Ah, Costa Brava – fresh green wheat fields, yellow rapeseed edged with poppies and views over the olive trees to the snow capped Pyrenees in the distance. These are the memories that we brought home from our recent short break, staying in a rustic luxury villa with our hire car to explore a new place each day.
Visiting pretty, painted Girona
Our first day was spent in Girona, the regional capital of Costa Brava. I’d visited a couple of times before and was looking forward to showing it to the family. (Read about my last visit to Lloret de Mar) Girona has a similar feel to its big sister Barcelona, but without the crowds of tourists and dare I say a more authentic Catalan flavour (we don’t talk about Spain here). There’s modern shopping if you want it, but I prefer to just wander around the old streets that surround the cathedral, stopping here and there for some people-watching on a café terrace. If you want the postcard shot of Girona, cross the bridge and walk along for a view of the coloured houses that overlook the river.
Lunch on the terrace at Konig
Our lunchtime spot was Konig (Carrer dels Calderers, 16), a well placed café below the Basilica de Sant Feliu with a large terrace overlooking the river where we could bask in the sunshine. They serve good quality local dishes, salads and pasta – nothing too gourmet, but tasty and not too expensive if you are feeding a large group of hungry offspring.
Is this the best gelato in the world?
For desert we fancied an ice cream so I led the troops across the river (admiring pretty painted houses), through the Plaça de la Independència and down the small street to find Rocambolesc (Carrer de Santa Clara, 50). Of course, I knew the gelato would be great, since it is run by the Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca fame, a.k.a The best restaurant in the world if you believe these highly prized lists.
The six flavours of ice cream change with the season and come out of the machine in a piped swirl, Mr Whippy style. If you think that six choices may not be enough, even if they include coconut and violet, just look at the endless selection of toppings! The lady who served us reeled off her topping recommendations in just the same way as they recite the dishes when they serve you in Michelin star restaurants. I knew then that we were on to a good thing.
Pastries that ooze with cream at Casa Moner
Right across the street we were tempted into Casa Moner (Carrer de Santa Clara, 45), a local bakery chain that serves artizan breads and pastries. I bought one of their Xuixo signature pastries, a rolly-polly doughnut filled with custard cream, the kind that oozes out the sides and drips down your chin when you take a bite. Beyond the narrow shopfront there was a sizeable cafe area at the back where you could sit to enjoy all the cakes, but sadly that would have to wait for another day.
A trendy cycle cafe at Fabrica
Crossing over the red metal lattice of the Eiffel bridge (made by Gustave Eiffel a few years before he even thought of that tower in Paris) we headed back into the old town, having spotted on the map the old walls that encircle half of Girona. We hoped to find some steps to get up onto the path that leads along the top, but it took a coffee stop at the trendy cycle café, La Fábrica (Carrer de la Llebre, 3) to get directions to the start of the wall.
Walking the walls of Girona
Once up at the top, the path was an easy walk giving us views over the rooftops. We could effortlessly peep into windows below us and snoop on gardens and terraces. The path ran from one end of the old town to the other, with towers along the way where you could climb up for even more expansive views. We walked around 30 minutes to get from one end of the wall to the other and ended up behind the cathedral so I popped in to have a look around.
Majestic Girona Catheral
The cathedral was majestic and tranquil, with towering stone pillars and stained glass lit up by the sun. Photographs were not allowed inside and although many people had their mobile phones out I decided to respect that. Instead I’ll give you a shot of the cathedral cloister which I visited on my way out.
Staying at Mas Gorral with Charming Villas
I think it’s time to tell you something about our villa which was kindly provided by Charming Villas Catalonia. Set in the countryside a short drive from Figures, we were blown away by Mas Gorral. It’s an old farmhouse that has obviously been added to over the years although all in such authentic style that it’s difficult to tell what is centuries old and what is new.
The villa was set on the hillside so we had views over the countryside towards the snow capped Pyrenees and over the nearby village of Pontos, all terracotta roofs and narrow streets that you could just about get a car through.
Inside we had 5 spacious bedrooms with 3 bathrooms between us and a huge dining room and living room that featured natural stonework, colourful walls and antique furnishings. Local painted pottery mixed with Asian pieces, perhaps inspired by the owner’s travels. With quirky artworks, well kept gardens and a (bracingly fresh) pool this was the perfect place for our two families to share.
