SEINE-MAR­ITIME

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

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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.

HIS­TORIC ROUEN

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.

RIVER DE­LIGHTS

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.

MAR­ITIME HER­ITAGE

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.

COASTAL ICON

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

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