Great impression

Hop across the Channel for Monet and more, in an art-themed escape to Normandy...


The land of Monet, of broad beaches, elegant resorts and picturesque fishing villages unchanged by time, Normandy’s ease of access and fine food make it all the more tempting for a trip to France this year.

And to celebrate those Impressionists who made the area so desirable after flocking here to paint the landscape, hundreds of their paintings will be on display as part of region-wide event, Impressionist Normandy 2020.

Running until November, the birthplace of the plein air movement — which saw artists ditching their studios for the great outdoors in search of natural light and atmosphere — is the perfect place to appreciate these works.

Once the Parisians (who consider this region their summer playground) have returned to the capital, social distancing will be even easier during the glorious golden weeks of autumn.

Even in July, we felt safe on the promenades of Trouville and Deauville, the broad boulevards of Le Havre and the cobbled mediaeval streets of Rouen, where the joie de vivre was a wonderful reminder of life pre-lockdown.

The logical starting point for art lovers to explore the region is Le Havre, where Monet grew up and later brought his painter friends. The town’s art museum, MuMa, houses the largest Impressionist collection outside Paris.

The port itself was bombed to smithereens in the Second World War but rebuilt by mid-century modernist Auguste Perret; the city centre has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, while fine villas line the trio of corniches dropping down to the sea in neighbouring Sainte-Adresse.

As cautious post-lockdown travellers looking for maximum safety and convenience, we decided to take the Eurotunnel to Calais, although Le Havre is one of four Normandy ports which can also be reached by ferry from the UK.

With no need to leave the comfort of our car, the three-hour drive seemed a fair trade — fantastic bargains on French cosmetics in the Eurotunnel terminal shop were a bonus — and after straightforward boarding, we were barrelling down the motorway towards Le Havre and the Côte Fleurie beyond, 35 minutes after departure.

Aside from Le Havre’s breezy charm, Nuits Electriques, the star exhibition of this year’s event, is unmissable: the 150 works show how the Impressionists painted everything from lamplight to stage lighting.

The eclectic little hotel of Vent d’Ouest, whose owners also run the town’s exquisite Enfants Sages restaurant in the garden of an old schoolhouse, is a good base, although for some serious style you may prefer to sleep across the bridge in pretty Honfleur, a half-hour drive away.

Here you’ll find the five-star hotel La Ferme Saint Simeon, a renovated 17th century inn to which Monet dragged Courbet and other artists to paint the Seine, offering their canvases in return for bed and board.

Rooms are hard to come by, but the new boutique Hôtel Saint-Delis from the same collection has its own top-end accommodation set over three buildings in a lovely walled garden.

The enchanting Painter’s Room, up its own little spiral staircase, was originally where Impressionist artist Henri de Saint-Delis lived and worked; we loved the walk-in shower which converted to a steam room.

Barely a five-minute walk away lies the harbour, with its many galleries and restaurants overlooking boats at the elegant Vieux Honfleur.

Another 30 minutes along the coast lie Normandy’s finest holiday resorts, Deauville and Trouville-sur-Mer, joined by a footbridge — the latter as charming as the former is chic. The fact that the pair barely acknowledge each other may be the result of a broiges dating back to 1912.

That is when the entrepreneur who built Deauville’s wedding cake of a casino lured away the Parisian fashionistas who had been packing the promenade, elegant shops, fin-de-
siècle villas and equally rococo Trouville casino for half a century.

Today’s Trouville-sur-Mer is a laid-back family resort but those 19th century socialites are remembered in posters lining the kilometre-long boardwalk, clad in the bathing fashions of the times — designed more for posing than plunging, with most visitors keener to sit on the beach than to take to the waves.

The lovely Villa Montebello pays tribute to local Impressionists; the handsome old house is now a delightful little art museum, set just above the spot where Monet painted the beach view from the boardwalk, a vista which remains unchanged more than a century on.

Don’t leave without dining al fresco on the expanded covered terrace of Les Vapeurs, satisfying gourmet visitors since 1927, but sleeping is best done in Deauville at Le Royal or the Normandy, elegant five-star hotels operated by Barrière, owner of the two rival casinos.

We debated which Hollywood stars — their names are immortalised on a run of beachside cabanas — may have slept in our elegant sea-view room at Le Royal when they visited for the annual film festival, due to take place once again in September.

Away from the coast, the apple orchards and lush fields of Normandy’s glorious countryside provided its own inspiration to the Impressionists and we took advantage of the hour-long drive to Rouen to soak it in ourselves.

The regional capital was a hive of Jewish life in mediaeval times. Like Deauville it now supports a modern community as well as its own special Impressionism exhibition at the Musée de Beaux-Arts.

If the theme isn’t as compelling as Nuits Electriques, the collection does include several Monets, not least one of his famous Cathedral series.

The cathedral itself is the subject of two special installations this year. An outstanding son et lumiere show celebrates the Impressionist movement, with nightly projections on to the ornate Gothic façade until the end of September.

A vision of the cathedral square as it looked in Monet’s time can also be viewed this year in the permanent panorama tower built for the work of Yadegar Asisi.

The Berlin-based artist has painted Rouen’s 19th century shops, cobbles and cafés, as well as the cathedral, before digitising his work to portray a city centre shifting from dawn to dusk, set to a dramatic musical accompaniment.

Given the after-dark timing of the son et lumière and the chance to eat at France’s oldest inn, La Couronne, we chose to stay within walking distance at the Hôtel Littéraire Gustave Flaubert: set off the old market square where Joan of Arc was executed, it’s convenient if a little overpriced.

No visit discovering Normandy’s Impressionists would be complete without a day at Giverny, Monet’s family home of 40 years. With groups currently banned, the beautiful garden famous for its water lilies and Japanese bridge can, like the charming house, be visited in peace (booking is essential).

We walked off our lunch of fancy flower-bedecked dishes from the nearby Michelin-starred Jardin des Plumes at Giverny’s own Impressionist museum, currently showing contemporary Japanese works inspired by Monet, with a new exhibition to come in September.

And, in three hours, made it back to Calais for the seamless short crossing home.


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