The Dali Theatre-Museum at Figueres
When in Costa Brava there’s no escaping that giant of 20th Century art, Salvador Dalí who was born just down the road from our villa at Figures. As we drove the hire car into town and circled to find parking I have to admit that Figueres looked unremarkable. We walked towards the red towers topped with white eggs of the museum and luckily got inside just before waves of French school children began to arrive.
The museum was created over 10 years in the old municipal theatre and was Dali’s personal project. He called in his artworks from all over the world and added art installations specially for the museum.
Entering the first couryard that would have been the theatre auditorium we found the Rainy Cadillac topped with a huge breasted and bellied goddess figure. Gold statues like Oscar awards looked down from the walls and a fishing boat was stranded at the top of a column of Michelin tyres – I saw those again at Dali’s house in Port Lligat. On the stage was another artwork the size of a cinema screen and in the niche to one side a nude figure of Dali’s wife Gala with her back turned – except when you cross your eyes or look at it through your camera you realise that it’s a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
The whole museum was packed full of artworks with that feeling of ‘it’s not quite what it seems’. I did buy the guidebook but didn’t read it until afterwards so it was an enjoyable game to just wander through the rooms, absorbing the impression without overthinking the meaning. At the end of the day it seems to be a projection of Dali’s rich subconsciousness and dreamworld.
Once you have left the main museum, there is the jewellery collection which is included in the same entrance ticket, full of most gorgeous bling. I coveted the ruby lips with pearl teeth and the red ruby heart brooch that has a mechanism inside so it literally beats.
Gala’s Castle at Pubol
After the Dali museum we decided there wasn’t an awful lot more to see in Figueres so we drove back to the villa where the rest of the crew decided to have a relaxing afternoon. Guy and I (OK it was mainly me) wanted a bit more of the Dali fix and so we drove south towards Girona to visit the Castle at Púbol that Dali gave to his wife Gala. It really was a beautiful drive on country roads with little traffic and only the occasional mishap when we inadvertantly drove through one of those old villages where the houses close in and the lanes became so narrow that you worry for your wing mirrors.
This fortified country house or castel was a gift that Dali had promised Gala years before, a place that she could come on her own and relax, where even her husband would have to request written permission to visit her (or so the story goes). Once the museum at Figures was nearly complete the couple were able to start work on the renovations for their new project which was designed to suit Gala’s taste with some of Dali’s surreal art such as the cupboard painted with radiators to disguise the real radiators.
The decoration here was luxurious but the overall effect simpler than the house we would see the next day at Port Lligat where the same amount of furniture was squashed into half the space. This was much more Gala’s retreat where she would come for a few weeks at a time to relax away from all the showmanshop that surrounded her husband.
Gala was an clearly an elegant woman, her hair swept back into a girlish style, which was pinned with a large black velvet bow. Since I used to work in fashion, I loved looking at Gala’s dresses on display upstairs from the 50s and 60s, purchased from designers such as Pierre Cardin and Elsa Schiaparelli. Her dresses show her loved colour, luxurious fabrics and the subtle sparkle of lurex.
Driving tips for Costa Brava with Auto Europe
If you are staying in a villa as we were and want to see something of Costa Brava, you really need a hire car and ours was kindly provided by Auto Europe. The pickup and drop off at Girona airport was painless and we found that the roads easy to navigate, with much less traffic than we are used to in the overcrowded UK. It really made the driving a pleasure to pass fields full of wildflowers and yellow rapeseed edged with poppies. Of course in the high summer by the coast it might get a bit crazy, but away from the coast I suspect that even in high season these country roads are an easy drive.
The only thing I would advise with a hire car is to avoid the centre of older towns and village centres that were not really made for cars. In Girona or Cadaques, we found that when you get close to the centre it’s best to park in the first public car park you see and walk into the old centre. Beware also of the small country villages which normally have a route that goes around them as well as a road that goes through them. The streets can be incredibly narrow, as we found out accidentally on a couple of occasions, so drive around if you can. You can check out my driving tips for Costa Brava in the video below.
The wild Costa Brava at Cadaques
Our final day was blessed with glorious sunshine at Cadaques, an old fishing town that’s now quite a tourist hotspot on the wild and rocky Cap de Creus. You drive on a winding road that snakes up through the unspoiled natural park, and brings you down the other side to Cadaques.
Parking the hire car in the first main car park we saw as we came into town was the right decision as there was little space to pass in the smaller roads close to the beach. We walked around the seafront away from the busiest terrace restaurants and cafes and found a smaller place that had been recommended to me called Enoteca MF. It’s the wine bar and tapas restaurant that’s run by the same family that has a vineyard and winery set above Cadaques called Sa Perafita which you pass on the way into town.
