Seine-Maritime’s enigmatic coastline, bucolic pastures and rich architecture were an endless source of inspiration for the Impressionists. Peter Stewart explains why this Normandy department still holds all its allure
Cover story An endless source of inspiration for the Impressionists, this Normandy department still has so much to offer
If you utter the words ‘SeineMaritime’ to people, chances are the name won’t mean much to many of them. Despite the fact that the department’s busy ports of Le Havre and Dieppe welcome thousands of British visitors to France every year, many choose to travel through the department, heading south to popular favourites such as the Côte d’Azur and Dordogne. But if you choose to quickly dismiss this corner of Normandy then you are missing a trick. Encompassing the dramatic, chalk-white cliffs of the Côte d’Albâtre, enchanting seaside towns and villages, and the lively, centuries-old city of Rouen, SeineMaritime is an area that will teach all who discover her that you should never judge a book by its cover.
The departmental capital is the medieval city of Rouen, one of Normandy’s most engaging destinations. Straddling the River Seine, the city of Rouen has had a turbulent history; it was ravaged by fire and the plague numerous times during the Middle Ages and it saw the young Joan of Arc tried for heresy and burned at the stake by the English in the central square in 1431. What’s more, during the Second World War much of the southern part of the city was destroyed in Allied bombing raids. But a walk through the pedestrian centre reveals a city that has retained plenty of medieval charm; here centuries-old, half-timbered houses stand shoulder to shoulder with important cultural attractions and quaint shops and cafés.
Situated in the heart of Rouen’s old centre is the stunning Cathédrale de NotreDame. This impressive twin-tower Gothic structure, built between the late 12th and 16th centuries, dazzles visitors with its elaborate facade, one which inspired a number of paintings by Impressionist painter Claude Monet. In fact, it is the cathedral’s doorway which is the structure’s biggest claim to fame; between 1892 and 1893, Monet produced up to 30 beautiful paintings here, (all of which are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay), capturing the effects of different lighting at different times of the day.
Despite suffering significant damage during the Second World War, the stunning cathedral is still home to some original stained-glass windows, as well as its two soaring, 75 metre-tall towers. The one to the right is known as the ‘Tour du Beurre’ as its construction was financed by offerings from wealthy churchgoers who, in return, were allowed to feast on butter during Lent.
One of the city’s most iconic sites has to be the remarkable Gros Horloge, housed on the eponymous street which leads back to the cathedral. The fully functional, gilded clock dates back to 1889 and boasts lots of intricate detail that definitely warrants a stop. If you visit just as the clock strikes noon then you’ll find a deity who symbolises the day of the week and arrives on a triumphal chariot.
Another highlight of Rouen is the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, the brand-new museum dedicated to Joan of Arc. The 15th-century heroine’s dramatic life is vividly retold inside this new exhibition space, which is housed inside one part of the Archbishop’s Palace – where the heroine was likely to have been tried in 1431. This state-of-the-art centre offers an immersive, theatre-like experience, where visitors can watch and listen to everything from Joan’s visions and victories to her trial, as well as the many myths which circulated following her death.
For an escape to the country, head northwest of the city, to find the idyllic Parc Naturel Régional des Boucles du Seine. Spread over 81,000 hectares, this
bucolic corner of Seine-Maritime is where time appears to stand still, with a mix of pristine marshlands, verdant pastures and lush forest. The canvas-worthy landscape also abounds in historical heritage, since the Route des Abbayes Normandes passes through it. Among numerous historical sites located throughout the park is the Abbaye de Jumièges. Set in a meander in the Seine, the medieval ruins of what was a Benedictine monastery are both imposing and impressive and serve as a testament to a past way of life, where spirituality was an important part of life in this stretch of the majestic River Seine.
Seine-Maritime, as its name suggests, is a union of river-hugging rural landscapes and dramatic coast which juts out into the English Channel, reminding all who come here that Blighty is just over the horizon. It was the abundance of breathtaking natural landscapes and close proximity to the UK that lured expat couple Peter and Madeleine Mitchell. “We moved to this part of Normandy just over 10 years ago because of the mix of history and unspoilt nature on offer here. We are very happy that living here makes us close to family in the UK too,” Madeleine says. The couple live in the tranquil village of Mesnières-enBray just 20 minutes south-east of Dieppe and, until recently, have run a chambres d’hôtes which has hosted guests from across the world.
Dieppe is another of Seine-Maritime’s highlights, though in the last 20 years many visitors have merely passed through the port town en route to sunnier climes. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Dieppe was one of France’s most important ports, with numerous ships departing for destinations including West Africa and Brazil.
