Mention Normandy outside France and the first image that springs to mind is “beaches”. The Normandy beaches have become a sort of icon for the beginning of the end of the Second World War. And for the British, Normandy also brings echoes of 1066 and all that — when some Norman king, tinged with Viking blood, did a reverse landing and conquered England.
Although we live about a 100 kilometres from the D-Day beaches, these clichés overlook something that is obvious to all us latter-day locals: the fact that we are blessed with one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
Based in Le Havre, we enjoy a long sea coast, stretching over 100 miles from the estuaries of the Seine and the Somme. This part of Normandy must have been attached to south east England ( from Dover to the Jurassic coast) at the time of the Pangaea super continent. A geologist friend explained that Britain got separated from France after a giant tsunami that happened millions of years ago. This white cliff coastline boasts “Operation Biting”, a successful raid by the RAF in February 1942 when the British destroyed the German radar that controlled most of the Channel area during WW2.
As avid walkers, my wife and I never cease to marvel at our surroundings. The sea coast consists largely of cliffs and small valleys, known in the local dialect as “valleuses”, which always lead to rocky beaches. The valleys are often covered with trees while, on the upper ground, a flatland atop the cliffs gives way to cultivated fields. The constantly changing light at all seasons of the year is amazing and it is no wonder that it inspired impressionists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Eugène Boudin, just to name a few, more than a century ago.
These days, my chosen tool to capture the changes of light and the various colours of the sea is the humble old Leica X2, an out-dated, fixed 36mm (equivalent) pocket camera that still produces outstanding results.
So what are some of our personal highlights of this unique stretch of coastline? We can recommend two special areas if you are inclined to try a walking holiday with a difference.
A pretty former fishing village, Yport lies 25 miles north of Le Havre. The road descends through a wooded valley to the village before leading through the town to the seafront. The community itself consists of two parallel streets. It was first settled in the 5th century, at the end of the Roman occupation of Gaul but the real development came in the 19th century.
It was then a fishing port and seaside resort, taking the lead in the new fashion of sea bathing. Yport remains a popular summer resort, with its casino and seafood restaurants. As an aside, it is the haunt of Magnum photographer Jean Gaumy who was born in the neighbourhood.
Although the last professional fishermen disappeared at the end of the 1960s, some amateur anglers still have their boats stranded on the beach. The boats are pulled to the upper part of the beach by means of capstans. They are a wonderful reminder of past times when the beach harboured a fleet of 50 small fishing boats with their nets and creels.
This “coastal-protected area” is our all-year-round local favourite walk. From the car park, a pedestrian walk descends directly through the beach. It starts in a wooded valley covered with wild hyacinths in the spring time. Instead of going directly to the beach, walkers can follow a path to the right which climbs up again through a small wood.
The path on higher ground is traced between fields. After two turns left, you finally reach the top of the cliff. Once you reach a tee-junction you may decide to take the path along the cliffs on your right which leads to Etretat. The walk is pleasant and allows you to watch the various arches and needles Etretat is famous for. The blue of the sea with the white cliffs and the green grass provides a truly amazing, ever-changing backdrop at all seasons of the year.
If you take the path to the left, you will end up the beach of Le Tilleul. From there you can walk to the keyhole where cliff divers climb. The keyhole also allows you to go to another secluded beach which can be reached thanks to a ladder and a small path carved in the cliff. If you are prone to vertigo this should be avoided. Unfortunately, on our last visit we discovered that the access to the keyhole had collapsed due to coastal erosion.
Back from the beach, you can avoid the crowd by taking a path returning to the cliff top and through a wooded vale, and thus back to the starting point.
All these images have been taken over the four years since I bought my Leica X2. This is my camera of choice because it is the ideal camera to capture the various hues of the land and seascape at any season of the year. It is also light and compact, an advantage when walking. The 36 mm (equivalent) f/2.8 Elmarit lens has just the perfect field of view for this walk. Somehow, too, the lens always succeeds in making the water seem crystal clear.