They serve fabulous tapas with the seafood being especially fresh and delicious. We tried a bit of everything including a bottle or two of their Cava and a glass of the local Vermouth which is the fashionable drink of the moment in Catalunya. There was the pan tomat rubbed with tomato and garlic, a plate of local cheeses, red tuna sashimi and a salmon tartare topped with guacamole. We were impressed to see the staff peeling a huge bowl of pink shrimps which were then pulverised to make a shrimp carpaccio. It was enough to melt the heart of the most avid opponent of raw fish.
After lunch we walked up the lane beside the wine bar and in 10 minutes were overlooking the next bay at Port Lligat, a small fishing bay where Dali spent most of the time with his wife Gala. The house was created by knocking together a number of fishing huts and then extending them over the years. Because the individual rooms are so small you need to book timed tickets in advance (in April we were able to get them the day before).
Although there were not many large scale artworks here, Dali’s vision was felt everywhere although the dried yellow ‘everlasting’ flowers were in almost every room, a favourite of Gala’s. Dali’s art studio was one of the largest spaces with light flooding in and an easel that could be moved up and down so that Dali could always paint sitting down on his chair.
We moved from room to room, up a few steps each time since the different cottages were on different levels and emerged on a lovely terrace, with whitewashed stonework, pots of flowering plants and olive trees providing shade. The surprise was that they’d cleverly fitted in a swimming pool on the terrace with a round section and narrow channel for swimming up and down.
Since not all of our group had visited the Dali house, we joined the rest enjoying a drink at the Es Raco d’en Dani Xiringuito at the other end of the beach – another offshoot of the Sa Perafita winery. There was plenty of seafood on the menu and although we stuck to the beers and coffee the waft of grilled octopus was mouthwatering.
Rather reluctantly we walked back over the headland to Cadaques and wandered around the artisan market where we bought olive bread and pastries from the Cas Mona stand that we had seen in Girona.
What a fabulous break we’d had but the next day it was time to return to Girona airport for our flight home. Still we managed a quick trip to the Sunday market at nearby Bascara to buy some salad and rotisserie chicken for lunch on the terrace.
As we basked in the warm sun I think we were all trying to soak it up and take a little piece of Costa Brava sunshine home with us.
Have you been to Costa Brava or Catalunya and if so, what did you enjoy?
Read more about Costa Brava
Visitor Information for Costa Brava
Thanks to Charming Villas Catalonia for providing our villa Mas Gorral near Figueres. Charming Villas specialise in luxury and character villas in Catalonia from rustic villas in the countryside to modern coastal villas. They have over 80 villas to choose from and as Richard and his wife who run the company are based locally they are able to help with planning your holiday and on hand to sort out any issues.
Thanks to Auto Europe for providing our hire car for exploring Costa Brava. Auto Europe work with 20,000 car rental locations in 180 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, as well as North and South America.
If ever there is a must-see site that epitomises Ancient Greece it is the Acropolis. This rocky hill is topped by the Parthenon temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and war who planted the first olive tree on this very spot to found the city of Athens. On a visit with my parents in late February, we experienced warm and sunny weather, making it an ideal time to visit the Acropolis before the scorching heat and crowds of summer descend on Athens.
I had visited the Acropolis on a previous trip to Athens for TBEX blogger’s conference – read about it here. On Saturday afternoon I walked up as I’d done before, hoping to photograph the ancient temples in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun, but was disappointed to find that the site closes early at 3pm in winter.
Undaunted, we returned the next day and climbed up the steep pathway winding up to the top, which my parents who are in their 70s had to navigate quite cautiously since the rock was worn and slippery in places. Although the site is flatter at the top there are many places where the ground is very rocky and uneven, so older visitors will need to take care.
I hope you enjoy the video below about the Acropolis, Athens
Passing through the gateway of the Propylaea at the top of the steps we had our first view of the Parthenon, the iconic temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, after whom the city of Athens was named. Within the temple originally stood a 12 metre high gold and ivory statue of Athena, although it was lost in the Byzantine era and only copies remain. Around the top of the temple runs a frieze of all the gods which now resides in the Acropolis Museum, since most of the original stone carvings have been replaced with copies.
