When we decided that Honfleur would be our stopping place in Normandy, I thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit Shakespeare’s famous play, ‘Henry V’. After all, the sailing ports on this Atlantic coast-line were within easy reach for the English armies participating in the 100 Years War (1337 to 1453). I am sure I recalled that Henry had arrived with his army at Honfleur so I took the trouble to check this historical detail. To my sorrow, as the text above revealed, he landed at Harfleur, on the other side and further up the river Seine from Honfleur and Le Havre. Luckily this minor Shakespearean and geographical detail didn’t spoil our two days in Honfleur.
Our home for our two nights at Honfleur was Camping du Phare which was on the outskirts of the centre of town within a short walk of where the River Seine enters the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived around lunchtime and were able to settle in quickly and jump on our bikes for our first view of Honfleur.
Honfleur reminded us of La Rochelle, the other old port city we had visited down the coast on the other side of the ‘parrot’s beak’ that is Brittany, about four hours car drive away. Being on the mouth of the Seine River, it was a perfect strategic point for the Viking raiders coming down from the north in the 9th century to settle. It not only provided them with the sort of farming land they did not possess in their homeland but gave them a perfect base from which they could attack English towns across the Channel. It was the descendants of these Vikings that went on to become the Normans who ruled this area of France for centuries as well as taking over England after the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings.
During the Hundred Years War, Honfleur was a strategic site, and the English twice captured the town, holding it for over 30 years up to 1450. Because Harfleur had a strategic fortress to defend its soldiers, it was this town that Henry V besieged for over a month in 1415. He had 12 huge canons as well as his famous bowman to attack Harfleur. Despite losing the battle for their town, the French retaliation in the form of dysentry (the “bloody flux’) meant that Henry V lost up to 30% of his troops in the process.
Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.
With Harfleur falling, Honfleur over the river was taken over by the English as well.
Our first bike ride into the centre took us along Boulevard Charles V, named after the highly successful French King who drove the English out of France during his reign from 1338-1380. It was Charles V who ordered the beefing up of Honfleur’s defences as a protection against the English. This regal boulevard led us immediately into the narrow alleyways of the city and it was a slow ride of admiration until we reached the centre of town at the Vieux Bassin (Old Dock).
The view that immediately attracts attention as visitors emerge into the open area beside the Old Dock is that of an ancient building that looks like its construction was based on the ‘Frankenstein’ model; its body parts appear to be sourced from different buildings of different ages and purposes.It is called the Lieutenancy as it was used by the King’s Lieutenant in the 17th century. Contained within its structure are sections of the original wall that defended Honfleur from the English back in the 14th century as well as parts of the wall from the next couple of centuries. On this spot was the ‘Caen Gate’ that was the main entrance into the medieval town. When the ‘old dock’ was built in 1681 to replace the previous anchorage, the older dock was actually inside the fortifications of Harfleur. Presumably the wall of the town ran along the path of Quai de Quarantaine, over the bridge and enclosing today’s Hotel de Villle.
There are no other surviving remnants of the walls that protected Honfleur still standing in their original position but there is a reminder of another gate that was in the town wall to be found in the name of a roundabout further down towards the tourist bureau. It is called Place de la Porte de Rouen and no doubt originally led to one of the biggest cities that shipped their goods out through the harbour of Honfleur. Today this roundabout is the location of one of the finest pieces of street art in Honfleur. It is called Les Moulieres, the mussel gatherers, depicting the woman who spent their lives toiling in the Seine estuary on the mussel beds in dangerous conditions for the small income that it brought in for their families.
The walk from the Lieutenancy along beside the shop fronts beside the Old Dock (Quai Saint Catherine) is an A-Grade standard for charming old houses and chic shops. These were once highly sought-after merchant houses but today they are the location for hotels and fashion boutiques.The walk down the other side of the Old Dock (Quai St Etienne) provides a much more eclectic view with buildings from different ages and functions. In the middle of this promenade is the old Church of St Steven, parts of it dating back to the 14th century and would have witnessed the comings and goings of soldiers and sailors involved in the 100 Years War. It is clearly the oldest church in the city but has been deconsecrated and serves as the home of the Musee de la Marine.
We were so impressed by our walk around Hornfleur that first afternoon, we found our way to the tourist bureau to see if we could book a tour of the town for the next morning. There were no guided walks at the right time but we were able to get the next best thing…audio devices with a voice recorded tour of Honfleur. The map to the right illustrates the path we took and the stops along the way. We decided to head back to the Camp Ground happy with our plan for the next morning.
