The French coastal resort of Etretat on the Normandy shoreline is a magnificent place. It’s a place of surprises as well as good looks…
The white limestone cliffs offer a breath-taking view from either the surface beach line or the pathways extending up to the cliff tops. They rise to 90 meters or so above sea level. The cliff precipice along the town’s coastline is particularly distinctive. It’s a scene that has captured the imagination of some of the great impressionist artists such as Claude Monet, Boudin and Courbet. The distinctive chalk characteristics create a prominent seascape vista. They consist of three arches and a stand-alone structure resembling a needle. Two of the arches, the Porte d’Aval and the Porte d’Amont, can clearly be seen from the town. The largest one though, The Manneporte, cannot. Visitors will need to walk on the beach to find it. These geological formations can also be accessed from somewhat challenging pathways among the grass slopes right up to the top of the cliffs.
These stunning formations have often been featured in film, art and literature. See them in the 2014 film ‘Lucy’ directed by Luc Besson. The “needle” played a major part in ‘The Hollow Needle’, a novel by Maurice Leblanc. Impressionist paintings of these natural structures can be seen in some of the world’s greatest art galleries. Monet is probably the best known painter and one of the most prolific in this area.
Etretat lies just off the longest French hiking path. It links Le Havre to Le Treport, both of which rest on the Normandy coastal route.
Etretat also has a monument to one of the world’s great air mysteries. The town is considered to be the location where the last sighting of an attempt to fly the Atlantic Ocean against the prevailing wind direction took place in May 1927. Frenchmen Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli had departed from Paris’ Le Bourget airport to tackle the ocean crossing to New York City. They were flying in a fabric covered biplane designed just after the Great War. It was described in the media at the time as L’Oiseau Blanc, The White Bird. Their decision to fly from East to West was considered as heroic.
The aircraft was last observed off the coast of Etretat flying very low and ultimately ditching in the sea. The ‘White Bird’ itself and the bodies of the two occupants have never been recovered despite several determined attempts. Their fate remains unconfirmed to this day.
The sighting is marked by two monuments and a museum close to their position. These can be reached by a fairly challenging walk and the view of the cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean from this location is spectacular.
The first successful East West crossing of the Atlantic was achieved sometime later in a similar aircraft. That event is also marked at the cliff top in Etretat as well as in New York City.
The town of Etretat is quite sophisticated. There are a number of high quality hotels and restaurants. They are, for the most part quite reasonably priced and provide an excellent base to absorb the local culture, walkways and distinctive coastal features. It’s well worth visiting Etretat for its stunning geological features, charming town, wonderful views, interesting walkways and monuments.
Bob Lyons is an ex pilot turned travel writer with a love of France…