A surprising aspect of the Parthenon is that much of it resembles a building site, dominated by scaffolding and cranes, with a restoration underway that will continue for some years. The temple seemed to have been partly dismantled, with blocks of stone and parts of ancient columns piled up ready to be hoisted into poition. In another area near the entrance, some of the carved stones that will replace the frieze could be seen close up, stacked as if in a timber yard.
Once we had walked around to the front of the Parthenon, we found a scaffolding free view of the temple. At the furthest point of the rock, a raised area provided plenty of selfie opportunities as well as a view of Athens, sprawling endlessly towards the mountains. While my parents established themselves to sit a while in the shade, I went to explore the other main monument, the Erechtheion that stands on the northern side of the Acropolis rock.
This temple was built on the sacred spot where the goddess Athena is said to have planted the olive tree, the symbol of Athens that brings peace and prosperity. The temple is best known for the Caryatids, the row of maidens in draped tunics that support the roof. The ones here are copies, since the originals are in the Acropolis Museum, with one in the British Museum (part of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ collection that Greece is campaigning to have returned).
Need to know for visiting the Acropolis
- Around the site are information signs telling you about each temple and of course if you visit as part of a guided tour, you will get plenty more information. If visiting independently, you can hire a registered guide at the entrance if you wish, or use your guidebook to give you an overview of the site.
- You can’t get inside any of the ancient buildings so it’s more about taking in the views of the temples and over the city of Athens and wondering at the huge scale of this iconic site.
- There are toilets at the top of the Acropolis rock but nowhere to buy drinks or refreshments, so you should at least take some water with you. In the hotter months it will be baking up here with only a few places for shade.
- The entry is €12 per adult, €6 for reduced tickets (aged 65+ from EU if you produce a passport) and this gives entry to a number of other sites for 7 days.
- In winter (Nov-March) the site opens 8.30-3pm and in summer 8am-7pm. We were there in late February when it was not too crowded but in summer I imagine that the crowds are huge, so you may want to visit early or later in the day when the tour groups have gone home.
Visiting the Acropolis Museum
After the Acropolis, our next stop was the Acropolis Museum, a world-class setting for the treasures of the Acropolis hill that rises above it. Most of the statues and friezes on the Parthenon have been brought here to preserve them, being replaced by modern copies on the temple itself.
On the outside, the museum shows its clean, modern lines with walls of glass to shed plenty of natural light and give views towards the Acropolis rock. The museum is built over the remains of the ancient city and you can look down into the kitchens and latrines of Ancient Greece as you walk towards the entrance.
The open galleries on the first floor are supported by columns and many of the sculptures from different periods of the Acropolis are on display here. Originally many of these would have been painted in bright colours, very different from the serene white marble appearance of today. I was surprised to see how different the statues would have looked, with almost garish blues and reds and details picked out in gold.
On the third floor, the Parthenon Gallery is laid out to mimic the Parthenon itself, with steel columns in place of the marble pillars of the Parthenon, and the friezes that ran all around the sides of the temple and formed the pediment at the top.
Where parts of the frieze were missing, for instance the parts that are on display in the British Museum, a copy was shown in raw plaster next to aged ivory colour of the original carving.
Most famous are the Caryatids that you’ll have seen at the Erechtheion on top of the Acropolis; this is where the real ones are kept to preserve them from the elements. They are also a favourite spot for visitors to have their photograph taken which is allowed in this part of the museum although not in all the galleries.
On the second floor we watched a video in English about the history of the Acropolis which made it quite clear where they stand on the Elgin collection, now kept in the British Museum. There is a long-standing campaign to have these artefacts from the Parthanon returned to the Acropolis museum which you can even vote on as you pass through Athens airport.
We finished a very enjoyable visit to the Acropolis Museum with a drink on the sunny terrace cafe looking up at the Acropolis Hill above.
Need to know for visiting the Acropolis Museum
- The museum is set at the foot of the Acropolis Hill next to Acropolis Metro station.
- Entrance charge is €5
- Open normally 8am-8pm April-October, 9am-5pm Nov-March (check website for variations some days)
- There is a great cafe with waiter service and views of the Acropolis from the terrace
- On the top floor, watch the video in English about the history of the Acropolis.
- Photography for personal use is allowed in some but not all of the galleries.
Around Athens there are plenty of other ancient sites and here are just a few that we enjoyed.
Sunset at Areopagus Hill
Walking along the path from the Acropolis Museum leading toward Monastiraki you’ll see the Areopagus Hill, a rocky outcrop which has some wooden steps to allow you to climb to the top. From here you can get a great view of the Acropolis as well as over the whole city and it’s a favourite place to come at sunset as the city turns golden below you.
