Conor Power goes to the cradle of the French Impressionist movement and finds a lot more along the way
Standing on the soft smooth lawn of the Ferme Saint-Siméon just outside Honfleur, I’m trying my best to look at the River Seine in the way that an Impressionist painter would have viewed it. On the other side of the vast estuary stands the port city of Le Havre – a parade of tall chimneys and blinking lights that seems to go on forever. Back in the days of the Impressionists, it was a city of mediaeval beauty. Nowadays, it’s a World Heritage Site as an example of a city of modern architecture; of how concrete can be made aesthetically beautiful. I’m not convinced so I’ll have to see it for myself. Wasn’t it part of the whole Impressionist groove that beauty could be found in the ordinary and everyday?
It was only recently that I discovered that Impressionism began neither in Paris nor the South of France, but in Normandy. The Ferme Saint-Siméon is now a top-end luxury hotel, but back in the day, all the great Impressionists came here, smelled the country air, observed the ever-changing light on the Seine Estuary and got painting.
All credit to changing light on large bodies of water but mediaeval streets are much more my thing and it’s only a short skip down the cobbled streets into the heart of what is surely one of the most gob-smackingly beautiful towns in France, if not the world. Unlike certain Norman towns, Honfleur has remained intact since the Middle Ages. There’s an abundance of disarming beauty around every corner. It bubbles with life, bars, cafés, romantic vistas and an inner harbour where I’d gladly see out my final hours, sitting back on a rattan chair sipping my last glass of Norman cider.In contrast, Le Havre’s award-winning concrete certainly does have something but it’s still concrete and doesn’t particularly charm me. It does have an undeniable dynamic energy about it, however; it’s a place of constant movement and re-invention and it was here that Claude Monet kicked off the Impressionist movement when he stood on the quay at 07:35, the 13th of November 1872 and painted “Impression Soleil Levant” (Impression Sunrise).
Inside the airy Musée d’Art Moderne André Malraux (or the MuMa for short), assistant curator and art expert Géraldine Lefebvre explains how she and an American physicist used a mixture of science, detective work and art expertise to pinpoint the precise moment when Impression Sunrise was done en plein air. She also shows me around the collection – a stunning gathering of Impressionist works that is second only to the Musée d’Orsay Gallery in Paris.
Arguably, the MuMa is the number one in terms of telling the story of the birth of Impressionism. While Monet is generally acknowledged as the founder of the movement, he was merely the apprentice to one Eugène Boudin – the real father of Impressionism. The MuMa holds a huge collection of his brilliant and endearing paintings.
It was in Boudin’s wake that the first Impressionists followed, most of them coming to Le Havre and Honfleur to learn, explore and express themselves using this new form of painting.
In the local capital Rouen, its Musée des Beaux Arts has an outstanding subset of Impressionist paintings amidst an exciting collection that would put many national capital galleries in the shade. The city itself gets scant attention from guide books but it’s entirely unjustified. After driving in over nondescript bridges and wide quays flanking the River Seine, you arrive in a very lively and largely untouched mediaeval centre. It’s also packed with spectacular cathedrals, including the main Rouen Cathedral – famously painted by Claude Monet at various times of the day and in changing weather conditions. When you come upon it at the eastern end of the pedestrianised Rue du Gros Horloge, it cuts an enchanting presence at any time of day.
Although Monet continued to travel and paint extensively in France and abroad, Normandy – the cradle of Impressionism – was where he kept coming back to.
He became a wealthy man whilst still living and owned a house and huge garden at Giverny – further upstream on the Seine. Here, you can walk through his former home and see the famous water lily pond that he painted repeatedly. It’s a living museum now, of course, and not a private home, but as a final destination on an Impressionist tour, it’s as intimate as one can get with the past. You might even say that it leaves a lasting impression.
Get Yourself There:
We travelled by Stena Line (www.stenaline.ie) – the only ferry company with a year-round direct Ireland/France service between Rosslare and Cherbourg. From Cherbourg, Honfleur and Le Havre are around a 2-hour drive, Étretat is 30 minutes further, Rouen just over an hour, while Le Havre to Giverny is 1½ hours. See www.normandie-tourisme.fr – the official tourism website for Normandy.
Honfleur; The Ferme Saint-Siméon (www.fermesaintsimeon.fr) was a simple farm accommodation centre in the Impressionists’ day. Today it’s a 5-star retreat with an exemplary level of unobtrusive hospitality in a beguiling setting a short walk from those mediaeval streets of Honfleur. Veteran concierge Xavier is an entertaining source of Impressionist knowledge.
Rouen; The Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde (www.marriott.com) opened in 2010 to become the only high-end hotel in Rouen. Right in the heart of the city, it has a listed mediaeval castle-like exterior and a funky, modern high-concept interior that must be seen at least, complete with great leisure centre and bar.
Étretat; The Détective Hôtel (www.detectivehotel.com) may have only 2 stars but is worth 6 for charm and quirk. Former forensic policeman Noël Chambellan and his wife Caroline have turned an ordinary hostelry into something extraordinary, with its detective-themed rooms, fascinating paraphernalia and hidden surprises. Double rooms start at €59 per night.
Honfleur; For reasonable regular fare at a nice location, try La Lieutenance (www.restaurant-honfleur.com) by the wooden cathedral or Au P’tit Mareyeur (www.auptitmareyeur.fr) with its spectacularly photogenic meals. There’s also the 2-star Michelin Le SaQuaNa (www.alexandre-bourdas.com), where you’ll eat what you’re given but it’s usually fantastic.
Étretat; In a town with plenty of fast-food attitude, La Flotille (www.restaurantlaflotille.com) is one of the outstanding restaurants, offering a simple quality menu with a fast friendly service.
Rouen; For great value lunch in your hand while you stroll about a city centre made for strolling, try Bastien (+33 2 32 10 00 79) on Place de la Pucelle. This will allow you to push the bateau out for the evening meal in L’Odas (www.lodas.fr) – Rouen’s latest Michelin-star restaurant: another place where you take what you’re given, a delicious exploratory experience enhanced by the fascinating theatre of watching your food being prepared through the glass-walled kitchen.
Not to be Missed:
Two of Rouen’s new and brilliant attractions. The Historial de Jeanne d’Arc (www.historial-jeannedarc.fr) tells the story of Joan of Arc in the building where she was condemned, using high-tech techniques to bring witness accounts to life. The Panorama XXL (www.panoramaxxl.com) meanwhile, has the ability to really knock ones socks right off. I could spend the entire day looking at its 30-metre high panoramic image.
Stray Off Track:
In the middle of Rouen, find the Aitre St Maclou near the Cathédrale St Maclou. It’s an enclosed courtyard and site of a former ossuary, where you can see the remains of a mummified cat and which has stone engravings all the way around depicting death.