Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Normandy Part Une: Giverny, Honfleur, Rouen, and Etretat

Day 1 (Friday, August 28, 2009)

After landing in sunny Paris, I was easily able to find the Europcar Rental office, where I had arranged a four week car rental through Gemut. Initially, I began speaking to the representative in French, so she obviously assumed that I spoke the language well, as she then responded to me much faster than I will probably ever be able to understand. I think my dazed and confused look reeled her back in, so she immediately switched to English, which was very good for both of us. Within about ten minutes, I had found the car and placed all of my items inside, and was on my way out of Paris.

My first stop along the way was to Giverny, which is famous for being the former home of the impressionist painter Claude Monet. Monet painted some of his most famous works at his private property, including the much-beloved series of paintings of water lilies.  The grounds of his former home, including all of the gardens, have been turned into a museum, which cost six Euro per person to enter. 
Monet's home.
The gardens were absolutely lovely, brimming in every imaginable color. I saw many flowers that I recognized, such as dahlias and fox glove, plus many more that I had never before seen.

I eventually made my way over to the water garden, which is the spot from which Monet painted all of his water lily scenes. Unfortunately, because it was partly cloudy out, the view of the pond was not quite as impressive as I had hoped it would be. I stuck around for a bit, patiently waiting for more blue sky to appear. Although there was plenty of vibrant colors within the other gardens, there wasn’t a lot of color variation going on within the area surrounding the water garden, so I was a bit disappointed. All in all, I would definitely recommend a visit to this place for those who have admired Monet’s beautiful works of art; however, I would urge that your visit take place later in the day, in order to be able to enjoy the atmosphere of the garden without being trampled upon by hundreds of tour groups.
The inspiration for Monet's many waterlily paintings. 

The reflections were so pretty that day.

From Giverny, I drove towards the town of Honfleur, where I spent two nights.

When I eventually reached Honfleur, I was absolutely blown away with what I saw. The city far surpassed any expectations I previously had. The cobble stoned-lined streets were jam-packed with a variety of houses of all shapes, sizes, and time periods. I was immediately giddy with excitement as Honfleur was exactly the type of town I could envision myself spending a lot of time in, just simply wandering the beautiful back-streets. I shouldn't have been too surprised though that I took an immediate liking to the city, considering that several artists, including Monet, had found inspiration for many of their paintings within Honfleur.

I found the bed and breakfast, La Cour Sainte Catherine fairly quickly. When I walked past the gates of the property, I was so surprised to see a large garden area that was filled with all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies with many cute little places to sit down and relax. When I was brought up into my room, I was happy to see a very shabby but oh so chic French-inspired room that had an awesome view of the street below; I was so happy with the entire situation that I really contemplated pinching myself!
The front exterior of the bed and breakfast.

After settling in, I headed out into the city, where I simply strolled for about an hour, enjoying the passing scenery and sights. I hadn’t wanted to overload myself on the first day (lessons learned from prior trips) so choosing to walk through Honfleur was the best decision as it was low-key and stress free! Within an hour, the beauty and easy-going nature of Honfleur had already captured a place in my heart. It was the perfect place to begin my month long trip to France.
Brick building in Honfleur.
Colorful Honfleur. 
Reflections in Honfleur.
Small church in Honfleur. 
Quaint Honfleur.
Next, I hiked up the Cote de Grace, which was a very long and uphill walk, where I was rewarded with stunning views of Honfleur and it’s nearby Normandy bridge.  Since the sun was no longer shining upon the roofs of the homes, I decided to come back the following morning via car in order to obtain some better shots.
View of Honfleur from the Cote de Grace.

View of Honfleur from the Cote de Grace.
I opted not to eat out this night as I was quite exhausted and preferred to sleep immediately versus taking the time to find a restaurant to eat at.

Day 2 (Saturday, August 29, 2009)

Having fallen asleep around 9:00 the night before, I had a relatively easy time waking-up on my first morning in France around 7:30. I quickly got ready, and then headed down to the breakfast room at Sainte Catherine’s. Since I arrived right at 8:00, I was the first one in the kitchen, which was filled with delicious aromas of freshly cooked food. As I sat down, a woman in the kitchen asked in French if I wanted coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to drink. I decided that the hot chocolate sounded good, especially since it was a bit chilly out that morning. While I waited for my food to arrive, I was greeted by one of the cats, a very friendly black male. For breakfast, I was served orange juice, baguette, a homemade plum marmalade (which was delicious), and small crepes, which were quite tasty.

I left the hotel and walked through Honfleur’s empty morning streets to the Vieux Bassin (old harbor), where I was able to take lots of great shots of the beautiful buildings reflecting in the water of the harbor. I walked into a store along the harbor, and ended up buying a bottle of Cidre Pays d’Auge (hard apple cider) for only 3.5 Euros.

I continued walking through town, eventually making my way to Place Berthelot, where a very massive Saturday farmer’s market was taking place. In addition to fruits and vegetables, the market had a wide variety of other food, including cheeses, sausages, olives, baked items, and several prepared foods, such as roasted chicken and even paella. Aside from all of the food, the market continued to spread away from the square with non-food items such as clothing, jewelry, shoes, and trinkets. There were a ton of stalls to look at, and one could have easily spent hours passing by each one.

While in Place Berthelot, I walked into Eglise Sainte Catherine, a wooden church which was built in 1497. The interior of the church reminded me very much of the wooden stave churches in Norway. In fact, the church was constructed by boat builders so the ceiling was built similar to the hull of a ship, which was also a common building practice in Norway.

Front entrance to the church.

Back exterior of the church.

Interior of the church.

Stained glass windows inside the church.