The Odeion of Herodes Atticus
On the pedestrian route that leads past the museum up to the Acropolis you’ll pass the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, with solid stone arches through which you can glimpse the ancient theatre that was built in 161AD by a wealthy Athenian in memory of his wife. In summer the 5000 seat theatre is used for music, opera and concerts during the Athens festival that runs throughout the summer.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
On one of our walks in the neighbourhood of our hotel we passed by the Temple of Olympian Zeus, set in a grassy park, although the gates were shut when we were there, so we had to content ourselves with a view through the railings. The temple was constructed over several centuries but fell out of use in the third century AD and the stones used for building elsewhere in the city. Today you can see a group of decorative Corinthian columns and the one that fell over in a storm, showing the round, carved sections like giant stone coins that made up the column.
Have you visited the Acropolis or the Acropolis Museum and if so, what was your favourite part?
More articles from Greece
Where to stay when visiting the Acropolis
I highly recommend the 5 star Electra Palace Hotel where I stayed with my parents and sister while in Athens. This elegant, luxury hotel is in the Plaka district of Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis, and is well situated to walk easily to most of the ancient sites. The hotel is classic in decor and is a haven of calm to return to at the end of your day’s sightseeing.
Even when not sightseeing, you’re never far from those prized Acropolis views, since there is a rooftop pool and bar to relax in the hotter months as well as a rooftop restaurant serving modern Greek cuisine where you can dine in the evening.
Compare prices and book for hotels in Athens on my Hotel Booking Page powered by Hotels Combined
Thanks to the Electra Palace Hotel, Athens who hosted Heather’s stay at the hotel.
Most people in Britain think of Le Havre as a place to get off the ferry and drive straight on to their holiday in France. For the French however, it’s a sailor’s haven, a seaside resort for families and a gateway to the Alabaster Coast, with the translucent light so loved by the Impressionist painters. On my weekend in Le Havre I discovered there’s a lot more to this UNESCO World Heritage site than meets the eye and with daily ferries on the Portsmouth Le Havre crossing with Brittany Ferries, it’s ideal for a weekend break. Here’s my weekend guide to what you can see in Le Havre, France.
Arriving on Brittany Ferries to Le Havre
We arrived in Le Havre port on an overnight sailing with Brittany Ferries, having slept well in our cabin bunks, risen to a good breakfast and gone up on deck just as dawn was breaking. With flat-fronted post-war buildings lining the port, you won’t find much of the picturesque, since most of the town was destroyed by Allied bombing in the Second World War. The man awarded with the monumental and unenviable task of rebuilding Le Havre and rehousing the 80,000 people who had been made homeless, was architect Auguste Perret.
The post-war architecture of Le Havre
Rather than try to reconstruct the town in the old style, the acres of rubble were replaced with a unified town plan, with the inhabitants being rehoused in new apartments, allocated based on the size of the houses they had lost. The approach was not universally popular since the people of Le Havre just wanted their old town back, even though the scale of the devastation made this impossible.
Since there was no source of stone nearby, little petrol to transport materials and a minimal post-war budget, the options were limited. Perret’s solution earned him the name The Poet of Concrete. This flexible material could be easily transported and mixed on site, to create low rise apartment blocks that were harmonious, yet each subtly different in their colours, textures, classical columns and balcony design.
From the top of the Hôtel de Ville Le Havre, we were able to look out over the town and see how it had been rebuilt with ordered boulevards and everywhere rectangular apartment blocks. Perret’s modernist vision has now been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, as an example of post-war town planning and the innovative use of concrete.
If you go: Enquire in the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) or Maison du Patrimoine (the Le Havre tourist information centre) at 181, rue de Paris, to check whether there are guided tours up the tower of the Hôtel de Ville, which are recommended for the 360 degree views over the town.
The Church of St Joseph in Le Havre
As you come into Le Havre by ferry, the spire of St Joseph’s church rises 350 feet above the town, serving as a lighthouse for sailors to navigate into safe harbour. The church is one of main tourist attractions in Le Havre, a landmark building that Auguste Perret designed after the war, built on the site of earlier churches that had been destroyed.
Like the rest of Perret’s designs, St Joseph’s is a monument in concrete, the solid, square base not giving much away of what is inside. The exterior has an industrial feel, like a giant warehouse, but once inside, the interior is softened by the glow of the stained glass in geometric patterns.
