Normandy: Top Spots to Find the French Artist in You
What further allure does the French countryside need than its own cinematic beauty? Head northwest from Paris into Normandy and you’ll find a landscape so richly varied you’ll be hard-pressed to catch a breath: from verdant fields to sandy beaches, the snaking banks of the Seine to chalky cliffs plunging precipitously into the sea. Even so, Normandy has manufactured a grand excuse for visiting this particular summer: the region’s first-ever Impressionism Festival, with more than 300 events through September 26, 2010. Important works from collections across the world have found their way here just for the occasion. Normandy is, after all, Monet’s home territory. And if you keep your eyes peeled in the self-proclaimed “birthplace of Impressionism,” you’ll find more than one famous painting come to life.
Monet claimed to have only two real mentors of art: one of them was Eugene Boudin, a forerunner of the Impressionists who spent much of his life in Honfleur. His stamp can be found all over this historic port city — particularly at the Museum Eugene Boudin, of course. Walk through the Sainte-Catherine quarter where narrow streets remain just as Monet saw them. Stop into the quarter’s eponymous church to view its unique wooden interiors. The ceiling of its dual naves looks like the side-by-side hulls of upturned ships — little wonder too, since it was constructed by naval carpenters from the materials they had at hand.
The Impressionism movement took its name from Monet’s “Impression, sunrise,” painted here in 1872. However, the town that inspired him then is entirely different than the one you see today: utterly decimated during World War II, Le Havre was comprehensively reconstructed in a modernist style. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes an Oscar Niemeyer addition to a cultural center, called Le Volcan. (To fans, it looks like two volcanoes; to critics, they are “yogurt pots”). The Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux houses the largest Impressionism collection outside of the Musée d’Orsay, and for the festival, features an exhibit of over 200 pieces by Degas, mainly unpublished drawings and pastels.
The Impressionists found a fruitful landscape in this resort town, and more importantly, a well-heeled society hungry for lively seascape paintings. The sandy beach here is still considered one of the most beautiful in Normandy, and Deauville one of its chicest resorts. Relive the Belle Epoque by strolling the boardwalk, hitting the grand casino or the famous racetrack (the surrounding countryside is, er, studded with stud farms). Retail temptation has always existed in plentitude — Coco Chanel opened one of her first boutiques here. Shop your way toward the Normandy Barrière, a hotel with fairytale exteriors (turrets and half-timbering) and unexpectedly large guestrooms. Stay for the annual American Film Festival, September 3-12.
There’s a reason the seaside town of Etretat attracted so many creative heavyweights — from Delacroix to Monet, even Offenbach and Victor Hugo: the dramatic cliffs of the Alabaster Coast. While the English Channel waves became rich artistic subjects — Courbet produced a famous series here called “Waves” — they also left their own artistic stamp on the ancient rockscape. The pounding sea against the cliffs has carved such flourishes as the marvelous Porte d’Aval arch (which captivated Monet) and The Needle, an obelisk of limestone that rises more than 200 feet over the Channel. There are clifftop routes along the coast easy enough for any level hiker. And if you’re a golfer, you’ll find one of France’s top golf courses in Etretat, and certainly its most stunning.
Rouen is the historic capital of Normandy, and its beautiful architecture was spared the ruin of war. Tracing the cobbled streets, past timber-framed houses, you’ll come upon the Notre-Dame cathedral with a cast iron spire, the tallest spire in France. Monet painted the brooding church over 30 times (all from the same vantage point, at different times of day), and eleven of those paintings — from various world museums — are on display at the Rouen Museum of Fine Arts. One of the festival highlights is “Impressionist Nights,” a spectacular light show projected on the façade of the museum and put to music each night. (It’s a surprisingly moving display.) Be sure to check in at the Hôtel de Bourgtheroulde, a just-open boutique hotel inside a mansion dating to 1499. Within its chic confines: a spa with mosaic-tile treatment rooms and a heated indoor pool.
This is the city of William the Conqueror, who built the 11th-century foundations of the Chateau de Caen, a sprawling castle that remains one of the largest in Western Europe. Today it houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen (in addition to the Musée de Normandie and Saint Georges church), where you can see a rare exhibit of 120 Impressionist prints on loan from the French National Library, including Manet’s etchings and Renoir’s lithographs. The museum also has a fine café where you can sample another Norman specialty: Calvados, a spirit made from local apples. If it’s too early for that kind of drink, you can also sample some of the finest apple juice you’re likely to ever taste. If only they’d served this in kindergarten.
You’ve finally found him. After chasing his ghost through museum halls, you’ll feel the spirit of Claude Monet when you step into the artist’s home garden. There’s the Japanese bridge bent over a pond of famous water lilies. There are the poplar trees he painted along the banks of the Epte. Monet lived here in Giverny with his wife and eight children, and their home has been lovingly preserved. It’s a dreamy piece of history, unless you dare step into the gift shop: inventory includes just about anything you can adorn with a water lily, or carve in the shape of Monet’s head (a Monet eraser, anyone?). Instead, retreat to a checkered-clothed table at nearby Hotel Baudy, a former meeting place for American expat artists who flocked to Giverny in search of artistic inspiration. It’s no longer a hotel, but it’s a charming café — with a gorgeous rose garden out back.