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Exploring France's Northern Coast

200907-a-normandy-coast

Photo: David Nicolas

When he wrote those volumes, the historic, aesthetic, and geographic parameters of the Côte Fleurie were already set.

However you looked at it, the coast represented very good real estate. So just before World War I, the manager of the Trouville Casino, then the area’s center of gravity, decided to build some more grand hotels on the beach. When Trouville refused permission, Deauville said yes, and the Royal and Normandy hotels and the casino between them, which dominate the seashore, were erected. After a brief stint as hospitals during the war, they were ready to receive royals and painters, as well as actors, writers, and designers like the young Coco Chanel, who began her career there, when they all poured in for what became known as the années folles, or crazy years after the war, the real start of the 20th century. Although equestrian enthusiasts from America began coming to the Côte Fleurie in the 1920’s, attracted by its racetracks, polo, and annual summer auctions of thoroughbred yearlings, and French filmmakers began making movies here in the 1950’s, it was only in the mid-1970’s, with the advent of the Deauville film festival, that it acquired a broader international renown.

Though I was never invited to any grand châteaux or to one of the farms where Deauville thoroughbreds are raised and trained, I did meet a number of those who’ve been habitués. My first morning in Deauville, just after breakfast, I struck up a conversation with Philippe de Nicolay, 53, president of the Deauville Polo Club and son of Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild. It was his 52nd season there, “so I qualify, almost, as a local,” he joked. He certainly sounded like one as he extolled the area’s virtues. “It’s lusciously green, wonderfully peaceful, and the weather is invigorating,” he said. “And when it’s sunny, it’s the best place in the world—and only 120 miles from Paris.”

Nicolay was full of stories of the glory days of the Côte Fleurie, when he’d see the likes of Aly Khan and Rita Hayworth at the races. “People are fanatical about the horses,” he said. There is still “some razzmatazz,” he explained, during the film festival and also during the summer racing and auction season, when the population of Deauville swells from some 4,000 to 40,000—more than a few of them royals and retainers, though now more often from the Middle East than the French nobility. But Nicolay was also keen to tout the region’s more accessible attractions and the off-season beauty some know only from films like A Man and a Woman. “The charm of Normandy is very close to our hearts,” Nicolay said. “This is not St.-Tropez or Cannes. You don’t come here to be seen.” Then he laughed to himself. “But you’re noticed,” he allowed.

A day later, I joined the mayor of Deauville, Philippe Augier, and his wife, Béatrice, for a late-afternoon drink. Augier was the assistant to a Baroness d’Ornano, who preceded him as mayor for 24 years. They protected the community’s many landmarks, and banned outdoor advertising to keep views unobstructed. But even as Augier spoke with pride of Deauville’s packed calendar of cultural and sporting events, and of its “pleasure, glamour, and elegance,” he and his wife also urged me to get out of town.

“You have to see the countryside,” said Béatrice, “the small villages, the churches, the gardens, the castles.” Then, as most locals do, her husband joked about the weather. “It’s not a problem,” he insisted. “No sun…or sun…or rain! Walking in the rain on the beach is very romantic. That’s why the Impressionists came: to catch the changing light.” Pointing outside, where gray skies had cleared just in time for sunset, he added, “Today was perfect—you had all in the same day.”

Maybe they can sell the weather.

And they’re right: the Côte Fleurie has more than beaches to offer. There’s the local architecture, the ancient Norman houses up and down the coast, the 17th-century port at Honfleur, the 19th-century public grandeur of Deauville, and the private glamour of the fantastic timbered and towered mansions that line the sea at Houlgate. From the late 20th, there’s the swooping, soaring Pont de Normandie, which was, when it was opened in 1995, the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, connecting Honfleur and Le Havre. More pedestrian, but no less pleasing, are the street markets in Deauville’s Place Morny and in Trouville, where fish stalls—Boudin famously painted them—stretch the length of the port, offering provisions for gourmet chefs and instant, inexpensive alfresco meals.

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