Honfleur is an old harbor village in Normandy at the mouth of the Seine, just a two hour drive northwest of Paris. The perfect place to walk through the streets and scenes made famous in the paintings of Claude Monet, Eugene Boudin and many others.
“Monet Slept Here.” If your budget allows, stay at La Ferme Saint-Simeon, a beautiful 19th century farmhouse that overlooks the estuary of the Seine. It was once the gathering place of the early impressionists – the St. Simeon art colony. Now a Relais et Chateaux property, you can check into one of the rooms in the main building – I recommend the “Monet Room” – or into the Pressoir, a separate building that once housed a cider press.
According to a plaque outside the inn, this place became the gathering place of the artists who would give birth to the Honfleur School, a movement in French art that fell between the Barbizon School and Impressionism. Artists such as Courbet, Bazille, Boudin, Monet and Sisley frequented the farmhouse inn, where they enjoyed the apple cider of “old mother Toutain” and played dominos under the apple trees. It was here that Courbet painted the woods, Boudin painted his fellow drinkers sitting at the table, and Monet painted the road in the snow. Monet is quoted as having said: “Everyday I find more beautiful things, it’s crazy!”
From La Ferme Saint Simeon you can easily walk or drive into town to visit The Boudin Museum, home to many lovely paintings set on the beach and harbor of Honfleur or the cliffs of Etretat.
Etretat is a small seaside village about 45 minutes from Honfleur, across the big bridge to Le Havre and then up through quiet farm-lined roads along the northern coast. It was cold and blustery the day I was there, but I still couldn’t resist climbing to the tops of the cliffs that I have seen in paintings ever since I was a young girl. I tried to picture Monet climbing up there himself, with his paints and easel under his arm, fighting the wind. It was a cloudy day, but the air was never still. The clouds chased across the sky and the wind whipped up waves in the sea. It made for a very dramatic setting, and as a painter, it just makes you want to try to capture its spirit in paint.
The impressionists certainly did.
I would love to go back with my paints and my easel in the summer to try a little en plein air painting of my own. It won’t look anything like a Monet, but still. . . . I’d have a lot of fun trying. And if not, well then I can always go drink some calvados at Le Ferme Saint Simeon.