Vive Le Havre

The French port city’s his­tory be­gan in the Re­nais­sance — and nearly ended in World War II

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MARY WIN­STON NICKLIN | Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

When Ju­lia Child ar­rived in Le Havre in 1948, dis­em­bark­ing the ocean­liner Amer­ica for a new life in France, she de­scribed the port: “giant cranes, piles of brick, bombed-out empty spa­ces, and rust­ing half-sunk hulks left over from the war.”

Nearly 70 years later, my young daugh­ters are riv­eted to a trot­tinette (scoooter) com­pe­ti­tion at the beach­front skate park, sway­ing to the mu­sic that has drawn young and old alike to bask in the spring sun­shine on the prom­e­nade. Dogs are pulling at their leashes; hand-hold­ing cou­ples gaze at the ma­rina yachts; a re­tiree plays with his new drone on the beach.

On the oc­ca­sion of the city’s 500th an­niver­sary, we’re on a spring week­end get­away from our Paris home. Be­hind us, St. Joseph’s Church lords over the bustling port, the busiest in France for ship­ping-con­tainer traf­fic. It’s hard to be­lieve that this soar­ing land­mark rose from the city’s near-com­plete dev­as­ta­tion dur­ing World War II. As a re­sult of the Al­lies’ bom­bard­ment of Le Havre in Septem­ber 1944, 80 per­cent of the city was an­ni­hi­lated.

The church is cred­ited to ar­chi­tect Au­guste Per­ret, who re­built the city from noth­ing. His achieve­ment was rec­og­nized

in 2005, when Le Havre’s city cen­ter be­came the 20th cen­tury’s first ur­ban com­plex to be clas­si­fied as a UNESCO World Her­itage site.

This year’s 500th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion — a jam-packed cal­en­dar of events for “Un Été au Havre” (“A Sum­mer in Le Havre”) — builds on that recog­ni­tion. With a 20-mil­lion-euro (about $23 mil­lion) pro­gram fea­tur­ing top artis­tic tal­ent, Le Havre is pulling out all the stops.

“We want to show off the city’s iden­tity; to bring peo­ple here, cast aside their prej­u­dices, and in­vite them to dis­cover the real Le Havre,” said Édouard Philippe, then Le Havre’s mayor and now the French prime min­is­ter, at a Fe­bru­ary news con­fer­ence in Paris. “Once vis­i­tors ar­rive, it’s easy to se­duce them.”

Build­ing blocks

How to quickly re­build a city and house the war vic­tims who had lost ev­ery­thing? Post­war ar­chi­tect Per­ret, whose Paris stu­dio was en­trusted with the project, turned to a new ma­te­rial: re­in­forced con­crete. It wasn’t just a cheap so­lu­tion. Per­ret had grown up with a stone­ma­son fa­ther who later had a con­crete pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in Mont­martre. Per­ret saw the beauty and po­ten­tial of this prag­matic, “man-made stone” as he called it.

Dis­em­bark­ing the Paris train, I couldn’t help but won­der: Can con­crete be beau­ti­ful?

But on a city walk­ing tour with guide Françoise Pri­gent, I’m a quick con­vert. Per­ret’s ur­ban­plan­ning prin­ci­ples cre­ated an open, breath­able city of wide boule­vards and 150 har­mo­nious res­i­den­tial blocks of uni­form height. You can see the ships in port all the way at the end of the Rue de Paris, a play in per­spec­tive that makes it feel al­most as if you can reach out and touch them. You never for­get that this is a “ville de voy­age,” with its city cen­ter di­rectly po­si­tioned on the sea.

My 4-year-old daugh­ter no­tices the pol­ished peb­bles em­bed­ded in the fa­cade of St. Joseph’s Church, placed there by Per­ret’s builders af­ter they were fished from the Seine. Ce­cilia loves col­lect­ing stones and emp­ty­ing her pock­ets of trea­sures into se­cret hid­ing places in her room. At the en­trance to the church, she reaches out to touch the beige flint, even try­ing to pull out the stones. Nearby, Col­lege Raoul Dufy, a school, has a rose hue be­cause of a dif­fer­ent con­crete mix. And the city hall’s ce­ment was mixed with white mar­ble pow­der.

These col­ors are ra­di­ant in the pearly light of Nor­mandy so ap­pre­ci­ated by the Im­pres­sion­ist painters. “My con­crete is more beau­ti­ful than stone,” Per­ret said, “I work it, I chisel it.”

