Back in 1944, the blood-soaked beaches of Normandy stood as a representation of just how brutal World War II really was, and served as a background for many-a-battle, the most famous of which is the seaborne invasion on D-Day. Jumpcut to today, Normandy’s beaches have become the go-to summer destination for tourists. The northwestern coastline of France is blessed with sprawling beaches of white sand and pebbles, with favourable weather making it a very viable option for visitors.
As one leaves Paris and enters the province, the Seine river which is once surrounded by the iconic architecture of the French capital begins to be surrounded by lush green meadows and quaint settlements, a completely different aesthetic to that of the city, but very refreshing in its own right. The port of Le Havre is one of the biggest cities in the province, and along with its own beach serves as a gateway to many other beaches in Normandy. One of these is the town of Etretat. Not as renowned for its beaches, Etretat finds its fame for its numerous white chalk-cliffs, of great beauty to the eye. Even one of the most well-known painters to have ever lived in Claude Monet depicted Etretat in many of his works and had a deep admiration for the town’s natural beauty – “Etretat is becoming more and more amazing. Now is the real moment: the beach with all its fine boats; it is superb, and I am enraged to not be more skillful in rendering all of this. I would need two hands and hundreds of canvases.”
A bus from Le Havre costs a mere 2 euros, and within an hour one can undertake a long walk by the seaside, taking in views of the magnificent cliffs locally known as Falaises d’Etretat, miles and miles of the English Channel waters, the spread of pebbles on the shoreline and the beachside seafood restaurants. The soaring naturally carved cliffs surround the beach, but the two most iconic rock formations are the Porte d’Aval Arch and L’Aiguille, which translates to ‘The Needle’. We were lucky enough to have reached Etretat late in the evening, and our first glimpse of these formations was in the night sky, albeit under distinct illumination from the lights set up by the French to make these cliffs stand out at any hour of the day.
he next morning, we set out on a hike to experience the views from the top of the cliffs. The western cliffs take you to an endless view of a jagged rock face that stretches along for miles and miles. This route along the cliffs is known as the Chemin des douaniers, which translates to Road of Customs, a route traversed by Customs Officers on horseback back in the day. A short hike to the top consists of bridges that have even been built to cut through these cliffs, which was a nice experience. Along the hike is the Etretat golf course, where old-timers staying at the magnificent Les Tilleuls hotel try to improve their handicap. The topmost point is understandably the windiest point in Etretat, with 30 km/hour winds a regular occurrence even in pleasant weather, as Etretat truly is the place for a gallivanter seeking a ‘wind in my hair’ experience. (Sorry to those of you who are bald, but you could visit too!)
The cliffs to the east of the town are home to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde church, but just below the church lie the mystical gardens, Les Jardins d’Etretat. These gardens host sculptures depicting human emotions which symbolize the plethora of emotions displayed by the ocean. These sculptures are surrounded by shaped topiaries swirling across the cliffs, providing a completely different perspective on the views of the cliffs. At a specially designed viewpoint at the gardens is a sculpture of Monet overlooking the Falaises on the other side of the coast. The gardens fulfil the art quota of Etretat with aplomb, and are definitely worth the visit.
Etretat is proof that there is so much more to France than Paris, with its photogenic cliffs, pebbly beaches, luxurious hotels and endorsements from some of the greatest artists to have walked the planet. A place that gives so much in so little time, it should definitely be on your itinerary to spend a weekend away from Paris at, as it will add a whole new dimension to your story of travelling France.