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.

Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet gave Impressionism its name (wikiart)
“Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet gave Impressionism its name (Wikiart)

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.

The permanent carousel (wikipedia)
The permanent carousel (Wikipedia)

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.

The port at Honfleur is filled with boats and sidewalk cafes (wikipedia)
The port at Honfleur is filled with boats and sidewalk cafes (Wikipedia)

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 St. Lawrence River. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and Cavalier de La Salle, and in 1681 he discovered the mouth of the Mississippi 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.

The Church of Sainte Catherine of Alexandria looks like and upside down boat (wikipedia)
The Church of Ste. Catherine of Alexandria looks like an upside down boat (Wikipedia)

A walk around the harbor is all the orientation one needs. Just behind the harbor is the Church of Ste.-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 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.

Honfleur's port adds to the ambiance of the setting (wikipedia)
Honfleur’s port adds to the ambiance of the setting (Wikipedia)

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

Access to Honfleur is 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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