Step­ping in­side St. Joseph’s Church, I’m as­tounded by the echo­ing enor­mity of this mod­ern mas­ter­piece, with its struc­tural skele­ton proudly vis­i­ble — as Per­ret in­sisted it be. Built from a whop­ping 50,000 tons of con­crete and 700 tons of steel, the square church rests on a foun­da­tion of 71 pil­ings go­ing 15 me­ters down into the earth. Con­crete pil­lars as­cend to the heav­ens; a kalei­do­scope of rain­bow light, from the 12,768 panes of glass cre­ated by artist Mar­guerite Huré, re­flects on the aus­tere walls.

Ce­cilia, 4, and her sis­ter Jane, 6, im­me­di­ately no­tice how the con­gre­ga­tion is sit­ting in vin­tage cinema seats res­cued from a par­tially de­stroyed movie the­ater. Like a lighthouse vis­i­ble at sea, the tall church is ded­i­cated to the 5,000 ci­ti­zens who lost their lives dur­ing the war. Per­ret told his stu­dents, “Make the con­crete sing!” Nowhere is it more au­di­ble than in­side St. Joseph’s.

On the walls near the church en­trance, black-and-white photos de­pict Le Havre af­ter the bom­bard­ment. There’s one of white-haired Per­ret, the vi­sion­ary ar­chi­tect clad in his sig­na­ture three-piece suit and bow tie, stand­ing in the rub­ble. He died in 1954 at 80, four years be­fore the church was com­pleted.

A few blocks away is the em­blem­atic Av­enue Foch, a street the chil­dren grow to love be­cause of the sleek tramway that glides down a grassy me­dian. For them, it’s end­less en­ter­tain­ment, just like the old-fash­ioned fu­nic­u­lar that con­nects the lower and up­per por­tions of Le Havre.

De­signed to be the city’s equiv­a­lent of the Champs-El­y­sees, this el­e­gant av­enue is lined with apart­ment build­ings whose forms are rooted in clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture. Col­umns are a ref­er­ence to the an­cient tem­ples of an­tiq­uity; the first-floor bal­conies al­lude to the noble floor — the level with the high­est ceil­ings and most el­e­gant spa­ces — in me­dieval dwellings, be­low which an arcade of stores draws shop­pers. Carved into the fa­cades at ground level are in­di­vid­ual bas­re­liefs de­pict­ing the “il­lus­tri­ous chil­dren of Le Havre” — in­clud­ing writ­ers, mar­itime work­ers, painters and even the an­ces­tral Vik­ings.

As day melts into evening, Per­ret’s apart­ment blocks il­lu­mi­nate the fiery sun­set, while at night, the apart­ment win­dows give off a warm, yel­low glow and we fall un­der the city’s spell. We tuck into se­same-en­crusted tuna tataki at Les En­fants Sages — Jane and Ce­cilia love that the restau­rant’s name trans­lates “the well-be­haved kids,” which they man­age to be thanks to an ex­tra serv­ing of frites. After­ward, we skip through Per­ret’s night­time streets to our lovely room at the nau­ti­cally themed Ho­tel Vent d’Ouest.

Liv­able ar­chi­tec­ture

It’s fun to peek in­side a model apart­ment from the 1950s, which the mayor’s of­fice main­tains in a clas­sic Per­ret build­ing to de­pict what life was like for the post­war ten­ants. Decked out with mid­cen­tury mod­ern fur­ni­ture and filled with nat­u­ral light, the apart­ment ex­udes com­fort and con­ve­nience. My first thought: I could live here! Nov­el­ties at the time in­cluded cen­tral heat­ing, built-in clos­ets and an open kitchen filled with mod­ern elec­tri­cal gad­gets — fridge, toaster and wash­ing ma­chine. These Amer­i­can im­ports were ex­cit­ing in­no­va­tions at the time. I make a men­tal note of an­other Per­ret prin­ci­ple, that ev­ery win­dow should pro­vide a glimpse of both sky and ver­dure.

To­day, tourists can ac­tu­ally sleep in­side a Per­ret build­ing at the af­ford­able Ho­tel Oscar, a 1950s-themed ho­tel that has a ter­rific lo­ca­tion fac­ing an­other city land­mark, Le Vol­can. This white, con­i­cal “vol­cano” was de­signed by fa­mous Brazil­ian ar­chi­tect Oscar Niemeyer and com­pleted in 1982. In­side is a na­tional the­ater, while next door, the “Petit Vol­can” houses the Oscar Niemeyer Li­brary. In con­trast with Per­ret’s lin­ear lines, Niemeyer’s struc­tures are all curves. It’s not a “shh-shh” at­mos­phere; with a cafe and work­shops, the light-filled space feels like a cool com­mu­nity cen­ter. I spin around in the drool-wor­thy designer chairs while Jane and Ce­cilia flip through comic books and Pierre, my hus­band, snaps photos of the spec­tac­u­lar spi­ral stair­case.

