With its strong links with the UK over the preceding centuries, F�camp still has plenty to offer the modern visitor, says Patricia Stoughton
A safe haven on the C�te d’Alab�tre, once the seat of the Dukes of Normandy, F�camp has a great deal going for it. Set neatly in the River Valmont valley between some of the highest and most dramatic cliffs along the coast, the town has remained on a more manageable scale.
At its heart is a port; an attractive and interesting port, once famous for its Newfoundland fishing fleet, which today caters for small-scale commercial shipping, coastal fishing and leisure craft. With its quayside caf�s and restaurants, it has a typically relaxing, French atmosphere. A little neglected by British buyers during the past 20 years, F�camp could be worth another look.
The C�te d’Alab�tre, including the Pays des Hautes Falaises, and the surrounding Pays de Caux, have many pretty towns and villages tucked in among the cliffs or lying further back in the countryside. But what sets F�camp apart from its neighbours is the distinctive character of some of its architecture and its historic buildings, among which the Abbey church of La Ste-Trinit� is one of the most remarkable.
A vast 12th-century Gothic masterpiece, La Ste-Trinit� is the same length as Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. It reflected the importance of the Benedictine Abbey both as a centre of learning and, with its holy relics, a place of pilgrimage. It was spared the dismantlement and demolition that befell so many ecclesiastical buildings during the French Revolution by its reclassification as a parish church. However, many treasures were lost at the time, among them an attractive-sounding recipe for a liqueur made by a Benedictine monk, Dom Bernardo Vincelli. Sent to F�camp in 1505, he is said to have created an elixir which was widely sold until the French Revolution.
In 1863, Alexandre Le Grand, a F�camp wine merchant and book collector, re-discovered Vincelli’s recipe in one of his volumes, and after several attempts managed to recreate the liqueur. With permission from the Benedictine Order in Rome, he was allowed to call the liqueur B�n�dictine, in honour of its inventor. And it made his fortune. He commissioned a grandiose, palatial factory, which was completed in 1888. Four years later it was completely destroyed in an arson attack. Not to be defeated, Le Grand commissioned the even grander, half-Gothic, half-Renaissance-style palais, inaugurated in 1900, that is now a major feature of the town. It not only produces the world-famous liqueur but also houses a museum of sacred art as well as a gallery for contemporary exhibitions.
Another distinctive building, also a familiar navigational landmark, is the �glise St-�tienne, built on a promontory in the town between the 16th and 19th centuries. There is a special annual service on the first Sunday in February for sailors and their families.
Also important to sailors is the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Salut, at the top of the northern slope overlooking the town. It was where fishermen went to pray for protection before setting out on their long journey to the Newfoundland fisheries. Its significance as a landmark for returning sailors saved it from destruction during the Revolution. There is an interesting collection of mariners’ ex-voto tributes in the chapel and the history of their Newfoundland fishing expeditions, which came to an end in the 1970s, is commemorated in F�camp’s Mus�e des Terre-Neuvas et de la P�che.
However, leisure activities have coexisted with the fishing industry for a long while. In 1832 F�camp, already growing as a resort, was among the first to build a casino and to develop bathing facilities. At one time there were 60 cabins and tents along the pebble beach seafront. A complex system of tariffs existed depending on whether bathers wished to go into the waves under the cover of a tent alone or with a guide. A warm footbath cost extra. Women had to be protected from the sun under parasols or a veil, as suntans were a social no-no.
Celebrities, particularly singers, came to perform, or simply to watch shows at the casino. And the seaside promenade, opened in 1904, was the place to be seen. Among famous writers who lived or stayed in F�camp are Guy de Maupassant, who spent part of his childhood there; Victor Hugo, who came there regularly between 1825 and 1836; and Georges Simenon who, as an enthusiastic yachtsman, had his boat Ostrogoth built locally.
Among the many artists inspired by F�camp’s scenery was Monet, who in 1881 painted at least 16 views of the cliffs. And it is these views, virtually unchanged, that enchant today’s visitors as they look out from the port or walk along the grande randonn�e footpath, GR 21, which threads along the Alabaster coast from Le Havre to Le Tr�port.
F�camp was spared front-line fighting during the First World War. However, there were a number of hospitals, including one that was established in the casino by an English woman, Lady Guernsey. In contrast, the town suffered badly in the Second World War. The Germans set up an important radar station and defensive system, dynamiting rows of houses on the seafront to give their gunners an unobstructed view. As they retreated in 1944, they completely destroyed the port. After the Liberation, the town was awarded a croix de guerre and became a priority for national reconstruction.
a living town
Classed as a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire since 1992, F�camp thrives all year round, though it is busiest in July and August. Its popular festivals include La St-Pierre des Marins during the first weekend of February, at the �glise St-�tienne, commemorating the traditional departure of the fishing fleet to Newfoundland; Estivoiles, towards the end of June, is a celebration of music and the sea; and La F�te du Hareng, in the last weekend of November, turns the spotlight on herrings. The weekly market takes place on Saturdays in the Place Bellet.
F�camp is a living town. There are many sea-based and outdoor activities. And if you’re not seeking the heat of the south, or a frenetic social life, it is well worth exploring the area as a place to live or to have a holiday home.
In terms of property in and around F�camp, prices have fallen from the dizzy heights of 2007/2008 and have now stabilised. As F�camp is by the sea, prices have held up particularly well. A representative from Notaires de France at The France Show in January 2012 told me that “second homes in the town go for more there than inland, partly because of F�camp’s location and partly because many families have owned holiday houses there for a couple of generations or more and only sell them if they have to.” She added that: “F�camp is a traditional town and there is no ‘jet-set’ market.”
Anne Mizrachi, of Latitudes, agrees that the market is stable and adds that: “There has always been a demand for property in and around F�camp.” But Steve Gillham, of Alliance French Property Group, feels that there has been less movement in the market recently and that the area “has not been as popular with his British clients as it was 20 years ago.”
Anne Mizrachi explains that the majority of Latitudes’ clients are British and that they are looking either for apartments on the coast or older, characterful properties in the countryside. Prices range from €150,000 for apartments to over €1,000,000 for large properties, including ch�teaux.
The October 2011 and January 2012 reports from Notaires de France predict a general slowing down of the market in 2012 for two main reasons. Firstly, there are the stricter credit restrictions now in place due to the economic downturn, though the banks are still lending. Secondly, the change in capital gains tax on property, now requiring a period of ownership of 30 years rather than 15 years before exemption, is likely to discourage some second-home or rental property owners from selling. They add that the scaling down of the Scellier law tax breaks for buy-to-let investors might result in fewer sales by developers.
Notaires de France also report that there has been the usual caution surrounding the uncertainty of the presidential election and possible tax changes. However, they believe that the lack of alternative options for investors seeking security will help steady the market. n
Office de Tourisme Pays de Caux Vall�e de Seine
L’Office Intercommunal de Tourisme de F�camp