Unusually the church is built on the square Greek cross, with the spire rising like a chimney above the central altar. Perret left the concrete structure unadorned, just as it came out of the moulds, but he commissioned the design of the stained glass from another artist, Marguerite Huré.
The 6500 pieces of stained glass rise in grades of colour getting paler until they end with white at the top of the spire. The impression is a harmonious whole but there are subtle variations of colour which change with the direction of the sun. To the east the lilac, green and gold represent the nativity, to the north the blue represents the Virgin Mary and to the south the orange and gold represent the victory of Christ triumphant.
Other than the stained glass there is little decoration, only the two statues of the Virgin and Saint Joseph that were brought from an earlier church. St Joseph’s church is austerely beautiful and unique. The stained glass colours reminded me, as I looked up the spire towards the sky, of a child’s kalaidascope with dots of colour forming ever changing patterns.
I remember my grandfather made one for my mother during the war with balls of coloured foil sweet wrappers. Perhaps Marguerite Huré had one too? The church was completed after Perret’s death in 1957 and is dedicated to the victims of the bombings in Le Havre.
Read more about St Joseph’s Church, The symbol of Le Havre’s rebirth
If you go: St Joseph’s church, Bd François 1er, 76600 LE HAVRE. Free entry. Open daily 10:00-6:00pm except during services.
The Auguste Perret Show Flat in le Havre
To get a feel for the accommodation that was built to rehouse families after so much of the town had been destroyed in the war, visit Appartement Témoin Perret, the ‘Show Flat’ which is an example of one of the apartments that has been furnished as it would have been in the 1950s.
In order to maximise the limited space, at a time when the priority was to rehouse the largest number of people, Perret created an open plan layout with a living area off which all the other rooms flow. It was revolutionary that the bathroom was not outside in the yard and the kitchen was now in the heart of the home, boasting labour saving appliances such as a refrigerator, pressure cooker and vacuum cleaner.
If I was a modern woman of the 1950s, having lived through the war and the town laid to rubble, I think one of these flats might have looked like heaven to me! I’d be happy to move in myself, with the wooden floors, colourful rugs and warm oak furniture, reminiscent of the classic Scandinavian designs of the same era. I loved the way that even the wardrobes were filled with clothing from the period and the shelves stacked with crockery, as if the family had just popped out to do some shopping.
If you go: Auguste Perret Show Flat, Maison du patrimoine, 181 rue de Paris. Entry: 5 €, free for under 26 yrs and on 1st Saturday of every month. Open Weds, Sat, Sun for tours at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, 5pm and additional times in July/August.
Le Volcan in Le Havre
What Le Havre lost in its picturesque pre-war town, it has more than made up for in stunning modern architecture like Le Volcan, the Volcano shaped cultural centre by Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. We walked down the steps from the road to an open piazza below the level of the main town and through the library which was packed with families, teenagers and locals of all ages.
It’s not really a place you would think to go as a tourist, but walking through into the space below one of the two ‘volcanos’ we could see what an effective and clearly much loved venue this is. Orange and yellow chairs are grouped around casually, with book-cases for browsing, rooms to watch a DVD or listen to music and spaces to just hang out with your friends or people-watch from the upper level balconies. I think there are probably a few quiet corners if you just want a snooze too!
If you go: Le Volcan, 1 quai George V. Free entry for the library, also musical and artistic events are held here.
MUMA Modern art museum
One of my favourite things to do in Le Havre was the Musée Malraux of Modern Art or MUMA, a light and airy glass sided box that contains the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris. Start your visit on the quayside opposite the museum where you’ll find an information board telling you about the view that Monet painted from this very spot which he named “Impression, Sunrise” giving name to a whole movement of painting – Impressionism.
The art museum is a restful setting for the Impressionist paintings, many of them donations and legacies from major private art collections. Who needs Musee d’Orsay, when you can see the Monet lilies painted at Giverny, Renoir’s pretty Excursioniste with walking pole in hand, the elegant Degas ballerinas and artworks by Pissaro, Sisley and many others. I loved the colourful, flowing art of Raoul Dufy, who was born in Le Havre and the whole wall upstairs of Normandy cows and pastel sailing boats by Eugène Boudin who painted all along this coast.
