On the Normandy coast, a stunning 130km of white chalk cliffs known as the Cote d’Albatre (Alabaster Coast) is France’s mirror to the UK’s white cliffs of Dover. And arguably the most iconic images are the arches and pinnacle that bookend the beach at Etretat.
Stand on the town’s beachfront promenade and look left and you see the 80 metre high cliffs ending in the incredible Porte d’Aval (Downstream Gate), a huge limestone archway carved by centuries of waves crashing against the cliffs. And behind it, the Aiguille d’Etretat (Etretat Needle), a 51 metre high limestone pinnacle.
There’s an easy walking track to the top of Porte d’Aval which continues on south. Wander for a while and look back for an even better view. Aside from its natural beauty and dramatic position, the needle was further immortalised by French author Maurice Leblanc, who lived for many years in Etretat. He wrote a series of very popular novels involving a gentleman burglar, Arsene Lupin and one of the stories speculates that the needle is hollow and contains the lost treasures of the kings of France.
Continue on and you find a monumental arch called La Manneporte (The Great Door). It is the largest of the arches in the area, so large in fact that French author Guy de Maupassant described it in his novel Guillemot Rock as “an enormous vault through which a liner could pass”. It is the subject of several paintings by Claude Monet who came here often to paint.
Returning to town, at the other end of Etretat’s beach is another beautiful arch, the Porte d’Amont (Upstream Gate). In his novel Une Vie, de Maupassant likened it to an elephant dipping its trunk into the sea.
A climb to the top of the cliff leads to a small chapel, Notre Dame de la Garde.
And after a short walk further along the cliff top path there is a monument in the shape of a small aircraft celebrating two French men, Dieudonne Costes and Maurice Bellonte, the first men to fly across the North Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe. Charles Lindbergh had successfully crossed the Atlantic in 1927, three years earlier, but that was in the opposite direction. The French effort should be more greatly admired because theirs was ‘the more difficult route’. Of course.
Also nearby is the quirky Jardin Etretat (Etretat Garden). It’s a fantastic mix of sculpture and topiary.
Etretat itself was busy with tourists even in April. We understand it becomes almost unbearably busy in the height of summer. But it’s very pretty and full of creperies, cafes, bars and restaurants. It empties out a lot once the day trippers who come just to ogle the cliffs have gone.
From Etretat we did a day hike on a section of the GR21, a coastal walking path which runs for 190km from Le Harve to Treport. We did a 10km section from Etretat to Vaucottes Beach and return. The path starts on the cliff above Porte d’Amont with spectacular views north along the miles of cliffs.
The 70 metre high Aiguille de Belval is truly remarkable.
The amazing blue of the sea and white of the cliffs contrasted with a blaze of yellow from the fields behind.
Due to an area of cliff subsidence we had to make a small diversion inland and through the village of Benouville but soon swung back to the coast.
After about 10km we stopped for lunch on Vaucottes Beach.
We’d picked up a picnic pack from a store in town. And we must say, the French know how to do a pique nique – baguette, pate, cheese, madeleines and a bottle of Normandy cider. Delicious. Then it was just the small matter of the 10km walk back. With such glorious scenery, it wasn’t exactly hardship.
Veules Les Roses
From Etretat we also visited Veules les Roses, about 30 minutes drive north. This ridiculously pretty village has been designated one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the most beautiful villages in France). The village straddles the Veules, the shortest river in France to flow to the sea. It’s just 1,149 metres long, and the current and crystal clear water are perfect for production of watercress. Cress has been cultivated in the river since the 14th century, and in past times was especially prized for its piquant flavour and fine leaves. As the only winter salad vegetable in the region, it was also highly sought after as a preventative against scurvy.
Several of the watercress beds remain.
In past centuries gardeners tended the cressonieres wearing wooden clogs extended into boots with metal leggings attached. Ouch. They were not waterproof and with the river a chilly 10 degrees Celsius, it must have been challenging work. Now, of course, rubber makes it a lot more comfortable!
In the 19th century, the town became a fashionable holiday destination for well heeled Parisiennes. So much so that one of its streets was nicknamed the Champs Élysée. There are many beautiful houses.
Along the river there are several old water mills.
The church has some decidedly non-traditional motifs on its columns, including mermaids and mythical beasts.
We never could work out why this one legged man was flipping the bird to the fellow on the horse.
Saint Valery en Caux
On our way back to Etretat we dropped into Saint Valery en Caux to see Maison Henry IV. This unusual house was constructed in 1540 by a wealthy shipowner. Built around the time the Normans ‘discovered’ what is now Brazil, it is adorned with carvings of imagined scenes from the new world. Unfortunately it was closed when we dropped by so we didn’t see inside. The link to Henry IV is rather tenuous – he probably stayed here on his travels because it was the best place in town at the time!
Fortunately there’s more to the town than this one building. Established in the 13th century as a port for herring fishing, there is tidy little precinct of cobbled streets behind the Maison winding up to the Convent of the Penitents and some very tidy houses built by the shipowners overlooking the port.
And after leaving Etretat we swung through Honfleur, another historic port town on the Normandy coast. Before the French Revolution, Honfleur’s shipowners grew immensely wealthy from trading, mainly with North America. Samuel de Champlain left from here to found Quebec. Money poured into Honfleur from trade in Newfoundland cod fishing and the triangular slave trade to the Americas. Shipping magnates built elegant half-timbered houses around the harbour which still dominate today.
Spreading up from the waterfront is a maze of cobblestone streets which are great for window shopping. Or actual shopping. Clothing, jewellery and watch boutiques, art galleries and high end homewares stores are all there, some surprisingly elegant. Along with a lot of shops flogging tourist tat of course. There’s lots of gourmet food stores and some fantastic high end chocolate shops selling both the luxurious and the fun.
Wander off down the side lanes and you may find quirky features like this one.
Yes, it’s a painting not a cat!
The Church of St Catherine is worth a visit. You wouldn’t expect to see a twin gabled church in this part of the world. It doesn’t even look like a church.
It was built by local shipwrights in the 15th century to replace a stone church destroyed in the Hundred Years War. They used wood because that’s what was available and followed their naval construction skills, so the church roof resembles two upturned boat hulls.
It is the largest church in France built entirely of wood. Intended only as a temporary structure until the town could afford a stone one, it has stood the test of time remarkably well. There’s definitely a nautical theme to the decoration as well.
We were sceptical about visiting Maison Satie but it looked a bit odd ball and worth an experiment. A bit like the man and his music. Eccentric composer Erik Satie was born here in 1866 and despite a few false starts achieved recognition – notoriety perhaps – later in life for his avante-gard compositions for piano and opera. The house invites visitors “to discover through an audio-guided scenographic tour the universe of the composer and pianist”. Sounds like pretentious nonsense but actually it was quite engaging. You walk through a series of rooms which have both static objects and audio-visual projections and/light displays, wearing headphones through which Satie’s music plays and voice overs dramatise pivotal events in his musical and personal history. Slightly weird and not all to our taste but very different!
Restaurants and cafes abound, lining the quai and throughout the old town. Yes, very touristy, but worth a visit.
We loved our time on the coast but were heading south to the land of William the Conqueror.