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Exploring France's Northern Coast

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Photo: David Nicolas

It is often cloudy in Deauville, even in summer. But that doesn’t stop the daily promenade on the famous boardwalk known as Les Planches. For all the many pleasures of this serene resort town, made semi-famous by its music and film festivals and its appearances in movies and gossip columns, it is the simple act of walking along the sea that defines the place. The beach, which looks across the English Channel, is impossibly wide, studded with the brightly colored, artfully tied-up parasols that are Deauville’s visual signature. Looking west, the sand and ocean run into distant cliffs. To the north, the cranes and towers of the port of Le Havre in the distance seem austere and otherworldly rather than industrial, shimmering in the ever-changing light of the Seine estuary, the unique natural phenomenon that drew the Impressionists more than a century ago.

At the edge of the sand are Deauville’s beach cabanas, a long row of dressing rooms separated by low fences—each inscribed with the name of a movie star or director: Stanley Kramer, Stanley Donen, Burt Lancaster, William Wyler, Clint Eastwood, Yul Brynner, one after another. But the main attraction here is the stream of people, rich and poor, tweens and teens, refugees from the banlieues and the bourgeoisie, French farmers and Parisian flaneurs, Arabs, Africans, Brits, Italians, and even the odd American, all out for a bracing stroll in the sea air and then, perhaps, an espresso, a croissant, some crevettes grises or moules marinières at one of the beachside restaurants or cafés. They come in the sun. They come when it rains. They even come in winter. It’s the best show in town.

Laboring under the impression that France’s Côte Fleurie, the 30-mile-long Norman coast between the Seine and Orne estuaries, a favorite of luminaries from Marcel Proust and Claude Monet to Yves Saint Laurent and Angelina Jolie, was a solid stretch of société sur la plage, the Parisian equivalent of New York’s Hamptons, I’d worried that I’d feel like an outsider. Would I find my nose pressed against the glass at polo matches, the races at Deauville’s half-timbered Clairefontaine hippodrome, five-star meals next to movie stars in Michelin-rated restaurants, and extravagant dress-up evenings at the local casinos? But even though all those diversions are on offer, I quickly realized they don’t define the place.

Despite its glamorous image, despite the surrounding countryside full of verdant, rolling horse farms, expensive villas, and châteaux, the Côte Fleurie is serene and low-key, a quiet and accessible alternative to the south of France, a French Montecito as opposed to Malibu. In some ways, the place is defined by what it lacks; although it has beaches, the Côte Fleurie is no Riviera. It has wonderful food, but nothing is over-the-top. There’s nightlife, but it too is more patrician than pyrotechnic. The preferred sports are golf, tennis, and horseback riding; there are no mega-yachts, and unlike St.-Tropez and the Côte d’Azur, where the divisions between the very wealthy and everyone else are as clear as the fences dividing public beach from private club, here, you don’t need to be in the in-crowd to feel at home.

Cosmopolitan though it is, the Côte Fleurie is also something of a small town. Deauville was conceived during the Second Empire of Napoleon III by the Duke of Morny and a few others—including a doctor who vacationed in the little next-door working-class fishing port of Trouville, just across the Touques River—as a resort for the imperial court and its followers. A village sprang up out of previously deserted marshes and dunes, and it was soon said that wealthy Parisian men kept their wives in Deauville and their mistresses in Trouville.

At the same time, Eugène Boudin, a landscape painter from the area, met a young artist named Claude Monet and taught him to use oil paints and to work outdoors. A local widow, Madame Toutain, lived a few miles away in Honfleur, another eye-catching port town, this one dating back to the 11th century, when it was a fortress guarding the mouth of the Seine. Artists like Monet, Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, and the poet Charles Baudelaire (an early champion of Boudin), all stayed at Toutain’s farmhouse on a hill, where they ate the local shrimp and painted nature and the slate-front houses along the town’s 17th-century harbor from dawn until dusk—which stretches until after 10 p.m. in summer.

Though the widow’s farm was sold in 1870 and the artists scattered, that hillside is now the site of the Ferme St.-Siméon, a pleasant, family-friendly inn and spa with an ambitious (if overrated) restaurant. Today’s view across the Seine—straight into the industrial port of Le Havre—is hardly what Monet saw, yet it’s still easy to imagine how Honfleur became a crucible for Impressionism, which came into vogue as Deauville did in the late 19th century.

Simultaneously, Cabourg sprang out of the dunes at the western end of this lush stretch of coast. In 1880, Proust spent a childhood summer at its Grand Hôtel. He returned as an adult in 1907, after it had been rebuilt in a failed attempt to turn the family resort into another Deauville. Renamed “Balbec,” Cabourg and its palace hotel were key settings in Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

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