After collecting our headphones and devices the next morning, we were led down Rue de Ville to inspect the old 18th century wooden houses that are still standing strong. Further along Rue de Ville we were introduced to the Salt Halls (Greniers a Sel) that were built in the 17th century to store many thousands of tonnes of salt that the fishermen needed who went cod fishing on the banks of Newfoundland. Refrigeration having replaced salt as the preservative of choice for deep sea fishermen, the Salt Halls are now used for exhibitions, conferences and concerts.
The other curiosity about these Salt Halls are the building blocks they were built with, seen here in the background of the old sign on the wall of the “Anciens Magasins a Sel”. The old fortification wall would have run along a line close to where these buildings are standing so its component stones did not have to be carried very far to build the walls of these salt storage halls.
The image below shows the fellow travellers enjoying listening to their audio devices, giving them them the history of Manoir de Ronchville, our fourth stopping point. The original mansion was built for Honfleur nobles back in the 12th century. It became the governor’s residence in the 14th century. The house was rebuilt in the 1470 by Louis de Bourbon, (officially described as the bastard son of Charles I of Bourbon) when he was given the job of rebuilding the walls of Honfleur!
This mansion fronted onto Place Arthur Boudin, named after the forerunner of the impressionists, who was born in Honfleur. Apparently Boudin persuaded the young Monet to take up landscape painting and his development in impressionist painting was played out here in Honfleur under the influence of Boudin. The Boudin museum is a major attraction for visitors coming to Honfleur.
From Place Arthur Boudin we strolled over to Place St Catherine to examine the wooden church on one side of the square and its bell tower on the other side of the square. The Belfrey is a staggeringly old wooden building whose construction began 7 years after the official end of the 100 years war in 1460 and Monet’s painting of the Belfry on the right captures the unique architecture of the building and the ‘busyness’ of the square around it. It is a free standing bell-tower, presumably because the ship-building carpenters who constructed it thought the tower and its heavy bells would destabilise the Church itself.
St Catherine’s Church across the square is the largest wooden church in Europe. Given that its designers and builders were boat builders, they built a structure that they were familiar with and so it looks like an upturned hull of a boat as the image from our guide pamphlet on the left illustrates. The Church was built in two stages. The left-hand nave is the original church and when it was decided it was too small, they added another nave in the 16th century.
St Catherine’s Church is the most famous structure in Honfleur and the citizens are justly proud of it. So much so that the tourist bureau produced a zero value banknote as a souvenir showing the “Clocher et Eglise Sainte-Catherine” as the town emblem. Apart from being beautiful in itself, the church on the day we visited was surrounded by gardens of Spring flowers.
From St Catherine’s, our audio tour took us back across past le Vieux Bassin to inspect the other functioning church in town, St Leonards. Built originally in 1186, this church was one of the many victims of the Hundred Years War and was rebuilt at the beginning of the 16th century. Its gothic front entrance was very flamboyant. The area leading back down from St Leonards has been beautifully landscaped incorporating the towns old communal washing basins.
Appendix 1: Why did the wooden houses of Honfleur survive World War 2?
Section of an old picture of Honfleur housed in the porch of St Catherine’s Church.
One of the features of Honfleur that makes it so charming for visitors to wander around is that the houses are very old and still beautiful. They had clearly not been destroyed during World War 2. Our question was why didn’t the old centre of Honfleur suffer from the devastation of Allied bombing when places like St Malo down the coast in Bretagne and Le Havre just across the river from Honfleur were smashed in preparation for the Normandy landings? This question was answered by our audio device which told us that the town was never occupied by the German army. The scenario was reminiscent of the citizens of Flanders in 1914 who used their understanding of local water ways and dykes to flood their fields to slow down the invading German army. Citizens of Honfleur did the opposite. They allowed their small harbour and surrounding estuary to dry out which meant that German ships couldn’t use the towns marine facilities. The fortunes of war for Honfleur meant that they transferred their problems to their neighbours in Le Havre over the river…90% of that town was destroyed by allied bombing due to its occupation by the German army and navy.
Appendix 2: European penchant for fake shop names
For no understandable reason, your Europeans have been making up words so that foreign tourists understand what they are selling in their shops. In Belgium I was worried by self-titled shops such as Friteries (chip shops) and Confiseries (Lolly shops). In Brussels there are wall to wall Chocolatiers due to the citizens’ determination to die young from eating too much chocolate. So when strolling the back alleys of Honfleur, I was delighted, but at the same time disappointed, to discover a ‘Sucrecuitier’. If my French had have been better, I would have liked to approach the shopkeeper (in front of his door in above photo) and question him whether the name over his window was a ‘real’ name or whether he had just made it up? Was he an artisan of sugar or did he just sell lollies imported from Taiwan? Wiser heads suggested that such an encounter might end with an outbreak of culture wars between France and Australia so I shook my head and moved on.