France: First impressions of fabulous Normandy
Have paintbrush, will travel
Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30
Conor Power travels to the birthplace of Impressionism - not in Paris, but a surprisingly beautiful Normandy.
Standing on the smooth, soft lawn of the Ferme Saint-Siméon just outside Honfleur, I'm trying my best to look at the River Seine through an Impressionist's eyes.
On the other side of the vast estuary stands the port city of Le Havre - a parade of tall chimneys and blinking lights that seems to go on forever. Back in the heyday of Impressionism, this was a city of medieval beauty. Now, it's a World Heritage Site thanks to its very beautiful modern concrete architecture.
What would Monet, Pissaro and Van Gogh have made of that?
Of course, capturing the beauty of the ordinary in colour and light is what Impressionism, an artistic revolution that peaked in the late 19th century, was all about. These three, among others, were the painters that brought Impressionism to the world stage. It was only recently, however, that I discovered it all began, not in Paris or the South of France, but in Normandy.
The Ferme Saint-Siméon is today a top-end luxury hotel, but back in the late 19th century all of the great painters came here, smelled the country air, observed the ever-changing light on the Seine Estuary and got their easels out.
Painting in Monet's garden
Changing light on large bodies of water can be exquisite, but with all credit to the Impressionists, medieval streets are much more my thing.
Lucky then, that from here, it's only a short skip down cobbled streets into the heart of what is one of the most gob-smackingly beautiful towns in France, if not the world. Unlike certain Norman towns, Honfleur has remained intact since the Middle Ages. It bubbles with life - with bars, cafés, romantic vistas and an inner harbour where I'd gladly see out my final hours, sitting back on a rattan chair sipping one last glass of Norman cider.
In contrast, Le Havre's award-winning concrete definitely has a certain something, but it's still concrete. The town itself has an undeniable dynamic energy about it, however. It's a place of constant movement and re-invention. In fact, it was here that Claude Monet kicked off the Impressionist movement when he stood on the quay at 7:35am on November 13, 1872 and painted 'Impression Soleil Levant' (Impression Sunrise).
How do we know it was created at this precise minute? Inside the airy Musée d'Art Moderne André Malraux (MuMa for short; muma-lehavre.fr), art expert Catherine Bertrand tells visitors how she and an American physicist used a mixture of astronomical data, weather reports, tide tables and documentary evidence to pinpoint the moment Impression Sunrise was created en plein air.
She also shows me around the collection - a stunning gathering of Impressionist works second only to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Arguably, mind you, the MuMa trumps it in terms of telling the story of the birth of Impressionism. While Monet is generally acknowledged as the founder of the movement, he was merely the apprentice to one Eugène Boudin. The MuMa holds a huge collection of this unsung hero's brilliant and endearing paintings.
It was in Boudin's wake that the first Impressionists followed, most of them coming to Le Havre and Honfleur to learn, explore and express themselves using this groundbreaking new form of painting.
Boats on a beach in Normandy
Along a relatively quiet stretch of the Normandy coastline, just 25km north of Le Havre, the town of Étretat is a small, laid-back, fish n' chips kind of place. The big draw here is the fine sandy beach, framed on both sides by magnificent white limestone cliffs. Needless to say, the Impressionists loved coming here to capture the colour and light of the spectacular rock formations and sea arches. You can walk along the cliffs on both sides and marvel at views that, quite literally, have launched a million canvases.
In the local capital Rouen, the Musée des Beaux Arts (mbarouen.fr) has an outstanding subset of Impressionist paintings amidst an exciting collection that would put many national galleries in the shade.
The city itself gets scant attention from guide books, but to my mind that's entirely unjustified. Instead, after driving in over nondescript bridges and wide quays flanking the River Seine, you arrive in a very lively and largely untouched medieval centre. It's packed with spectacular cathedrals, including the main Rouen Cathedral - famously painted by Monet at various times of the day and in changing weather conditions. When you come upon it at the eastern end of the pedestrianised Rue du Gros Horloge, it cuts an enchanting presence... at any time of day.
Although Monet continued to travel and paint extensively in France and abroad, it was Normandy - the cradle of Impressionism - to which he continually returned. He became a wealthy man during his lifetime, owning a house and huge garden at Giverny, further upstream on the Seine. Here, you can walk through his former home (fondation-monet.com) and see the famous water lily pond that he painted repeatedly, in all its glory.
The place is a living museum now, of course, and not a private home, but as a final destination on any Impressionist tour, it's as intimate as one can get with this remarkable school of painting.
You might even say that it leaves a lasting impression.
What to pack
Your sketchbook and watercolour set. While Étretat's a breeze, however, don't expect to set up on the harbour side in Honfleur - the town council allows only a select few to paint. In Rouen, you can book painting classes of the Cathedral with the tourist office (rouentourisme.com) nearby.
Conor travelled by Stena Line (stenaline.ie), which offers a year-round direct Ireland/France service between Rosslare and Cherbourg. From Cherbourg, Honfleur and Le Havre are a two-hour drive (approx). Étretat is 30 minutes further, Rouen just over an hour, while Le Havre to Giverny is 1.5 hours. See normandie-tourisme.fr for more.
Where to stay
In Honfleur, the Ferme Saint-Siméon (fermesaintsimeon.fr) is a movie-star retreat just a short walk from the medieval streets. See also relaischateaux.com.
In Rouen, the Hotel de Bourgtheroulde (marriott.com) marries a medieval exterior with a funky, high-concept interior. in Étretat, the quirky Detective Hotel (detectivehotel.com) features themed rooms with hidden clues. It's very charming.