After touring the church, I walked across the square to the church’s bell tower, which was strangely not built atop the church, but instead directly across from it. The reason why it was not placed on top of the church was that the builders were concerned that the heavy bell might collapse the roof, and they also thought that it would help prevent fires, as lightening was more likely to hit a metal bell versus a wooden building. Entrance to the museum inside the bell tower offered a combined ticket to the Eugene Boudin Museum (which I was also planning on visiting) so I figured that I might as well look around the small museum.

After stepping back outside, I noticed with great annoyance that it was raining. As I was not wearing a coat with a hood, I had nothing to protect my straightened hair, nor my expensive camera.

From the square, I headed to the Eugene Boudin Museum, which is home to lots of local paintings of Honfleur and the surrounding region, and also has an entire section devoted to Norman folk costumes. In addition, there was an exhibition that featured many works of art created by the museum’s namesake, Eugene Boudin. As with many artists of his era, his paintings ranged from Realism to Impressionism. It was interesting to be able to see paintings of the nearby towns and areas, especially those that I would be visiting later, such as the white cliffs of Etretat.

From the museum, I walked to a grocery store off of Place de la Republic called Champion Market. I had several toiletry items that I needed to purchase, and I also wanted to pick-up some snacks that I would be able to eat in the car over the coming days. While in the store, I was lured to the deli area, where the lovely aromas of roast chicken were coming from. I decided to go ahead and buy a whole one, as they were less than half the price of the ones that were being sold at the farmer’s market. I also sprung for a side of pomme des terres (potatoes) which had been cooked beneath the chicken as they were roasting.

From the grocery store, I had to walk back to the car in the pouring rain, which was not any fun. The weather seemed to be constantly changing in this city; it could go back and forth from rain to no rain, to rain again all within just a few minutes, which I found quite annoying.

From Honfleur, I headed out of town, and drove to Rouen. For my second day of driving in France, I made sure to change the directions in the navigation system to indicate that I wanted to drive along non-toll roads only, as my toll cost from the day prior were slightly more than 15 Euros ($21 USD); quite ridiculous for less than two hours of driving!

Due to taking back roads, it ended up taking about 1.25 hours to reach Rouen, but I didn’t mind too much as I didn’t have to pay any tolls! Rouen is a moderately-sized city of about 100,000 residents who live within a very busy and modern city that is very lucky to still have its historic core left mainly intact. The city was once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe, so it has quite a bit of history steeped within it's cobbled old town.

The older part of the city features a ton of Gothic architecture, with its centerpiece being the Cathedral Notre-Dame, built back in the 12th century and constantly modified and added to through the 16th century. The church is known by many as having been painted by Monet multiple times. When I walked inside the church, I immediately noticed that only a few panels of the original stained glass were in place; after conferring with my guidebook, I quickly learned that much of the medieval glass was unfortunately destroyed during a World War II bombing.

After enjoying the interior of the church, I headed outside and began the self-guided walk listed in Rick Steves’ France 2009 guidebook. Along the long walk (which spanned from the church down to the Joan of Arc sight), I saw a multitude of colorful half-timbered buildings. I thought it was fascinating that most of these half-timbered buildings were actually painted instead of having been left in the traditional white and brown motif. As I approached Place du Vieux Marche, the streets began to become more and more crowded with both locals and visitors. At one point, I though to myself how refreshing it was to see so many French people casually dressed in a similar style to what I would see in the United States. During the last two times I’ve visited Paris, it always seems as though everyone (the locals, at least) are always dressed perfectly, as if they might be photographed at any moment for some sort of major publication. I usually feel so frumpy in Paris, but I definitely did not in Rouen, which was quite nice.

From Rouen, I began the long drive to the town of Etretat. This small city has been made famous for it’s chalk-white cliffs, which have been compared to the White Cliffs of Dover in England. When I arrived in town, it was jam-packed in every direction with visitors. I had a very difficult time attempting to find a parking spot for the car, so I ended up having to park up the road at a parking lot that was a good ten minute walk from the beach.

When I finally reached the beach, it was immediately obvious why it was such a popular place. The white cliffs were simply stunning, especially since they were contrasting so brightly against the deep blue sky. Although the beach itself was nothing to brag about (mostly pebbles with very little sand) the setting of the cliffs more than made up for the lack of a proper beach. There were a ton of visitors at the beach, although most were enjoying their time lounging in a beach chair. The only downside to Etretat was the fact that the pebbles were quite difficult to walk upon, and even more difficult to walk up. The beach did not fan out smoothly from the walls of the cliffs. Instead, there was a slight drop-off, which was nearly impossible to walk down or up, considering it was made entirely of pebbles. As I ran down it, about 12 inches of my legs sunk in. Walking back up was worse though; I saw a lot of people getting stuck, and even encountered a little girl crying out for her parents as she was literally unable to walk up. Just make sure you have sturdy shoes when you visit this beach as I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable it would be to walk upon it wearing just flip-flops or flimsy sandals.

From Etretat, I headed back to Honfleur. It was getting late out by this point, so I made a beeline for the harbor in order to find a place to eat. Unfortunately, most of the restaurants appeared to be quite touristy with menus in both French and English (generally not a good indicator of a quality restaurant). After finding what appeared to be an excellent but small place filled with locals (Le Bouilland Normand), I began to get a little excited. However, upon further inspection, I saw that it was packed with absolutely no tables available, so I had to settle on a restaurant across the way called Brasserie du Port, which I would have preferred not to eat at. I ordered a chicken dish with cream sauce. The food, while edible, was not exactly what I had been hoping for my first restaurant meal in France. I absolutely hate going out to eat and spending money on crappy food, so unforunately I left in a very good mood.

During the walk back to the hotel, I was able to take a few good shots of the lit-up harbor and of the narrow streets leading to hotel, which slightly helped improve my mood.

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