Le Havre in Normandy was once a hugely popular seaside resort. After the Paris to Le Havre railway line opened in 1847, it brought Parisians in their droves to enjoy the long beaches and take the fresh sea air. But these days it’s famous for its huge port and for its extraordinary architecture. A mid 19th century purpose built city that was a blueprint for modern life.
History of Le Havre
Some people love the modernity of Le Havre (I’m one of them) and some don’t. But you can’t ignore it. It’s one of the few 20th century cities in the world to have received UNESCO heritage listing – and it is extraordinary. There’s nowhere else quite like it in France.
Le Havre was flattened at the end of the Second World War. Around 80% of it had to be rebuilt rapidly to rehouse 80,000 people, many of whom were sheltering in US barracks. Belgium-born architect Auguste Perret, a teacher of Le Corbusier, was appointed to oversee the rebuild between 1946 and 1964. He was a man who simply loved reinforced concrete.
The new city of Le Havre
For me, the layout and the concept of this new city reflects some of the dreams of Le Havre’s creator. King Francis 1, who originally wanted to call it Francisopolis, had the city built in 1517. He had already worked with genius Leonardo da Vinci on an urban planning project. Whilst it wasn’t for Le Havre, the goal was to create an “ideal city” and Da Vinci’s notes show that he included prefabricated houses, improved sanitation, streets that were easy to traverse. Just like Perret’s goal.
Auguste Perret’s vision in Le Havre
In Le Havre, Perret delivered an ideal city 450 years after Le Havre’s creation. He created a sea of concrete buildings, using the material in different ways and instructing the project’s 100 architects to use concrete in all designs. Many of the buildings have a somewhat Soviet air but with a hint of French flair – art deco sculpturing, balconies and French windows.
The view from the 17-storey tower next to the Hôtel de Ville shows a city with straight, wide French boulevards. Avenue Foch, known as the Champs-Elysées of Le Havre at 80m wide is 10m wider than the Paris version.
Perret’s Church of St Joseph, which from the outside is rather utilitarian looking despite it’s rocket like spire which can be seen for miles, is incredible inside. An astonishing mosaic of 12000 tiny stained glass windows in red, orange, gold and violet give it a warm feel. It looks other worldly, like something at of Stargate. Seating is organised in a circle around the concrete altar. Perret died in 1954 before it was completed. Though a lifelong atheist, legend tells that he asked to be baptised here. He also wanted to be buried here but was in fact buried in Paris according to his wife’s wishes. There are just two statues inside, from the original church.
The extraordinary landmarks of Le Havre
Over the years the city has continued to develop and just a few of the unmissable sites are:
Les Bains des Docks aquatic centre designed by legendary architect Jean Nouvel. Don’t miss a chance for a swim in one of its 12 pools when you go to Havre, it’s strikingly beautiful.
Oscar Niemeyer’s Volcanoes make you stop in surprise. The locals call the big volcano which is a theatre, the “yoghurt pot”. You can see why with it’s pure white, sloping sides and flat top. The recently renovated small volcano is now the public library and it’s just as extraordinary inside as it is outside. Anyone can go in – and should, to experience the remarkable interior design, concrete of course in keeping with Le Havre’s architectural theme. It’s like being in a spaceship with viewing windows carved into the thick walls. There are space age seats in bright colours, and a sweeping staircase. There are regular exhibitions and a cool coffee shop. This has to be one of the most remarkable libraries in the world. www.lehavre.fr/annuaire/bibliotheque-oscar-niemeyer
Monet and Le Havre Port
Having spent his childhood in Le Havre, the artist Claude Monet was so moved by it that he painted his most famous work, a view of the port of Le Havre. Named Impression, Rising Sun, it gave the Impressionist movement its name. Monet’s famous house and gardens in Giverny are about 1.5 hours by car from Le Havre.
The port today is the processing point for more shipping containers than any other in France. The city uses them in building – they make funky students flats. And in art where containers have been transformed into an elegant, curvy sculpture by Vincent Ganivet, at Southampton Wharf.
You can take a port tour which is fascinating (website: navigation-normande.fr).