In the late 1800s, Dieppe was in fact a seaside resort popular with Parisians who flocked here to enjoy the excellent seafood, but the town gradually fell into decline and today it is not a conventional tourist destination. However it still has more than enough attractions to recommend it.
One highlight is the Château-Musée, which is housed in a clifftop castle built between the 14th and 18th centuries west of the harbour with spectacular views of the coastline. The museum explores the town’s rich maritime history through
the centuries and features local scenes painted by Pissarro and Renoir in the late 19th century.
Journey west of Dieppe along the meandering coastal roads such as the D7, D68 and D79 and you’ll be face-to-face with the dramatic Côte d’Albâtre, a 130km-long stretch of vertical, bone-white cliffs that bear a striking resemblance to the limestone cliffs of Dover. All along this coast, which has been so brilliantly sculpted by Mother Nature, lie chocolatebox towns and villages. The first of these is Pourville-sur-Mer, a village famous for its super fresh oysters and scenic panoramas, where it’s easy to see how the mix of forest green, earthy brown and chalky white ended up on a Claude Monet canvas.
Just 4km further west lies Varengevillesur-Mer. Jagged limestone peaks carpeted in a thin layer of green pastures take centre stage here, with a vast pebbly beach lapped by turquoise-tinged waters fading into the distance. This village’s exposure to the power of the sea becomes immediately apparent; it is the perfect place for anyone soothed by the bracing sea air that comes from a maritime stroll.
One village that combines the joys of the sea and the countryside for which Seine-Maritime is so renowned is Veulesles-Roses. Once a fishing and weaving village, this supremely picturesque place is home to storybook Norman thatched cottages and gardens sewn with colourful roses and hydrangeas, as well as France’s shortest river – the Veules - at 1.19km. A stroll along the seafront promenade will reveal elegantly arranged beach huts as well as a cave, which was said to be a favourite haunt of Victor Hugo, who sought comfort in the rhythm of the sea.
Nestled 40km further west along the Côte d’Albâtre is the lively fishing port of Fécamp. This charming small town is surrounded by the tallest cliffs in Normandy and its dramatic location attracted attention as early as the Dark Ages when a Benedictine Abbey was established here. But the town’s major claim to fame is Benedictine, a fiery, medicinal elixir created by a Venetian monk in 1510. The recipe was rediscovered in the 19th century by businessman Alexandre Le Grand who made it into a best-selling tipple, the history of which is vividly recounted at the town’s ornate Museum of the Benedictine Palace.
If there is one place along this coastline that really showcases Mother Nature’s work, it has to be Étretat. This small coastal town is wrapped in dramatic cliffs eroded into giant formations and offshore needles. These stunning rock faces are home to a series of naturally formed archways, which inspired Impressionist painters such as Boudin, Courbet and Monet. The mesmerising natural beauty on show here was definitely part of the appeal for Bev and George Whitley who have owned a small house on the outskirts of the town for 15 years. “We love how
Mother Nature really has worked her magic here. We’ve been here for a long time now but are still lost for words when we stand on the clifftops and stare at the view,” Bev says.
At the mouth of the Seine lies one last jewel in the department’s crown – the city of Le Havre. The city was founded by François I in 1517 and is where, in 1872, Claude Monet painted his impression of the sun rising through the city’s chimneys. The work was labelled Impression, Sunrise by an unimpressed art critic who dismissively dubbed Monet’s unique style as ‘Impressionism’, and inadvertently helped to found what is today one of the world’s best-loved art movements.
Destroyed by Allied bombings in the Second World War, the city rose like a phoenix from the ashes thanks to visionary Belgian architect Auguste Perret. He was a pioneer in the use of concrete and filled the old centre with striking uniform architecture, which gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.
This year Le Havre celebrates its 500th anniversary, with a six-month celebration of its artistic and maritime heritage lasting from 27 May to 5 November. The anniversary celebrations will see the thriving port city come alive like never before with everything from art exhibitions and parades to theatrical performances and boat races, making it a year to truly remember.
TURN OVER for an estate agent’s view of Seine-Maritime plus a selection of properties for sale
Below: The intricate gilded Gros Horloge (big clock) is a must-see in Rouen
Main: The iconic cliffs of Étretat were a source of inspiration for Claude Monet
Right: Rouen’s Cathédrale de Notre-Dame dominates the city’s skyline
These pages, clockwise from top right: Dieppe’s busy harbour; a pretty courtyard café in Rouen; the captivating light of the Côte d’Alabatre; Étretat’s village and beach
Above: Half-timbered properties such as this one in Veules-les-Roses can be seen throughout the Normandy region
Below: Some 30 sailing boats will finish a multi-stage race in Le Havre (31 Aug to 3 Sep) in celebration of the port’s 500th anniversary
This: Bassin du Commerce in Le Havre