"Honfleur," Baudelaire once declared, "has always been the dearest of my dreams." That sentiment reflects the feelings of many of his fellow writers and artists, who were also charmed by this tiny port town on the Normandy coast of France.
Part of the present-day attraction of Honfleur is that it has hardly changed since a century ago, when young Impressionists used to set up their easels along the quay and in the fields. It is still a working harbor. On the quayside, chubby sailors in their blue caps stand around chatting, letting hand gestures do most of the work. The water below them reflects sail masts and harbor-front houses. In the cool of the early morning, small boys run down narrow cobbled streets with baskets of fresh baguettes.
Honfleur reached a peak of popularity among the French between 1880 and 1920, although foreign travelers headed more often further down the coast, to Deauville and Trouville. Then the trend switched to the French Riviera, and Honfleur was overlooked. Today, there are not many more visitors than there were 80 years ago.
But the artists have long been in the know. Baudelaire dreamed of living there; he wrote "Invitation au Voyage" in Honfleur in 1859. Composer Erik Satie was a citizen, as were poets Henri de Re'gnier and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, who was greatly admired by Colette and has a street named after her. And at a time when inland Normandy was in fashion with the Romantic painters, Honfleur began to fill with artists of a different style -- Norman-born painters such as Euge ne Boudin and Louis-Alexandre Dubourg, as well as Paul Huet, Charles-Franc,ois Daubigny and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot from Paris and foreigners Richard Parkes Bonington and Johan Jongkind.
In fact, many art historians believe that the school of Impressionism was actually born in this tiny port, situated across the Seine estuary from Le Havre. This was the place where the young and aspiring Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley began studying light effects under Boudin, a native, and the Dutch Jongkind. And it was also here, at the Saint-Sime on farm of Madame Toutain, that the Impressionist group first gathered to share their ideas and skills over quenching mugs of cider.
Entering Honfleur, your first glimpse is of the tall slender quayside houses packed tightly against one another like cardboard cutouts. This is the Old Dock, or Vieux Bassin; the gray of the slate roofs and fac,ades gives an air of rusticity and age. At the end of the quay stands the Lieutenance, a relic of the 16th century in which the king's lieutenant, the governor of Honfleur, dwelled.
Walking through two wicket gates, once part of the town ramparts, you are suddenly confronted with the town's main square and spiritual heart, the Place Saint Catherine. With narrow streets radiating in all directions and hemmed in by haphazard timber-framed houses with flower-filled windows, the cobbled square is a timeless monument. This is where the local market is held, looked over by the Church of Saint Catherine.
Considered one of the most beautiful churches in all of France, Saint Catherine is a rare example in western Europe of a building constructed (except for its foundation) entirely of wood. Built after the Hundred Years' War by "axe masters" from the local shipyards, the church is a memorial by those who wanted to use their own skills to thank God for the departure of the English. Inside Saint Catherine, the timber construction looks exactly like the hull of a ship upside-down -- a further reminder of its craftsmen. Close by is the belfry, which -- like the end fac,ades of the church -- is covered in chestnut weather boarding.
Also picturesque and very characteristic of Honfleur are the narrow winding streets. Rue de la Bavole was painted by Monet one summer; if you stand on it holding out a copy of the artist's rendition, it is still possible to distinguish the various windows, beams and roof juttings that he depicted.
Although Honfleur is interlaced with a maze of narrow one-way streets that are more like passageways, it is possible to drive up through the residential quarters to the peaceful Co te de Gra ce, the hill perched behind the town.
Apart from the view, there is a delightful stone church, the Notre Dame de Gra ce, which sits serenely beneath the shade of tall trees. This 17th-century church is popular among pilgrims; it was here that navigators and explorers came to pray before leaving on their voyages. Every Pentecost, a Seamen's Festival is celebrated at Honfleur. A procession of seamen and children carry ships' models dressed with flags and flowers to the Co te de Gra ce followed by a mass held in front of the old church.
On the outskirts of the town is the Saint-Sime'on farm, where the Impressionists gathered in the mid 19th century. It is now a beautiful, expensive hotel and restaurant draped with wisteria, decorated with fine antiques and commanding a splendid view of the Seine estuary. Even before the Impressionists came along, the farm had been a favorite hideout for artists. Euge ne Isabey had been coming here since 1827, followed by Paul Huet, Corot and Boudin. Under the proprietorship of the popular Madame Toutain, the farmstead was soon frequented by many other painters.
Some of these artists' works can be seen at the Euge ne Boudin Museum, located in the old quarter of town. Devoted primarily to the Honfleur school of painting and works of painters of the Seine estuary, it contains some lovely oils and pastels by Boudin and his friends, including Monet.
The name Boudin, in fact, is almost synonymous with the town of Honfleur. The son of a sailor, his house can still be seen on Rue Bourdet. He worked as a cabin boy here and although he later scraped out a living as a painter in Paris and Le Havre, he frequently returned to his hometown and painted many pictures of it. Poor throughout his life, Boudin was seldom able to sell paintings -- at one point he agreed to paint a dozen pictures for 75 francs. Declared by Corot as "king of the skies" because he was exceptionally good at portraying them, Boudin was often reduced to painting skies on the canvases of less skilled but more commercially successful painters.
Yet it was Boudin who was to have the most influence on the greatest Impressionist, Claude Monet: "If I am a painter I owe it to Boudin," wrote Monet. Boudin encouraged the 15-year-old from Le Havre to drop caricature and then inspired him to paint landscapes from nature, breaking with the customary method of working in the studio from sketches. Together with Jongkind, he taught Monet not technique, but how to see, and to believe in his own vision. Through Boudin, Monet wrote, he discovered that "everything painted directly on the spot has the strength and power, vivacity of touch that one never finds in a studio."
Monet spent the summer of 1864 in Honfleur, aiming to paint something that would be worthy of exhibit at the Salon in Paris the following year. Initially, the influence and ideas of other painters kept coming between him and the canvas. But by the end of his stay, the stumbling block was overcome and Monet was able to work "without any painter in mind." "It is only through strength of observation and reflection that one can find what one's after; so it's sweat, sweat all the way," he noted.
As a result, Monet surpassed his teachers and invented a technique that could express the instability of light itself. While Jongkind and Boudin knew how to capture it, Monet could make it vibrate. And there is little doubt that Honfleur, with its glowing light, ever-changing hues, trembling reflections, shadows and haze, was an inspiration to the artist's vision.