Honfleur and Étretat: Gems between a nasty cycle

The cliffs of Étretat

The towns of Honfleur and Étretat are highlights on our cycling trip along France’s Normandy coast. Honfleur is charming old port town and Étretat is small resort town bounded by dramatic white cliffs. They’re only about 50 km (31 mi) apart, but our bike ride between the two was a stressful mess of crappy signage, big trucks, an enormous bridge and poor planning. I guess that only one “off” day in nearly three weeks of cycling is pretty good, and we can say that we conquered one of the world’s largest cable-stayed bridges on bike.

Honfleur

Honfleur is surely one of the most picturesque towns in Normandy. Its Vieux Bassin (old harbour) is lined with tall, skinny buildings squished together in an enchanting scene. Workhorse fishing boats sit next to high-end pleasure crafts. Restaurants and cafes encircle the harbour. Upscale art galleries, eclectic jewelry stores, culinary shops and a nautical-inspired church fill the tangle of cobbled streets in the old center.

Located on the south side of the Seine estuary, historic Honfleur became a prosperous trading port in the 14th century. It is also famous as a port from which French navigators sailed to explore the New World—notably Samuel de Champlain, who set out from Honfleur and founded the French settlement at Quebec (in what is now Canada) in 1608. Today, shipping trade has moved across the Seine to Le Havre’s busy port, and Honfleur is home to commerce of a different type—tourism. Even late in September, it’s hopping with visitors, but it feels vibrant rather than unpleasant.

With only a day in Honfleur, we spend most of our time wandering, window shopping and eating (there’s an unbelievable amount of restaurants and cafes).

Historical wooden buildings and outdoor eateries line Honfleur’s Vieux Bassin
Nostalgic two-tiered carrousel
Quintessential Honfleur scene

We’ve seen a lot of spectacular churches during our trip, but Honfleur’s L’Église Sainte-Catherine is unique. Its wooden construction and inverted hull-shaped ceiling speak volumes about the town’s seafaring history.

Sculpture by Bruno Catalano at a Honfleur gallery

Honfleur is filled with gorgeous art galleries. At one of them, I’m introduced to the gravity-defying sculptures of Bruno Catalano. If I win the lottery, I’m going to buy one of his pieces. Journeying is a major theme in his art—perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to it. The photo below is not from Honfleur but I included it to show more of Catalano’s work.

Bruno Catalano sculptures in Marseilles. Credit: dailyartmagazine.com

The stressful cycle from Honfleur to Étretat

There’s no alternative. Unless you want to swim across the Seine, you’re taking the big bridge. The impressive Pont de Normandie is 2.1 km (1.3 mi) long and 214 m (702 ft) high. No problem in a car, but on a bicycle it’s scary. Every time a truck barrels by, which is often, I feel the bridge shake and hold on for dear life so I don’t get blown off my bike. My strategy is to get to the other side as quickly as possible and I ride as fast as I dare on the narrow bike lane. Mike’s strategy is self-preservation and he walks his bike most of the way.

I thought the worst was behind us, but the ride I’d mapped out through Le Havre is a poor choice. We’re riding smack through the middle of the city’s busy port area. The roads have no shoulders and the truck traffic is relentless. I’m sure there must be a better route.

We make it into the city proper where our Google directions take us on a circuitous route that includes every steep hill possible. We’re tired and cranky and have taken over three hours to ride 25 km.

I’m elated to finally see a familiar bike sign indicating the coastal route north to Étretat. Now we’re on our way! But not for long… the signage peters out and we’re left to guess which one of the small country roads is correct.

I flag down a cyclist and explain in my poor French that we are looking for the cycle route to Étretat. He tells us that the signage is awful in this section (we know) but he’s happy to ride with us to a point where “we won’t have any more problems.”

Our Good Samaritan must have gone 30 minutes out of his way to get us on track. We thank him profusely and for the first time today begin to enjoy our ride that takes us through peaceful countryside. It turns out he’s a little optimistic with his proclamation that we won’t have any more problems. Signage is lacking at many key spots and we clock a lot of extra kilometres on wrong guesses where we need to retrace our route.

The final approach to Étretat has us grunting up a couple of killer hills. We pull into the little town just as the sky opens up to a torrential downpour. At least the weather gods were with us.

