Le Havre – Birthplace of Impressionism and full of surprises
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As international ports
go, Le Havre in Seine-Maritime doesn’t immediately sound like it’s packed with
tourism potential. Situated on the north side of the Seine estuary, the docks
and city centre were virtually destroyed in WW2, the city rebuilt in the 1950s to
house 80,000 homeless citizens.
But it’s precisely that
reconstruction that makes Le Havre a fascinating place to spend the day. And
maybe the night as well. Today’s city is much more than a cruise ship stopover
and container port. As well as being gateway to the picturesque Seine Valley
and the beautiful Alabaster Coast, it offers a unique - and often very moving -
architectural heritage, the only post-War city in the world to be awarded
UNESCO World Heritage status.
So instead of rushing
straight into - or out of - the cruise terminal, take time to look around. And
if you fancy a short break without the car, book a cabin for the overnight
crossing with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth, catch the bus to the city
centre, and travel back overnight next day.
All through the summer
until 23 September various outdoor artworks, exhibitions and performances are
on offer as part of Un Été au Havre –
Summer in Le Havre – an initiative which will run again from late June 2019. Pick up the booklet from the Tourist Office
which offers three colour-coded trails linking temporary arts installations and
permanent architectural highlights.
The centre of Le Havre is
easy to navigate on foot, with broad, tree-lined avenues and plenty of open
spaces. And with the central Town Hall
barely 500 metres from the beach, you are never far from the sea. If time is
limited, there are two must-see attractions, the Museum of Modern Art André
Malraux (MuMa) and the towering Church of Saint Joseph - of which more later - but
to really understand what this city’s all about, I’d recommend a guided tour.
At the time of writing
there are no regular group tours in English, though the English-speaking
Visitor Information Centre can advise on whether a particular guide speaks
English. Better still, book a private tour. My English-speaking guide Lise was
both knowledgeable and passionate about her city.
We meet at Saint Joseph
Church, completed in 1957 and the towering figurehead of the city’s
regeneration. I’d never had myself down
as a concrete fan but the geometric design of the interior was designed by celebrated
Auguste Perret who, at the age of 70, took charge of rebuilding the city. His use of coloured concrete combined with
nearly 13,000 panes of stained glass by Marguerite Huré is breathtaking.
Sadly Perret died in 1954
at the age of 80, so didn’t live to see St Joseph finished. But he
left the task of rebuilding the devastated city to his team of architects who
worked with local specialists to complete Perret’s ingenious construction
plan. His legacy is a homogenous design
that marked a new style of urban living.
Lise shares all kinds of
insider information with us, but she doesn’t only have knowledge. Lise has keys! The panoramic terrace on the 17th
floor of Perret’s Town Hall – inaugurated in 1958 - is only accessible with an
accredited guide. So too is the Perret Show Flat, unaltered across the decades,
and furnished with all the latest appliances and furnishings of the period. If
you fancy a real nostalgia immersion, book an overnight stay in the ‘50s-style atmosphere
of the Oscar Hotel in the city centre.
Surprisingly, Le Havre
miraculously retained a few pre-War properties. The church of Notre Dame was
badly bombed but painstakingly restored, becoming the city cathedral in 1974.
And the Natural History Museum is housed in the former law courts. It’s all in
stark contrast to Le Volcan nearby, a volcano-shaped arts centre designed by
When hunger beckons, I can
recommend Les Enfants Sages
in rue Gustave Lenier, close to Le Volcan, which offers al fresco dining in a
shady garden or inside tables in a former headmaster’s house. Their 2-course Canteen Lunch was good value
and delicious at €16.
Le Havre’s other must-see
attraction, MuMa, stands on the sea
front close to the estuary, flooded with light and the perfect environment to
display France’s second largest Impressionist Collection outside Paris. It was in 1872 that Claude Monet painted a
picture of the sun emerging from behind the city’s industrial chimneys entitled
‘Impression, Sunrise’. An art critic,
somewhat unimpressed, dubbed it a work of Impressionism and the name just
Today MuMa is also home
to the largest collection anywhere by ‘Master of Skies’ Eugene Boudin, and
there are paintings too by Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir, plus artworks
from other periods and temporary exhibitions. MuMa is full of surprises too. I’ve always loved Boudin’s beach scenes
and seascapes but now I’m in love with his studies of tranquil brown and white
Norman cows too. Just gorgeous.
Head round the sea front
from MuMa and a huge amount of landscaping is going on alongside the harbour
with a host of new leisure amenities. Le
Havre may be a 1950s time capsule for its architecture, but this is clearly a
city that goes on evolving. Pay a visit
and – like me – you could find you’re pleasantly surprised.
Gillian sailed from Portsmouth to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries
For information on Le Havre, please visit
Read about the Ten Must-Do experiences on Normandy's Alabaster Coast.
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