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May 28, 2009

Fran in France: Honfleur

Journalist Fran Stoddard is in France this week with a group from Burlington City Arts, to celebrate the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial. She sent this report yesterday from the port of Honfleur. Click here for her earlier posts.

Wednesday, May 27

Although its history can be traced back 1000 years, Honfleur's heyday coincided with Champlain’s lifetime. It was a bustling port then and is still today, though quite a different kind. It still looks like a 16th century town, but there are luxury yachts in the harbor and a streamlined suspension bridge to France’s second largest port, Le Harvre in the near distance.

At the mouth of the Seine River, Champlain could get to Honfleur easily by boat or land. He set sail from here over 2 dozen times to venture to the New World.

A soggy tour of the town this morning takes us to oldest wooden and stone houses, churches and buildings;  they have survived 400 years and more. The back streets are a walk through time. Public clothes washing basins are still in use. By design and I would think some luck, Honfleur was untouched by the destruction of World War II. Cleverly, the people of Honfluer allowed the Seine river to silt in the harbor, rendering it strategically useless in the war. Unlike Brouage, Champlain’s hometown that lost its maritime capability, Honfleur was able to dredge it’s port again and remain the viable port that it is today, as well as one of France’s most visited preserved towns.

It now hosts nearly 3 million visitors annually, but it doesn’t have the theme park feel of some beautifully preserved towns. It is artsy and quaint, the tourists and boaters it attracts seem to blend in.  

Among other commodities, salt was traded in Honfleur and supplied to the ships that set sail from here to preserve the catch. We visited huge stone storage houses with roofs that resembled the inner hulls of ships; they were capable of packing 10,000 tons of salt. One house was wrapping up an art exhibition and the other was preparing for a maritime festival this coming weekend, a huge event that includes a parade where children carry large ship models up the hillside to chapel. This year there will also be a dedication of a Samuel de Champlain memorial garden in the shape of our lake! Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and Vermont tourism head Bruce Hyde plan to be present.

They’ll have the pleasure of meeting Honfleur’s  mayor, Michael La Marre, a busy, charming guy who threw a reception for us at the town hall. A proclamation and gifts from Mayor Bob Kiss helped open the possibility of a sister-city relationship.  

A bonus visit to Monet’s Giverny home and garden at its peak season was a real treat. On to Paris!

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