Saturday, April 24, 2021

New Year's Eve in Normandy

Trip date: December 2019

After three wonderful nights spent in Honfleur we were on the move. It was New Year's Eve and we would be spending most of the day driving around seeing some more of the sights of the most northeastern end of Normandy.

We drove 30 minutes north, over the big bridge that spans the mouth of the Seine, and into Le Havre. We were just stopping for lunch, and I think we picked the perfect spot! I'd highly recommend a meal at Le Bistrot des Halles if you are in search of traditional bistro fare with a cute atmosphere and lots of easy street parking. 

I started with a bowl of fish soup which is famous in the region, and then had this amazing skate wing in brown butter caper sauce. Cheese to finish, as you do!

Another 30 minutes north, driving along the coast, we arrived in Étretat. We were stopping to view the incredible rock formations, as others have done for hundreds of years. It was an absolutely stunning winter day to view the Porte d'Aval arch and the Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde sitting atop the white cliffs.

Really a beautiful area if you are nearby. There are multiple parking lots throughout the town and even though it was a holiday and quite busy, we still found a spot very near the beach. As an added surprise, we ended up randomly running into the friends we would be meeting later that evening, also enjoying the cliffs!

Back in the car it was 20 minutes to our next destination, the city of Fecamp and home of the Palais Benedictine

We bought our tickets for a self-guided tour of this over-the-top palace/museum, built by the "inventor" of Benedictine, Alexandre Le Grand.

There are some interesting displays of typical hardware used on homes back in the day, a medieval Rejuvenation if you will. There is also a lot of stained glass that helps to celebrate himself and his business.

The story of the invention of the herbal liqueur Benedictine is a bit cloudy and a bit fabricated. But basically it was invented in 1863 by Le Grand and a local chemist. Many are led to believe that the spirit was made by monks, which is a bit of a tall tale. The chemist basically riffed on some old recipes he found that had been possibly written by monks. Le Grand embellished the story and saw his sales rise, so he continued on with it.

There is a large hall filled with wonderful photos of Benedictine being bottled and packed for shipping during war times, so you see that all the workers were women. There are also shelves and shelves of the various bottles and labels used over the years. 

Our tour also included a chaperoned visit in the distillery and the cellars. It was all pretty interesting and I don't think I've ever visited or learned about a liquor product that had so much "history" made up about it.
We finished with a tasting of both Benedictine on its own as well as a small cocktail made from it. There were a few choices so the three of us tried to mix up our drinks so we could taste them all. And in true Alexandre Le Grand style, the exit is through the gift shop.

It was time to meet our friends who had graciously invited us to spend New Year's Eve at their awesome Normandy farmhouse. 

The rest of the night was an abundance of champagne, foie gras, wine, an incredible dinner, and a lot of laughing and singing in a house full of friends ringing in 2020. Quite a bit different than New Year's 2021 would end up being!

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

All photos of Le Havre, Étretat & Fecamp here.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Day Trip to the Parisian Riviera

Trip date: December 2019

While staying in Honfleur we spent one full day exploring the seaside resort towns of Trouville and Deauville. On the way, we stopped at Villerville on the advise of our Airbnb owner. 

This tiny town with just 800 residents sits on a cliff that stretches all the way to Trouville. It's easy to park and walk out to the sea and along the wall. You'll likely be the only ones save for a few locals. Villerville was the location for the filming of the 1962 movie Un Singe en Hiver and we found multiple signs on our walk through town pointing out the various shot locations. 

As we drove closer to Trouville-sur-Mer and Deauville the size of the homes we passed increased pretty dramatically. These two cities, side by side and separated by a bridge over the channel that runs from the sea, are sometimes referred to as the Parisian Riviera. It's just about a 2 ½ train trip from Paris, so the location has attracted the rich and famous with its beaches, casinos, and horse tracks since the early 1900s.

We started in Trouville which is the more family friendly and casual of the two cities. Along the Boulevard Fernand Moureaux there is a very large fish market with an amazing selection of seafood from regions both local and across the globe. You can purchase your fresh fish to go or have the items prepared for you as almost every shop has a dining area across the walkway. 

