The harbor town of Honfleur remains a pleasant surprise of Normandy. Situated approximately 2 hours north-west of Paris, it has a laidback and lazy weekend feel to it as numerous yachts laps against the lazy Seine current. Yet, a few centuries ago, this place was a fortress that was mainly tasked to keep out the English from straying too far up the estuary. It was contested in the Hundred Years War until France regained permanent control of it in 1450 and from the 16th century onwards, explorers kick started their journey to the new world from this port. The founder of Quebec, Samuel Chaplain sailed from here.
As a trading port with fishing as the town’s main profession, Honfleur became a place where art proliferated as well. The most famous among them would be Eugene Boudin of the impressionist movement who came to paint. Many others followed suit including Monet, Courbet and Millet and for many years, the best landscape paintings were created here, thus giving the name ‘Honfleur school’ to those artists. Today, remnants of the art mecca can be seen in the maze-like streets. It is a wondrous experience to roam this town as you zig-zag from one junction to another; art gallery after art gallery stands aloof beside home-made shops – this is a cultural rosette of its own. Countless artworks entice from their window display and one couldn’t help but become increasingly entranced by this seemingly humble port. The unaware tourist would be caught amidst quirky quotes and posters while sophisticated ceramic-made abstract art work lies in wait next door. This is the perfect mecca for home-trendsetters as well. The shops display home decorations that will impress even the most frugal housewife and with numerous color schemes to choose from, one can definitely pick out an item or two to gentrify a home.
The cafes and restaurants that line the port have menus that emphasize heavily on fish and seafood with reasonable pricings. Many people amble down the streets leisurely, enjoying the atmosphere which seems to reek of pure ebullience. Walking to Saint-Catherine’s Church which was built without using any saws at all (true Viking style, that!) I witness a wedding ceremony as well. Joining in the procession, I watch the father of the bride walk his daughter down; the ambience of the church seems electric with happiness and joy. I wonder how many weddings have this 15th century church seen and could only marvel at the wisdom stored stoically in the wooden nave.
Honfleur, which is famous for its narrow tall houses with slate-roofs has an identity that is first and foremost French, and secondly European. Much of its aristocratic air remains and with a purity that has blended harmoniously with modernity, this port reminds me of everything and anything that is classy, untouched by time and regal.