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Exploring France's Northern Coast

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Photo: David Nicolas

Though it’s a local cliché, one must eat at Les Vapeurs and Le Central, two adjoining seafood brasseries facing the Trouville port. Les Vapeurs is the sort of French restaurant you dream—and have nightmares—about: the zinc accents, the paper-covered tables, and, of course, the comically abrupt waiters. The delicate Norman sole (it’s called Dover across the Channel) my wife and I ordered was perfect.

Over the next few days, we explored. Honfleur was picturesque: a tourist town, but one steeped in history. It’s where Samuel Champlain set off on his voyages of discovery not long before Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert, redesigned the town, knocking down the walls and building massive salt cellars, a dock, and the visual landmark of the port, the Lieutenancy, the residence of the king’s local officer. It incorporates part of the town’s original ramparts and the medieval fortress gate. Nearby is Honfleur’s greatest surviving building, the Ste.-Catherine Church, and its separate bell tower, dating back to the 15th century. The largest, most unusual wooden church in France, it was built by marine carpenters and its vaults resemble the interior of a ship’s hull. Around the quay, narrow slate-front houses, each different from the next, lean helter-skelter, squeezed so tightly together they look as if they are holding each other up. It’s best to skip the galleries in town; any hunger for art can be satisfied at the Eugène Boudin Museum, which honors Honfleur’s famous native son, and at the eccentric Maisons Satie, birthplace of the avant-garde composer Erik Satie, where a series of odd but amusing tableaux vivants tell of his life and times.

Thirteen miles up the coast from Le Havre is Étretat, hometown of Guy de Maupassant and a favorite subject of the Impressionists. It emerges from a landscape of flat fields and has a lovely crescent beach surrounded by mammoth sheer cliffs and natural stone arches.

Driving through the surrounding Pays d’Auge we found, as Deauville’s mayor promised, beauty and history, both natural and man-made. The local châteaux are no rivals for those of the Loire, but St.-Germain de Livet, a half 15th-, half 16th-century castle with two small towers, has beautiful grounds, Renaissance frescoes, mementos of Delacroix, and an entertaining house tour—it remained occupied, though it lacked running water, until 1957.

Rouen has its cathedral, another Impressionist landmark, and Bayeux’s famous tapestry—displayed in a well-run little museum—tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. And, of course, just west of the Côte Fleurie are the landing beaches of a conquest that came almost a millennium later, the invasion of Normandy. They have a different sort of fascination. As do the small towns that dot the countryside, like Beaumont-en-Auge, where we waited out a rainstorm and had a quiet, delicious lunch at the Auberge de l’Abbaye, just down the street from the town’s church. It was established in Carolingian times and—once the sky cleared—revealed grounds with a commanding view of the Touques Valley.

There was a sense here of being somewhere special and rare, where those who’d arrived before you don’t exactly open the gates, but aren’t slamming them shut in your face, either. Which is why my favorite memory is not of horses and riders on the shore at dawn, the brightly colored beach umbrellas, the castles, or the tapestries.

It was, instead, our last meal in Deauville. After our first few moments at Chez Miocque downtown, I felt I was being studied and told my wife I was uncomfortable—a large, loud balding man in resort clothes, at a table filled with what were clearly local horsemen, had been staring at us from the moment we walked in.

As our appetizers arrived, he got up, came to our table, and pointed to mine, a big bowl of moules. In a gravelly voice, he said: “I approve.” Then he asked if we were Americans, and we established that he was Jacques Aviègne, the owner and a town character, and that years before, he’d run two New York restaurants where we had often eaten. I relaxed and realized that I’d found the heart of the Côte Fleurie, a place both familiar and strange, where I would like one day to be known but was accepted nonetheless, simply because I had the sense to go there, even when it’s cloudy and raining.

Michael Gross is the author of the new book Rogue’s Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum.

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