I didn’t take one photo during our ride between Honfleur and Étretat—a sure sign that I was having a tough day. I’ve read other accounts that didn’t have these issues, so don’t get scared off by this ride…just do a little research.

Pont de Normandie, credit: redon.maville.com

Étretat

Étretat is stunning! In summer and on fine weather weekends, the little town swells with visitors. It was fairly quiet on our wet Monday arrival. Although we’re tired from our stressful ride, we grab umbrellas at our guesthouse and take a short walk to the beach. Even under gloomy skies, the tall white cliffs and eroded structures that frame Étretat’s long, pebbly beach are magnificent.

We’re greeted to this dramatic scene at Étretat Beach

We’re glad we have an extra day to explore the beautiful cliff pathways that extend for many kilometres on both sides of the beach. We get wet a few times, but the sun makes a few brilliant appearances.

The town and beach, looking northeast
The town and beach looking southwest
The clifftop pathways are beautiful in both directions

You can see two of the iconic falaises (arches) and a sea stack without leaving Étretat Beach, but the views from the clifftops are even better.

Falaise Aval and Aiguille (the stack) are my favourites
Falaise Manneporte—the largest arch
Falaise Amont

It’s no surprise that these chalk cliffs inspired Impressionist painters, most notably Claude Monet. Check out his painting of Falaise Amont below.

Falaise Amont painting by Claude Monet

At the far northeast end of Étretat Beach, we discover a ladder propped up against the cliffs leading to an opening in the rock. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I climb up and discover a tunnel (Mike decides to skip this adventure). There’s some light at the end, so I continue. At the other end is a fabulous view of the coastline and a steep set of rock steps that take me to the top of the cliffs. It’s a fun way to end a wonderful day in Étretat.

Étretat Beach looking northeast
The view at the end of the tunnel
Back up on the cliffs

Next posts: Caught in a chemical fire in Rouen, and Paris.

Categories: Biking, France | Tags: , , , , | 38 Comments

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38 thoughts on “Honfleur and Étretat: Gems between a nasty cycle

  1. Lovely post, (informative n interesting) n full of excellent images thnx to share this lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really great to see the pictures. Incredible that the bridge would shake like that! Makes you wonder how safe it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’m sure the bridge is safe (in a car). I think it was the wind and the cars whipping by that made it feel like it was shaking when we were on our bikes. All ended well and we had a memorable adventure.

      Like

  3. Wow, what a beautiful part of the world to cycle through! On our trip around Brittany, we desired to take a look at the top-rated attractions in Normandy but sadly run out of time. I love atmospheric cobblestone streets and old half-timbered houses, so Honfleur would be a wonderful addition to our itinerary. I guess, we just have to make yet another trip back to France, once it’s safe to do so, but until, then, we are staying locally. Thanks for sharing such beautiful photos, I always look forward to your travel posts. Aiva xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Aiva! Yes, I think it is a good idea to stay put in your local area. Hope you’ve been doing some exploring in your camper van. I’m sure you’ll get to Britany and Normandy again as it is relatively close for you. We were really amazed by how much there is to see and do in these two lovely regions of France. Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I sailed to Honfleur and moored in that picturesque harbor. Lovely to see it once again. Catalano’s work is truly amazing, and I’m with you (if I win the lottery…). It sounds like my departure from there was far more relaxed and much less scary than yours :-). That bridge would have been frightening to face on a bike. The arches and sea stack at Étretat Beach are spectacular.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine that mooring in that lovely Honfleur harbour must be idyllic (and such a calm haven from what I know can get very rough in the channel). The bridge and the Port of Le Havre were the only scary bits of our entire ride so I think we were pretty lucky overall. Good thing I didn’t have one of those sculptures strapped to the back of my bike😉. When we saw the amazing scenery at Étretat, the stress and scariness washed away.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Honfleur always sounded… epic. Some French cities ‘feel’ this way, don’t know why. And that church is just stunning! I’m trying to remember where I saw something like that. It must’ve been in Veneto region, in Italy, but where?!

    That bridge looks like the best leg day training, ever.