We chose Chez Robert et Denis and had an incredible lunch of oysters, shrimps, snails, grilled lobster, and seafood bisque. It was all delicious and super fun!
After lunch we spent some time on the Trouville beach boardwalk; although it was winter there were still many people enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. There was an area for kids that had pony rides on the sand. It was fun to see the little beach changing cabins and the half-timbered hotels that offered guests stunning views of the ocean.
We wandered through the old town, doing a little window shopping along the way. I loved the old advertising posters that are still on many buildings and fences. Trouville has always been a fishing town first, and then evolved as a more affordable resort option vs. posh Deauville across the bridge. The posters advertised cheery café life, family friendly swimming, etc.

Across the bridge, the riches of Deauville are apparent immediately. Fishing vessels are replaced by yachts and sailboats while designer stores line the immaculately landscaped streets. Even the cobblestones are fancy!
We made our way to the 5-star Le Normandy Hotel, which was beautifully decked out for the holidays, and grabbed seats at Le Bar which is just off the lobby. This is where celebrities such as Winston Churchill and Coco Chanel stayed and drank while vacationing at the sea. The bar and the drinks were absolutely lovely, we may have stayed for two rounds.
There is a passageway that takes you directly to the casino through the empty back hallways of the hotel. We thought we'd go in and play for just a bit but I hadn't realized that passports were required for entry and all I had was my driver's license. Crap, pun intended. 

It was getting a bit late anyway so we took advantage of the still shining but now setting sun and walked along the Deauville boardwalk. The changing cabins here all have names of famous people who were known to vacation at the Parisian Riviera. 

We strolled by more amazing mansions on our way to the boat taxi which would shuttle us back over to Trouville and our car park. 

What a lovely day that was!

All photos of Trouville & Deauville (and Honfleur) here

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Intro to Normandy; Honfleur

Trip date: December 2019

After a lovely holiday at Forest and Thibault's country house in the Le Perche area, the three of us loaded up their car and headed almost due north to the town of Rouen, about a 1 ½ hour drive. Just in time for lunch!

Le 6è Sens, or The Sixth Sense, is a modern restaurant located in the 100+ year old vaulted area of an unfinished hall. It's a very interesting ambiance! The menu is "gastronomique" and the dishes are absolutely gorgeous. We were served a selection of amuse bouche, then a starter, main, and a wonderful cheese plate. Normandy is known for Camembert, Livarot, and Pont l'Evêque so it was great to have all three on my plate!

After this lovely lunch we set off to explore the town for a bit. Rouen is the capital of Normandy and there certainly is a lot of history here. There are also a lot of churches, the city's nickname is "city of a hundred steeples", and we were on our way to visit the famous cathedral which has one of the tallest steeples in the world!

To be honest I was so taken with the incredible detail on the outside that I really didn't focus on the steeple, but it is over 400 feet tall! The intricate sculptures that adorn the facade were overwhelming. The inside of this grand cathedral was no slouch either!

I was so happy that we started our tour of Normandy here! This church has been here since 1880 and has survived multiple wars. It was pretty awe inspiring standing inside.

Outside, Rouen's Christmas market was still going on so we took a quick glance at the various stalls before making our way back to the car. The car park was right next to the Church of Joan of Arc. Next to the church is a small garden called Le Bouchet which is the exact spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. That was a pretty big thing to just happen upon next to the car park!
From here we drove 1 hour west to our first Calvados distillery- Christian Drouin. There are over 200 varieties of apples grown to create cider and Calvados in Normandy and distillation of the fruit has been going on in this northern region since the 1600s! I'm a huge brandy fan so I was very excited to be in the AOC of Calvados!

We had called ahead to let them know we would be arriving as we were cutting it pretty close to their closing time. This family estate has been making Calvados since 1960 and is a very well regarded and recognized small producer. Not to mention how cute the half timbered farm houses are! 
We had a tour of the barn where the cider apples are pressed and distilled, and then the barrel house where the spirits were aged. Lots of information on the process, agriculture of the area, styles of Calvados, etc. 

And our course there was a tasting back in the office! It was really fun for me to taste from the Blanche (very young, 2 years of age), through the Pays d'Auge (this is the AOC in the eastern part of Normandy) Reserve, VSOP, XO, and Hors d'Age (aged for 15+ years). Christian Drouin also makes a gin that we tasted which was interesting.

