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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
It’s no surprise that these chalk cliffs inspired Impressionist painters, most notably Claude Monet. Check out his painting of Falaise Amont below.
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.
Next posts: Caught in a chemical fire in Rouen, and Paris.