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

    • After seeing many Gothic style stone churches, L’Église St. Catherine was such a different experience. It’s the largest wooden construction church in France and I love how the 15th C builders used their ship building expertise in the design of the church. Apparently there are some spectacular wooden churches in parts of Eastern Europe. It wouldn’t surprise me if you saw something similar in the Veneto region as I’ve read that timber usage was common there. Honfleur is indeed epic, as is the bridge! Cheers Fabrizio!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That bridge is beyond daunting! I think I might have used Mike’s strategy. The two endpoints seems well worth it, though. I really loved the Bruno Catalano sculptures!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know; it’s scary for me just looking at it now. I didn’t realize it was so steep, but as I mentioned to Maggie, this was the lesser of the evils for me when compared to the wind and cars/trucks whipping by. Glad I could introduce you to the sculptures…they are so unique.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I was feeling stressed just reading about how you cycled across the Pont de Normandie. And then I saw the picture of it. I can’t even begin to imagine. At least it wasn’t raining! The views of the cliffs are simply stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I was able to convey my stress. Almost all our cycling during this trip was very mellow so the Pont de Normandie and Port of Le Havre section was a shock to the system. You’re right, rain would have made it much worse. I’m glad there was a nice reward at the end!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Uncool Cycling Club

    I think I would have been with Mike’s strategy crossing that bridge but I would have been with you on the tunnel 😎

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, we all have different ways of dealing with stress. I probably should have walked too, but I just couldn’t bear being on that bridge (with the noise and wind and terrifying height) for so long.

      Like

  9. OMG that bridge! And what an awful day you had, but I’m sure it was worth it to get to beautiful Étretat. I’d have totally been with you on the adventure up the ladder! Your photos are wonderful.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison! I’d cross the bridge again but I’d find a better route through Le Havre. We had hoped to get info from the tourist info office in Honfleur but they were closed when we arrived there (2 hour lunch break!) and then we got so wrapped up in exploring the town that we never made it back—mistake! Nevertheless, Étretat was so worth it. I would have enjoyed your company on my ladder adventure!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Some impressive cliffs. I didn’t know there was cliffs like this in Normandy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I only knew about the White Cliffs of Dover on the other side of the channel before visiting France, so the cliffs in Normandy were an unexpected pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess when you have cliffs just on the other side of the channal it should be a big surprise they are on the other side as well. But they are not very famous compared to the english conterpart.

        When I think of the coast of Normandy beaches is what comes to mind with the landing on D-day.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Very enjoyable and educational post, Caroline. That sculpture photo….incrediable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Susan and John. Certain pieces of art just really stand out and that’s definitely the case with Bruno Catalano’s sculptures.

      Like

  12. I’m glad you made it alive to tell us about the adventure. Honfleur and Etretat are two beautiful places that I remember visiting on weekends from Paris.One year there was an exhibition of the painter Eugène Boudin in Honfleur, his hometown, no wonder he was passionate about coastal landscapes. Thanks for sharing and great pics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are so many lovely weekend get-aways in easy distance from Paris. I can see why Honfleur and Étretat would be popular. You’re lucky you got to experience this. I’m learning that there are so many amazing artists that took (take) inspiration from the Normandy and Brittany coastline. I just looked up Boudin and see he painted some stunning white cliff scenes, among others. Thanks for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I was with you, struggling on that ride, sounds horrible. The bridge, not only skinny and windy, but also has a huge hill! But both of the towns look amazing. The tall skinny buildings along the harbour and the dramatic white cliffs against the blue sea, so different, but both so gorgeous.And the view from your tunnel was sure worth it. Those sculptures are also great, I’d never heard of him before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s weird, when I look at the photo of the bridge it looks much steep than I remember…I guess the steepness seemed minor in comparison to the wind and the trucks. We had some doubts about going to Étretat but it was so worth it. The French sculptor Bruno Catalano was new to me too. I had quite a lengthy discussion about his work with the gallery owner…I can dream, right!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. The Good Samaritan saved you huge amounts of stress and distress. You lucked out!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A wonderful and enjoyable read!! Love the photos too 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  16. jawatson852

    Nice piece Caroline. I watch the tour every year and that part of France is particularly appealing. Your writing and photos bring it to life.
    John

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Wow, those sea arches are amazing, and I love the white color of the rocks. They contrast so beautifully with the ocean!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: Cycling France’s Brittany and Normandy coasts: Top 10 highlights | Writes of Passage

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