I bought myself a lovely XO (6+ year), as well as a VSOP for Forest and I to drink over the next couple of weeks. We also picked up a bottle of Pomme du Normandie which is very popular aperitif in the region (an aged blend of cider and calvados)  and a lovely 2015 sparkling brut cider. 

You can listen to Forest's podcast interview with a representative from the Christian Drouin distillery here, there's a lot of great information!

20 minutes north is Honfleur, our final destination for the day. We were excited to unpack and settle in for our 3-night stay in our lovely 2-floor apartment

Honfleur is such an charming and picturesque city, with most of the old town hugging the small harbor, it was a perfect first stop in Normandy. On our first night out we immersed ourselves completely, starting with a very fun dinner at Le Bistro du Port. The large terrace was enclosed to protect against the winter chill and it was filled with diners happily eating and drinking. 

I ordered an awesome seafood tower that was filled with crab, langoustines, bulots (whelks), bigorneaux (sea snails), crevettes roses & grises (red & grey shrimp), amandes (cockles) and huîtres creuses du Cotentin (local oysters).  And after all that delicious food I had the ultimate dessert, my first Trou normand; apple sorbet floating in a coupe of Calvados. YUM!

After dinner we walked around the picture perfect harbor and stopped in at a random bar for a nightcap Calvados.

The entire next day was spent enjoying Honfleur. It was just a short, and very pretty walk, from our apartment to Saint-Catherine's Church. This massive wooden structure was built in the mid 1400's, its architecture unlike anything I've seen before.
As with most churches during the holidays, this one had a pretty large and interesting nativity scene filled with figurines of people and animals. Some clever person also put a funny ceramic cat in it which made me laugh!

We could not have asked for a nicer winter day. The sun was shining and the temperature was mild. Honfleur Christmas market was still going on with kiosks set up around the harbor. I grabbed a cup of hot Normandy cider and wandered the stalls.

This market had an amazing selection of food vendors! Oysters, scallops, mussels, and lobster were brought in from the fishing boats just on the other side of the pier and shucked, grilled, or sauted to your liking. There was an organic farmer selling incredibly delicious squash soups and another vender selling traditional galettes. I was obviously in heaven!

We grabbed a table in the sun and had a wonderful lunch of Coquilles St Jacque, mussels steamed in wine and garlic, fish soup, and inexpensive white wine. Pure vacation bliss right there!

We continued our exploration of Honfleur, walking through the cobbled streets and quaint neighborhoods, checking out the houses, some half timbered and others with slate-covered facades, all so pretty in the ever changing light. It's no wonder that the Impressionist artists like Boudin, Monet, and Sisley spent so much time painting here. 

We made our way to Chez DD wine bar and settled in with a lovely bottle of Burgundy and a great charcuterie plate. I'm not sure where we heard about this place but it was a great find and I'd happily stop here again.

That night we had reservations at Michelin 2-star SaQuaNa. It's quite a sensory change to walk in from the medieval feel if the old town and into the stark modernism of the restaurant. The menu here focuses on taking traditional and local dishes and giving them an international and modern twist. 
The plating of everything was exceptionally beautiful, like this scallop with cabbage, fried chickpeas, and guacamole. And the service was very good. I don't know what it was for sure but I just thought it was all good, but not great. We did end the night with a lovely 1994 Calvados from Christian Drouhin, it was certainly great! 

The next night we had dinner at La Cidrerie which serves traditional galettes (savory crepes made with buckwheat flour) and cider that you drink from bowls. I would absolutely recommend this casual stop!

Honfleur's market sets up on Wednesday and Saturday mornings right in the shadow of the church. It was also set up the day we left as it was New Years Eve. Besides the gorgeous frisee, leeks, and potatoes there was a vender selling fresh oysters, a mobile fish market, and a wine merchant. 
I just loved, loved, loved Honfleur! If you are thinking of a trip to Normandy I would absolutely stay here for a day or three. Not only is it charming and beautiful but it's also a great home base for daytripping to Trouville, Deauville, and Le Havre. More on that to come.

All photos of Honfleur and surrounding here

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

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