From the emotion of the D-Day beaches to the sophistication of Deauville, here’s how to see the best of Normandy in a long weekend, via day trips from Honfleur.
It felt like I was back in Ireland. We were driving along the narrow country roads – at some points barely room for two cars – that connected Normandy’s villages and towns. Passing by walls of ripened maize and harvested wheat fields, dotted with tightly-wound straw bales, curious cows looked on. In adjacent orchards, apple trees groaned with fruit ready to be transformed into delicious local cider or calvados.
Normandy is often ignored by northern Europeans in their haste to reach the delights of Provence, the Languedoc or the Cote D’Azur. This is a shame because this region of France has much to offer visitors, from its spectacular coastline to its charming towns and villages.
Are you curious to know more and want to put together a great itinerary? Well, read on. Here’s how we explored Normandy over three days, using Honfleur as a base.
Day One: Le Havre to Honfleur via Etretat
An overnight crossing from Portsmouth to Le Havre, then a 30-minute drive to Etretat.
Etretat: Falaise D’Aval
The steep, chalk cliffs carved into arches by erosion are belles of Etretat’s ball. Painted by Impressionists such as Monet, Boudin and Matisse, they are an extraordinary sight.
If you are feeling energetic you can scale Falaise D’Aval – to your left when facing the sea – to visit the arches. Just take the path from the end of the boardwalk running the length of Etretat’s pebble beach. The advantage of climbing to the top of the arches is that you are able to see the third arch, hidden from view from Etretat’s beach.
It is also possible to walk through the arches at low tide but check the tidal timetable first. You don’t want to get stranded.
Etretat: Falaise D’Amont
At the other end of the beach, steep steps lead up to the top of Falaise D’Amont. Alternatively, if you don’t fancy the climb, a road train will whisk you up there for €6.50.
There are panoramic views of the beach and the arches from the summit’s plateau. The grey stone Chapelle Notre Dame de la Garde keeps watch over the rocks below. In the centre of the large car park, there is the arrow-like monument dedicated to Nungesser and Coli, two French pilots who attempted the first non-stop flight from Paris to New York in 1927.
Etretat Gardens (Les Jardins D’Etretat)
The Etretat Gardens on Falaise D’Amont are astounding. Inspired by the gardens of Claude Monet, they comprise seven separate gardens which combine landscape design, contemporary art and sound to offer an immersive experience. Try to resist hugging a tree. Well worth the €8.50 admission price.
An hour west of Etretat is Honfleur, our base for the next few nights.
With one of the prettiest harbours in all of France, I had high expectations of Honfleur. It did not disappoint.
Whilst the fishing boats have now been largely replaced with yachts, the 17th Century Vieux Bassin (old dock) is like a painting. Narrow, tall, timber-framed buildings with slate roofs encircle the harbour. Leading away from Vieux Bassin, a warren of narrow, cobbled streets lined with half-timbered buildings wind their way into the commercial centre of Honfleur.
Honfleur’s most famous landmark is the wooden Église Sainte Catherine, which is France’s largest wooden church. Built by local shipbuilder and intended to be a temporary structure to replace the previous church destroyed in the Hundred Years’ War, it has a ceiling resembling two upside-down ships’ hulls.
Day Two: Deauville, Villerville & Normandy Bridge
From Honfleur, it is a 30-minute drive to reach Deauville.
A fashionable seaside resort since the 19th Century, Deauville is known for its horse races, its Grand Casino and the annual American Film Festival which takes place in September. But if you ask someone what comes to mind when they think of Deauville, it is likely to be its two kilometres of fine, wide sandy beach, its multi-coloured parasols and its famous boardwalk. This wooden plank promenade – Les Planches – stretches for almost half a mile and is lined with beach huts bearing the names of luminaries in the film industry.
A 15-minute drive back towards Honfleur takes you to Villerville
Built on the cliff that winds its way to Deauville, Villerville was a real travel find. An all too rare seaside resort that retains its rural character, Villerville’s narrow streets are lined with characterful shops and a few restaurants. Black and white signs scattered through the village depict scenes from the film A Monkey in Winter, much of which as shot in the village in 1962 with Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
From Villerville it is approx 6 miles to Honfleur.
Boat trip on the Seine Estuary
Boats leave at regular intervals from Honfleur’s quayside for the 90-minute round trip to the mouth of the estuary at Le Havre. It costs €11 for the trip.
The highlight of the trip is the passage under the Normandy Bridge (Pont de Normandie). Completed in 1995, it is a masterpiece of engineering and art. Spanning a distance of over 2km across the Seine, it is the second largest cable stay bridge in the world and links all of the French harbours from the North Sea to Spain.
Day Three: Honfleur to Caen via the D-Day Beaches
Approximately 90 minutes west of Honfleur are the D-Day beaches.
On a sun-drenched August afternoon, it is difficult to reconcile these golden beaches with the horror of the events of June 6th, 1944. The D-Day landings were pivotal in the liberation of Nazi-occupied north-western Europe in WW2. The 60-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was split into five assault beaches: Utah & Omaha (USA), Gold, Juno and Sword (UK & Canada). Preceded by an airborne invasion of more than 18,000 paratroopers into northern France, over 132,000 ground troops landed on these beaches. Although the Allies did not immediately achieve their aim of capturing major Normandy cities such as Caen and Bayeux, this assault paved the way for liberating north-western Europe.
We had lunch in Arromanches (Gold Beach) before spending the remainder of the day at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Covering 172 acres, it contains the remains of over 9,000 American military dead and is the largest war cemetery in Normandy. Set in a landscaped park, fringed by Corsican pine trees, the graves are marked by gleaming white marble Latin crosses with a sprinkling of Stars of David. Here and there, people have placed a flower to remember the fallen or, in the case of the Jewish dead, a simple stone. A visit here is a deeply moving experience.
For a fuller guide to visiting Omaha Beach, check out my blog post here.
Leaving the Normandy American Cemetery at 6 pm we took a leisurely drive to the port. There was time for one last fine French dinner before boarding the overnight ferry back to Portsmouth.
The practical stuff
- We travelled on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Le Havre / Caen. Prices vary according to season and cabin type
- We stayed at Mansion Victorine, which is right in the thick of things, overlooking Église Sainte Catherine. A two night stay in a two-bedroom apartment cost £270, booked through Booking.com. Highly recommended
- Like most accommodation in Honfleur, Mansion Victorine does not have its own car park. However, a free car park is ten minutes’ walk away at the Naturospace Butterfly House on Boulevard Charles V.
- If you don’t have your own set of wheels, there is an infrequent bus connecting Le Havre with Honfleur. Hourly trains operate between Paris to Le Havre. However, it is difficult to get around without a car in this part of France.
- Don’t miss the weekly Honfleur market is held on Saturdays from 9am to 12.30pm. As it is not a well-kept secret I recommend getting there soon after it opens.
- Other great places to visit in Normandy include Mont St Michel and Bayeux (I have explored them on previous trips to Normandy).