When we wake up to rain on Sun­day, we ex­plore yet an­other ar­chi­tec­tural achieve­ment: Les Bains des Docks, a white-on­white pool com­plex de­signed by ar­chi­tect Jean Nou­vel. In­spired by an­cient Ro­man baths, the build­ing is cov­ered in 32 mil­lion tiny mo­saic tiles. The in­door-out­door space com­prises 10 dif­fer­ent pools, adults-only ham­mams, Jacuzzis, so­lar­i­ums and more. We jump in and join les Havrais in their di­manche rev­el­ing. We take turns fly­ing down the wa­ter­slide, al­ter­nat­ing soaks in the fam­ily Jacuzzi with a dar­ing dip be­neath the out­side water­fall.

Watch­ing how hap­pily they em­brace their city’s build­ings, how in­fused with life they are, I think back to how Per­ret de­scribed his ur­ban plan in 1945: “The city will ex­ude an im­pres­sion of rhythm and unity, which will not be a shape­less clus­ter of dis­parate dwellings, but an or­ganic and living ur­ban com­plex.”

Cof­fee and cot­ton

Le Havre’s his­tory goes back to François I, the Re­nais­sance king. On Feb. 7, 1517, this larger-thanlife monarch (lit­er­ally gi­gan­tic at nearly 6-foot-7) or­dered the foun­da­tion of “un havre,” a de­fen­sive port, where French ships could set sail to ex­plore and con­quer the New World. Ves­tiges of the an­cient city that re­main make you em­pathize with the trau­ma­tized, post­war pop­u­la­tion that was so wist­ful for the beau­ti­ful her­itage lost.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the Mai­son de L’Ar­ma­teur, the shipowner’s man­sion, with a fa­cade sculpted in Louis XVI style, the only sur­viv­ing build­ing from the 18th cen­tury. Now a mu­seum, its rooms are de­signed around an oc­tag­o­nal light shaft capped with a sky­light. A replica of this house has been built on Long Is­land, cu­ra­tor Élis­a­beth Leprêtre tells me, pos­si­bly in­spired by a Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val screen­ing of a movie (Dana Levy’s “Dead World Or­der”) filmed at the Mai­son. Boast­ing an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of ar­ti­facts, the house is set up to show how the bour­geoisie lived at the time — many of these mer­chants had grown rich on the no­to­ri­ous “tri­an­gu­lar trade” be­tween Africa, the Amer­i­cas and Europe.

In front of the Mai­son de L’Ar­ma­teur once was a quay where tons of mer­chan­dise were un­loaded — cof­fee and cot­ton, chief among them. To­day, Le Havre re­mains one of the world’s top cof­fee ports, and you can catch a whiff of roast­ing beans from ar­ti­sanal cof­fee roas­t­er­ies in­clud­ing the ex­cel­lent Cafe Du­chos­soy.

“It was here in Le Havre that the Mar­quis de Lafayette was pre­sented with a medal of honor by Ben­jamin Franklin’s grand­son in 1779,” Leprêtre ex­plains. “This port was cru­cial for the Amer­i­can Revolution; Beau­mar­chais trans­ported arms to the Amer­i­can war ef­fort.” Later, Le Havre was the dis­em­barka­tion point for 3 mil­lion im­mi­grants, many of whom were kept in quar­an­tine on docked boats be­fore their de­par­ture to the United States.

Transat­lantic lin­ers con­nected New York and Le Havre un­til the 1970s; this was the Euro­pean port of en­try for many Amer­i­cans. In fact, for the city’s 500th an­niver­sary, Cu­nard has or­ga­nized a spe­cial (now sold-out) transat­lantic cross­ing on the Queen Mary 2 in Septem­ber. As an im­por­tant cruise port, Le Havre will see a record num­ber of ship calls (142 planned) in 2017. In ad­di­tion to the Mai­son de L’Ar­ma­teur, on­shore vis­i­tors can see, just a short walk away, an­other lovely mu­seum over­seen by Leprêtre — the Ho­tel Dubocage de Bleville. In­side the 17th-cen­tury man­sion of a wealthy cor­sair cap­tain (who legally pi­rated for the king), you’ll find a cabi­net of cu­riosi­ties show­cas­ing Le Havre’s mar­itime his­tory and the nav­i­ga­tor’s fas­ci­nat­ing voy­ages. Be­tween mu­se­ums, we stum­ble upon the Salon des Nav­i­ga­teurs, a won­der­fully kitschy men’s hair salon run by quite-the-char­ac­ter Daniel Le­compte. The 80-plusyear-old coif­feur, decked out in ma­rine at­tire com­plete with sailor stripes and the “Bachi” bon­net worn by the French marines, ush­ers us in­side and says, “I’ve been here for 57 years.” His client doesn’t mind at all as Le­compte gre­gar­i­ously shows off his wait­ing room that dou­bles as a mini mu­seum of mar­itime ar­ti­facts and an­tique salon sup­plies.

