Holiday in Le Havre
The Normandy port of Le Havre deserves to be a better-known tourist attraction with its Unesco World Heritage modernist architecture, says Paul Lamarra
When I suggest a short stop in Le Havre to anyone travelling via the Normandy ferry port, they look on me as a heretic or contrarian who insists on going where others do not. Most tourists are concrete-intolerant and prefer their France profonde and pretty, but it is a mistake to dismiss Le Havre without first taking a look. Admittedly, the town is something of an alien when set against its pastoral hinterland of bocage meadows and colombage houses, but I found it fascinating and poignant.
As a strategic port during World War II, Le Havre endured 132 German and Allied bombardments, suffering more damage than any other French town. What had been a densely populated port of half-timbered townhouses, soaring Norman roofs and hundreds of nooks and crannies had been reduced to rubble by the end of 1944.
Unlike Rouen further up the River Seine, where much of the medieval core was restored, Le Havre set a modernist course with a single architect, Auguste Perret, at the helm. The town was fortunate, although it didn’t know it at the time and for much of the next six decades many of its inhabitants loathed the grand modernist design that rose from the ashes.
Yet Perret’s harmonious townscape covering around 150 hectares would stand the test of time and in 2005 it was placed on the Unesco list of World Heritage sites. Arguably it is a vision that has now come of age.
Patterns of light
“The Unesco listing made a huge difference to Le Havre,” Eric Baudet, a gallery owner and director at the tourist office, told me over breakfast at the funky Art Hotel. “Coachloads of people started to arrive to study and photograph Perret’s work and when the people of Le Havre saw this they began to take pride in their town. Last year 70 cruise ships docked in Le Havre, this year it will be 98 and next year 119. We are close to Paris, but 42 per cent choose to stay in the town.”
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Walking along the broad boulevard that is Avenue Foch towards the Porte-Océane and the sea beyond, I was struck by the generous proportions of the neo-classical buildings. I for one could only look up with envy at the mainly residential flats with their long French doors that opened to the sea and the busy shipping lanes of la Manche. High rise is part of the ensemble, but in Perret’s creation their profile is slender and their height restrained to no more than 12 storeys.
Not every building is by Perret, but they are easy to spot; they have a simple structure of pillars and beams which allowed them to be built quickly and cheaply. The span of every beam is precisely 6.24 metres, the optimum length calculated by Perret which, when viewed from the pavement, produces a style of bewildering, almost metronomic, regularity.
Yet there is also subtlety. In some places, shops shelter behind neo-classical arcades, and the greyness of the reinforced concrete is tempered by pebbles from the beach. The pillars are often topped with simple capitols and some entrances are monumental in their scale.
Perret allowed two buildings to puncture the skyline: The Église Saint-Joseph and the Hôtel de Ville with its 17-storey square tower. There are few buildings that have given me goosebumps, but the Église Saint-Joseph is one of them. When viewed from the outside – and it can be seen from everywhere in the town – it resembles depictions of the lighthouse in Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. With its central tower rising more than 100 metres, it too acts as a beacon when illuminated at night.
On the inside the scale is intimidating and the grey concrete would be brutal were it not for 12,768 squares of coloured glass set in the walls and in the hollow tower that spread continually changing patterns of coloured light across the otherwise bare interior.
The poignant touch is that the plastic cushioned cinema seats that surround the central altar were salvaged from the wartime rubble. A note of continuity with pre-war Le Havre, they underline the church’s other purpose as a memorial to the 5,000 Le Havrais who lost their lives in the bombardments.
The town’s inhabitants did not warm to Perret. To them he was an elderly Belgian (in his early 70s) who, before embarking on the project, said rather conceitedly: “There are only two architects and the other one is Le Corbusier.”
Le Corbusier was a pupil of Perret and his style complements that of his teacher, but Le Havre has discovered other styles and other architects. Fresh from designing the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris, the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer was commissioned to create two theatres as part of the Maison de la Culture on Place Général de Gaulle. Conceived as pure white concrete volcanoes, the freeform, half-underground design contrasts sharply with Perret’s formal neo-classicism. The locals refer to Le Volcan as the yoghurt pots and even after 30 years the buildings have yet to win universal approval.
More successful is the fun new swimming pool complex designed by the Paris-based architect Jean Nouvel, like Niemeyer a winner of the international Pritzker Prize. Les Bains des Docks, near the Bassin Vauban, are part of a project to revitalise the rundown dock area. Crisp, white and square, the building contains 12 pools and was inspired by the ancient Roman thermal bathhouses, where bathers encounter pools that grow progressively warmer. Multi-coloured cubes form ‘beaches’ on which to relax. Outside, I took a dip in the 50-metre heated pool which, despite the northern skies, immediately transported me to Morocco.
Nearby, the Porte-Océane is now connected to the railway station by a tram line and this gateway to the sea makes a good place to start a promenade. Some visitors might worry that Le Havre’s grey concrete would have an effect on the mood of its people and on the place itself, but the beachfront is as jolly as any seaside town. Walking towards the resort area of Sainte-Adresse you can still detect some of the atmosphere of the chic pre-war resort in the old Norman manoirs that drew the Impressionists, and Claude Monet in particular. It is worth bearing in mind that Impressionism takes its name from Monet’s 1872 work Impression, Soleil Levant, which has the harbour at Le Havre as its subject.
At the end of the beach in Sainte-Adresse lies the Bar Bout du Monde, which is open only on sunny days. You can continue the walk along the coast, but the bar makes a good place to stop and enjoy either the sun and the sea spray on one side or the increasingly radical designs of the beachfront properties on the other.
At night the place to be is the lively Taverne Paillette in the centre of town, with its Alsatian-based menu. Perhaps the most popular restaurant in Le Havre, it is well known for its beers and choucroute, so getting a table can be a challenge, especially at weekends. In the mornings, especially on Sundays, Le Havre’s market halls and surrounding streets display the same comfortable joie de vivre that you find in many French towns.
Originally conceived by François I in 1517 as a westward-looking port for Paris, Le Havre is looking forward to its 500th anniversary with a new pride and optimism. From the vantage point of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ that occupy the former military fort on the hilltop behind Le Havre, the port takes on a dramatic silhouette. From the Église Saint-Joseph to the swinging cranes and the smoking chimneys of one the biggest ports in Europe, it remains a vista that would thrill Monet and his fellow Impressionists. It may not be pretty, but Le Havre will certainly leave an impression.
By ferry: Paul travelled with LD Lines from Portsmouth to Le Havre.
A five-day return for a car and two passengers costs from £60.
Tel: 0844 576 8836
Where to stay
147 Rue Louis Brindeau
76600 Le Havre
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 22 69 44
This Best Western hotel occupies a Perret building and overlooks Niemeyer’s Le Volcan. Top-floor rooms have terraces with fantastic views of the town.
Doubles from €79.
Where to eat
Le Bistrot Parisien
39 Place de l’Hôtel de Ville
76600 Le Havre
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 22 10 40
Belle Époque style in the centre of town.
22 Rue Georges Braque
76600 Le Havre
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 41 31 50
Alsatian restaurant known for its choucroute and atmosphere.
2 Boulevard Clemenceau
76600 Le Havre
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 19 62 75
Stylish restaurant with sea views.
What to visit
2 Boulevard Clemenceau
76600 Le Havre
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 19 62 62