When MUMA was built in the 1960s it was quite unusual to have a café in a museum and it looked the perfect place to sit with a coffee to contemplate the boats passing by on the Seine estuary. If you love the Impressionists, there’s a whole trail along the coast of information signs at the places where key paintings were made. Pick up a leaflet at the Maison du Patrimoine visitor centre (181 rue de Paris) or download the iphone app here
If you go: MuMa André Malraux Museum of Modern Art, Cost: 5€ , free for under 26 years and on 1st Saturday of month. Open daily except Tuesday 11am – 6pm. Arrive by bus Line 3 from the train station.
Maison de L’Armateur – the Shipowner’s mansion
In contrast to all all the modern architecture is the Maison de L’armateur or Ship Owner’s Mansion, an elegant 18th century house that faces the harbour. Built in 1790 by a leading Le Havre architect, it was later bought by a wealthy merchant, Martin Pierre Foache, to use as his offices as well as the winter residence of his family.
What makes the house unusual is the central glazed atrium illuminated by a glass skylight, off which the rooms of the house radiate on four floors. The mansion is elegantly furnished with wooden parquet flooring, marble fireplaces, pictures, furniture and objects of the period that show the lifestyle lived by a wealthy 18th century merchant.
The ground floor was used for storage, with the ship-owner’s office on the first floor, while upper floors were the living space of the shipowner’s family. From the upper floor rooms I could look out and imagine the merchant spending time with his family, while keeping one eye on his ships passing through the port from his window.
If you go: Maison de l’Armateur, 3 Quai de l’Ile. Cost: €5, free under 26 yrs and 1st Saturday of month. Open: 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m., except Weds from 2:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. Guided tours Sat 11:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sun 11:00 a.m. Closed on Tuesdays, Wednesday mornings.
By the water in Le Havre
If you love the sea, there are plenty of places to walk close to the water in and around the port of Le Havre. Stroll along the Bassin de Commerce, the harbour front, cruise port, the marinas and the beach promenade which comes alive in summer with pop-up bars and restaurants. My sister also enjoyed a visit to Les Bains des Docks, a modern public baths and spa, with pools, sauna, jets and leisure facilities that sounded amazing.
On the cliffs at Etretat
A 40 minute drive north along the coast from Le Havre is the small seaside town of Etretat with a pebble beach. The white cliffs of the Alabaster coast extend at the edge of town, where you can get the famous views of the sea arch la falaise d’aval and the seascapes loved by the impressionist painters.
On the cliff tops where there’s a car park you can walk around the pretty chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde, with cow head gargoyles along one side that match the Normandy cows munching contentedly in the fields. The original chapel was destroyed in WW2 so what you see is a reconstruction built in the 1950s, and unfortunately wasn’t opened when we visited so I couldn’t look inside.
From the chapel, paths lead along the cliff top and down to some of the hidden beaches under the cliffs that earn this the name of Alabaster coast. It was quite windy on the cliff top and I didn’t dare go much closer to the edge for fear of being blown over!
Behind the chapel is another monument known as L’Oiseau blanc that commemorates the transatlantic flight from Paris to New York in 1930 of Costes and Belmonte. They had been preceded in 1927 by Charles Linderberg who being the first (and American) is of course the one to be remembered. However there were six unsuccessful attempts before his and four of these disappeared into the Atlantic, never to be seen again.
After our wander along the cliff top we drove down to the small town of Etretat which was full of charming houses, bars and restaurants. There were just a few people strolling around and walking on the pebble beach but I imagine that it is packed in summer.
If you visit Etretat by car, you may like to also stop at Manoir de Cateuil at Valaine close by, a farm where they make cider, keep goats and sell cheese and goats milk ice cream as well as delicious chocolates which we tried – check the website for more information.
If you go: Etretat is a 40 minute drive north from Le Havre on the D940 and there is a car park on top of the cliff. You can also take the No 24 bus from Le Havre which runs a few times a day.
Try the Normandy cuisine at Le Havre
If you’d like to try some of the traditional dishes of Normandy – often based on cheese, cream, cider and calvados, I can highly recommend Le Bouchon Normande in Le Havre where we had dinner one evening (77 Rue Louis Brindeau). The restaurant has a cheerful bistro atmosphere with a menu of homely dishes that use the best of the local ingredients from the nearby market and the surrounding region. There are a wide range of choices from soupe de poisson and terrine de campagne to escargot (snails), tête de veau (brains) and tripe if you really insist. And of course there will be at least one desert that includes the famous Normandy apples in one form or another.