We’re also warmly wel­comed for lunch at Les Grands Bassins, the city’s old­est restau­rant and a neigh­bor­hood in­sti­tu­tion in the newly re­vived old port area. Ship­ping con­tain­ers have been trans­formed into stu­dent hous­ing, and old in­dus­trial ware­houses have mor­phed into a sleek shop­ping mall called the Docks Vauban. But there’s still a deep link to the past, res­o­nant in richly au­then­tic places like Les Grands Bassins, whose owner, Claude Guyon-Bus­nel, is also the pas­sion­ate pres­i­dent of the neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion. “I’m not Havraise by birth but I’ve be­come Havraise in my heart,” she ex­plains.

The dock­ers — as port work­ers were called — used to hang out here, crowded at the bar counter be­tween shifts.

“They downed 10 liters of Cal­va­dos, be­fore mid­day, served in these tiny glasses,” she says and ges­tures to a dainty, shot-sized verre. “Can you imag­ine the size of the crowd to con­sume that much?”

Birth­place of Im­pres­sion­ism

Le Havre was where Claude Monet painted the can­vas that launched the Im­pres­sion­ism art move­ment. “Im­pres­sion, Sun­rise” (1872) de­picts the in­dus­trial port with a vivid, orange sun re­flected in the water. Forms dis­ap­pear in lu­mi­nous vi­bra­tions of color against the gray back­drop. It was a shock­ing paint­ing at the time: The brush­strokes were too vis­i­ble, the painter’s hand too ev­i­dent.

On the train ride back to Paris, drift­ing into a reverie as we speed by the Seine, I find my­self think­ing about the im­por­tance of train travel for the Im­pres­sion­ist painters. The Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris of­fered a por­tal to the Nor­mandy coun­try­side where they ex­per­i­mented with plein-air paint­ing.

Glimpsed from a mov­ing train, the coun­try­side is a sen­sory patch­work of im­ages, and the artists’ paint­ings re­flected this out-of-fo­cus ef­fect. Im­pres­sion­ists did not shy away from mod­ern sub­ject mat­ter such as rail trans­port and ur­ban in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, as seen in Monet’s paint­ing of Le Havre’s smoke­stacks.

In a fit­ting trib­ute for the city’s half-mil­len­nium cel­e­bra­tions, this iconic paint­ing will re­turn to Le Havre for an ex­hi­bi­tion at the MuMa — An­dre Mal­raux Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art — in Septem­ber.

Con­structed from glass to look like a ship fac­ing the sea, this mu­seum has the sec­ond-largest col­lec­tion of Im­pres­sion­ist art af­ter the Musee d’Or­say in Paris. The ex­hi­bi­tion will an­chor the five-month “A Sum­mer in Le Havre” event.

The leg­endary Jean Blaise was re­cruited as artis­tic direc­tor. In France, Blaise is cel­e­brated for his role in the re­nais­sance of Nantes — a for­merly in­dus­trial city on the Loire — via the arts.

The idea, he ex­plained at a Paris news con­fer­ence, is “not to ex­hibit artists’ work in the city. In­stead, we want to show off Le Havre as artists in­ter­pret it.” Mon­u­men­tal art in­stal­la­tions now on view in­clude a giant arch made out of ship­ping con­tain­ers by Vin­cent Ganivet and Chi­haru Shiota’s “tor­nado” of red yarn in­side the nave of St. Joseph’s Church. In ad­di­tion, artist Karl Martens has painted the city’s iconic beach ca­banas, tra­di­tion­ally a bright white, in a rain­bow of col­ors.

Weeks af­ter our week­end trip, we’re stand­ing on the banks of the Seine in Paris, watch­ing the river cur­rents flow to­ward their sea out­let at Le Havre. Ce­cilia pulls pol­ished flint stones from her pocket, and Jane car­ries a pearly, flat­tened oys­ter shell. “From Le Havre,” they tell me, with a smile.


St. Joseph’s Church, de­signed by Au­guste Per­ret, tow­ers over the French city he re­built. Le Havre is a bustling port to­day.



TOP: As seen from the Seine, the French port city of Le Havre sparkles in the early evening. MID­DLE: Even at City Hall, in a square adorned with foun­tains, water is not far away. ABOVE: The Ho­tel Vent d’Ouest is full of dec­o­ra­tions with nau­ti­cal themes.



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