The pebble beach in Le Havre is long and extends round to Saint Adresse which has a sandy beach. Here you’ll find the “Hanging Gardens” overlooking the Bay of the Seine and the Chapel of Notre Dame des Flots, built in 1859. Recently restored, it was originally built for the fishermen to go and pray for a safe voyage. Now full of memorial plates, model ships and paintings and still in use, it’s open through the week and the views from its gardens are lovely.
Culture of Le Havre
There are several museums in the city and culture vultures will find plenty to please including:
MUMA: The Museum of Modern Art was the first purpose built museum in France. It’s impressionist collection is second only to the Musée d’Orsay. Monet, Renoir, Boudin and Pissaro are all featured. Don’t miss the café overlooking the harbour for a break – and the views.
Auguste Perret’s show flat, furnished with 1950s flat-pack space-saving items is genuinely surprising. It wouldn’t look out of place in a chic New York loft! He created a show flat in 1949 to allow local people to see what he was proposing with the rebuilding of Le Havre. Not all of them were impressed by his modern rebuilding of their city. This show flat homage, re-created in 2005, reveals just how visionary he was. The space, 99m₂ exactly (as all the flats are) is beautifully laid out.
One heater in each block provided enough hot air to heat all the flats in the block through a duct system. Folding and double doors meant the apartment was bathed in the special light of Le Havre throughout the day but could create privacy. Bathrooms were in each apartment. It was at a time when many homes still had outdoor loos and tin baths hanging on a wall. Perret’s vision has had worldwide influence and you can see it clearly in this wonderful museum flat. (Details: www.lehavretourisme.com)
Le Havre’s thriving art scene
Le Havre has long attracted artists and many of the artists working in the city today find its architecture a huge inspiration. At the Mascarade Gallery, former graphic designer Masquerade creates vibrant and stunning artworks using Chinese ink and acrylic. His intricate pieces and pop art style pieces are heavily influenced by street art with a Le Havre theme. They make a fabulous colourful memento of your visit.
Pierre Lenoir Vaquero’s unique art gallery and shop is also a beer store. Vaquero, a painter, photographer and sculptor takes Le Havre as his theme. He creates playful pastel coloured paintings of iconic sites. Inspired by concrete he also designs sculptures and ornaments – his small concrete hearts are the ideal souvenir. La Cave a Bieres, 1, rue des Gobelins.
Cyril Plate paints, draws and sculpts. He often uses raw and recycled materials as his inspiration for his paintings, drawing and sculptures. Using a recycled street signs, he created this artwork to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Le Havre.
Eat and drink
Wine & dine: Les Enfants Sages has a lovely menu, sort of Lyonnaise style with a twist. In an old school masters house, where the rooms are small dining rooms and there’s a pretty garden with tables on the terrace. Relaxed, unpretentious and delicious. It’s really popular so book in advance if you can (you can do it online through their website)
Don’t miss: The Architect is run by Australian Damian Tither. On a visit to Le Havre for a holiday he “fell in love with the architecture, the light and the ambiance”. The restaurant has a great vegetarian menu plus a hint of Aussie cuisine “beer chicken, pulled pork”, plus food with an Asian influence. From the terrace or 50’s style interior you get a ringside view of the ships sailing by. Great for enjoying a pitcher of beer, cocktails or wine (including Australian).
Locals love: Au Caid, next to the Tour Perret is an institution. Opened in 1954, this listed building is cosy and charming and a favourite meeting place for the locals. It’s great for a drink, snack or the seasonal plat du jour.
Beach vibe: Au Bout du Monde is the perfect place to relax and watch the amazing light of Le Havre with a drink. Beach hut style, right on the sea front – the place to go for a fun cocktail list and street food style dishes. 1 Boulevard Foch, 76310 Sainte-Adresse
Take a guided tour of the city. Book at the tourist office (my guide Kamil was fabulous).
It’s just 35 mins to Honfleur and 40 mins to Etretat from Le Havre.
You can reach Le Havre easily by train from Paris in about 2.5 hours.
Stay at: Hotel Nomad, a striking building next to Le Havre station and tram stop, easy walking distance to the city centre. Its hi-tech rooms have shower pods featuring mood lighting and ecologically friendly including carpet made from recycled fishing nets. Hot water is from solar panels and there are rainwater flush systems. This is the future of hotels.
Hotel Oscar, on the central square overlooking the Volcano. Mid-19th century chic rules here – think vintage posters and Perret flat-pack furniture.