For food shopping in Le Havre, the covered market is open daily from 10am and well worth a visit to drool at the selection of ripe fromage, charcuterie and chocolat. On Sunday morning there’s also a street-market surrounding the market hall where we found even more delicious specialities like these Coeur de Neufchâtel heart shaped cheeses which the local ladies used to award to the soldiers and a sign of their favour. Since we were travelling home on Brittany Ferries there was no issue with space and we stocked up with a few delicacies of cheese, saucisson and Normandy cider to take back and enjoy.
For a real taste of Normandy, France we spent a morning at the country house outside Le Havre of Chef Régine who runs cookery classes as well as a “Chef Chez Vous” service where she will come and cook for your group or party.
Donning our chef’s hats we were able to try out some of the traditional dishes that Régine had recreated from the recipe books of Claud Monet who lived nearby at Giverny. Most delicious was the cheese soufflé made with gruyere, cream and nutmeg followed by the Chicken Honfleur with chicken poached in a creamy sauce of butter, wine and calvados with a scattering of piquant capers.
Lunch was served at a long table in Régine’s elegant conservatory clothed in vines and lemon trees, while we imagined ourselves to be living the rural French lifestyle that Monet might have enjoyed amidst his gardens at Giverny.
The piece de resistance was the Apple Giverny tart, a round of buttery shortbread topped with apple pieces cooked in butter and a most delicious salted butter caramel sauce. As you can tell those Normandy cows have a lot to answer for! We all came away vowing to recreate that desert and luckily Régine provided us with the recipe so I can share it with you.
Apple Giverny Tart
To make the caramel sauce mix in a saucepan 100g caster sugar and 3 soupspoons of water, add 100 salted butter cut in pieces and heat gently, adding 40cl cream slowly. Bring to the boil then turn down the heat and cook gently until thickened. Serve with the apple tart made with a shortcrust base topped with small cubes of apple that have been gently cooked in butter with a sprinkling of vanilla sugar.
Chef Régine can be contacted through Chef Chez Vous
Our weekend in Le Havre ended as we boarded the Portsmouth ferry late on Sunday afternoon for the sailing home, just as the sun was setting over the harbour. After a five hour crossing with a few drinks and a nice supper, we arrived back in Portsmouth later that evening. Our weekend with Brittany Ferries had proved that the channel ports like Le Havre are far more than a gateway to your holiday in France. They are weekend destinations in their own right, offering delicious food, fascinating history, impressionist art, refreshing walks by the sea and all in an easy hop across the channel. Who needs to fly?
Have you ever visited Le Havre and if so were you just passing through? Perhaps you’ll be tempted to go back and explore? Do let me know in the comments!
Read more about Le Havre and Brittany
Lines of Escape: A winter sun weekend in Le Havre
Mrs Ayla’s Adventure: A weekend discovering Le Havre
Heather on her travels: A Road trip through Brittany and Normandy
Heather on her travels: Gone fishing for crabs in Brittany
For more information
Plan your ferry to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries who sail from Portsmouth to Le Havre, Caen, St Malo, and from Poole to Cherbourg and from Plymouth to Roscoff and St Malo. Connect on Social Media | Twitter | Facebook| Pinterest | Youtube | Blog
Where to stay in Le Havre
We enjoyed a very comfortable stay at the 4 star Novotel which is a short distance from the ferry port and the train station. The 134 room hotel is modern in style and we had a spacious bedroom on the first floor with an extremely comfortable mattresses. There was a good breakfast buffet and a tram stop close by to reach the centre of town, although we could also have walked. Novtel Le Havre, 20 Cours La Fayette, Quai Colbert, 76600, Le Havre, France. Compare prices and book for hotels in Le Havre here
Getting to le Havre on Brittany Ferries
Heather and Jillian travelled on Brittany Ferries who sail daily to Le Havre as well as a number of other ports in Brittany and Normandy. The ferries from Portsmouth sail daily in winter at 23.15 arriving at 8.00 the next morning and returns from Le Havre at 17.15 or 22.00 with more sailings in high season. Travelling as a foot passenger on the Le Havre Ferry with an en suite cabin both ways would cost around £100 per person or £140 per person if taking the car (based on 2 people sharing).
We sailed on board the Etretat, with a bar, lounge and small cinema as well as a self service restaurant with excellent food. Check the Brittany Ferries website for more information and to book your crossing.
Thanks to le Havre Tourism and Brittany Ferries who hosted Heather and her sister for a weekend break in Le Havre.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey