HONFLEUR, France -- There is no disputing that historical figures slept around -- literally. I have visited many places in the world that make much of the fact Napoleon, Admiral Lord Nelson, George Washington or some other luminary slept there, ate there, or was otherwise connected, however tenuously.
But until a recent trip to Honfleur, I have never visited a place that marks its historical connections to Canada (apart from war cemeteries and memorials).
So I was surprised to turn a corner in this heartbreakingly pretty village in Normandy's Calvados department -- full of twisty cobblestone lanes, half-timbered houses, waterfront cafes, galleries and flower-filled window boxes -- and come face to face with a bronze bust of Samuel de Champlain, the Father of New France, mounted on an ancient stone wall near the Vieux Bassin (old basin). Below Champlain, a plaque detailed the explorer's expeditions to the New World from this tiny port, including his 1608 voyage, which resulted in the founding of Quebec City.
One by one, as we rounded the corner, each member of our band of Canadian journalists came to a full stop, then paused, not only for a photo but also to acknowledge Champlain's achievements and their impact in shaping our country. The moment served as a quiet reminder that, even for English Canadians, much of our collective history is found in France.
Sitting on the south bank of the Seine River estuary, not far from where France's storied river meets the English Channel, little Honfleur (population about 8,000) has a long history of big connections. These range from Viking invaders (later called Normans) who settled there in the 9th century before going on to conquer huge swaths of Europe, to the powerful dukes of Normandy, to Honfleur's strategic position as a fortress during the Hundred Years War, to 16th-17th-and-18th-century prominence as the region's main commercial trading port, to its pivotal role in the development of the world-famous Impressionism art movement.
Many consider Honfleur the birthplace of Impressionism. Eugene Boudin -- Claude Monet's mentor and one of the first French painters to work outdoors instead of in a studio -- was born in Honfleur and invited his many artist friends to collaborate with him there at the rustic Saint-Simeon farm (now a luxury hotel and spa). Boudin's "friends" included some of the best landscape painters of the time and consequently many ground-breaking pre-Impressionist and Impressionist works feature Honfleur's narrow alleys, old harbour, and the clear light, changeable skies, churning seas and chalky cliffs of the Normandy coast.
Visitors can see some of this early work at the Eugene Boudin Museum, which also displays contemporary paintings by local artists, and regional folk costumes. Other places of interest include: -- The Vieux Bassin is full of pleasure boats and bordered by the well-preserved Enclosure District on one side and a row of tall skinny colourful old houses on the other. The Enclosure is populated by ancient buildings -- a prison, 15th-century Saint-Etienne church, 17th-century salt halls -- that were inside the walls of the medieval fortress. At the mouth of the old harbour is the Lieutenancy building, where you can see remnants of the ramparts, which were demolished in the 17th-century to enlarge the harbour. The entire area is an atmospheric place for a stroll and a nice meal at one of the many seafood restaurants, which are supplied by a fleet of about 40 local fishing boats. We dined on just-caught sea snails and fish at the boisterous le Bistro du Port, which is frequented by locals and tourists.
-- Dating to the 1400s, Saint-Catherine is the largest surviving wooden church in France. Modelled after a market hall, the church was built by shipwrights and one can't help comparing it to an upside-down boat. Also unusual is its bell tower, which is not atop the church but across the square. The safety-conscious builders put it there to protect parishioners from fire should the tall structure be hit by lightening. It houses a small museum of religious art. Not far from the church is a plaque that gives a brief history and shows paintings of the site by various artists.
-- The Maritime Museum, housed in the deconsecrated Saint-Etienne church, has an interesting collection of antique ship models, marine gear and stained glass windows depicting Champlain's expeditions.
-- An Ethnography Museum, in the old prison and courthouse, gives a historical perspective on daily life in old Normandy.
-- Maisons Satie is dedicated to Honfleur-born Erik Satie, a somewhat eccentric composer whose works still crop up in modern arrangements.
-- Notre-Dame-de-Grace chapel has some relics from the colonization of New France.
ACROSS THE RIVER
Despite its early prominence, eventually Honfleur's port was overtaken by a larger, more modern, port across the river in Le Havre, in the Seine-Maritime department. The fate of the two towns couldn't be more different. Honfleur evolved into a major tourist destination and, with 3-million visitors per year, it is not only Normandy's most visited town but also one of the most visited towns in France. Le Havre became an important industrial centre with a population around 180,000.
Where Honfleur's old town centre is intact, Le Havre's historical city-centre was completely destroyed by heavy bombing during the Battle of Normandy in 1944. After the war -- with some 80% of the population homeless and living in military barracks -- Le Havre's downtown core was rebuilt by modernist architect Auguste Perret. In 2005, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an "exceptional" example of post-war town planning and for its "innovative" use of concrete.
While the Perret-designed apartment blocks look plain compared to more ornate forms of French architecture, the rebuilt Saint-Joseph church has been called a "masterpiece in concrete" and is worth visiting to see its 107-metre-high octagonal lantern tower (the highest in France) illuminated by 12,768 pieces of multi-coloured glass by stained-glass artist Marguerite Hure. Those interested in architecture may also want to see the futuristic-looking Cultural Centre -- aka the Volcano -- designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, and one of the Perret-designed apartments, which is now a small museum complete with 1950s furniture.
MAKING AN IMPRESSION
Le Havre's standout attraction is Musee d'art Moderne Andre Malraux -- MuMa for short. The light-filled glass space along the waterfront houses four centuries of European art, including the finest collection of Impressionist works outside of Paris. Multiple pieces by all the heavy hitters of the movement, and other artistic schools, are on display: Boudin, Monet, Gustave Courbet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, and more. The galleries are uncrowded so visitors can get close to the canvasses and take all the time they want to study them.
Le Havre also has deep historical connections to Impressionism. This is where Boudin and Monet met in 1858, and where Boudin convinced the younger artist to abandon caricatures and embrace painting. Near the museum a plaque marks the spot where Monet painted Impression, Sunrise, the title of which inspired the term Impressionism.
For a meal on an Impressionist theme, book a small-group cooking class with Chef Regine Boudin at Vue Sur Table. Classes are held twice per week upstairs in the colourful kitchenware shop owned by Jean Luc Picard (no relation to the actor). Menus change but ours was inspired by Monet's own recipes (the master painter was also an accomplished cook, who often sourced ingredients from the extensive gardens around his home in Giverny).
Under Boudin's direction, we spent a fun few hours making -- then devouring -- a savoury Giverny sorrel soup, cheese popovers baked in ramekins, stuffed artichoke hearts, chicken in the "Honfleur tradition" (lots of cream, butter and a little Calvados) and teurgoule, a traditional Normandy rice-pudding baked in an earthenware terrine for hours. Boudin is a professional chef and also gives private and group cooking lessons at her home.
NEED TO KNOW
Air France's Back To School promotion offers great rates on flights to Paris from several Canadian cities. For instance, return Voyageur (economy-class) fares from Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal start at $799 (including taxes and surcharges) for travel Oct. 14 to Dec. 14, and Dec. 25 to May 6, 2013. Flights must be booked by Sept. 18 and can be upgraded to Premium Voyageur for an additional $225 each way. Premium Voyageur offers a dedicated cabin with larger seats, more legroom, extra-baggage allowance and upgraded amenities. Other dates and departure cities are available from $899 return. See airfrance.ca. From Paris, Air France has connecting flights to cities in Normandy, or you can rent a car and drive there in about 90 minutes.
The centrally located Hotel Vent d'Ouest in Le Havre has clean comfortable rooms, some with a beach house feel, from $115 per night in September. See ventdouest.fr.
Contact the Montreal office of Atout France at ca-en.franceguide.com or 514-288-2026, and the Normandy Tourist Board at normandie-tourisme.fr. Also check: calvados-tourisme.com/en, en.ot-honfleur.fr, seine-maritime-tourism.com/en and le-havre-tourism.com. For more on cooking with Regine Boudin, see chefchezvous76.com.