A FRENCH CANVAS

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Normandy, besides being Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s home and muse, is a breathtaking escape from routine, says Shrabasti Mallik

On my first trip to France, I did what most tourists would do – see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, taste endless varieties of cheese and take some pictures in front of the Musée Picasso. Having had my fill of mainstream experiences, I sought something a little more, something beyond Parisian glitz and glamour. And Normandy came to my rescue. A three-hour drive from the French capital, it is home to magnificent cliffs, stunning beaches, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a lot more for all your senses to feast on.

Friends in the know had told me that the best way to explore Normandy is by car, and the best way to enjoy it is by following your whims.

I had been advised to make impromptu stopovers and take detours, instead of keeping to a fixed itinerary, and that was exactly what I proceeded to do.

My tryst with Normandy began with the village of Giverny, its dreamy water lily ponds and gardens – created by French Impressionist painter Claude Monet – taking my breath away. This is where he created the iconic series of paintings, Water Lilies. The home of the painter and the surrounding gardens in Giverny have been converted into the Musée des impressionnismes Giverny, which sees a steady stream of visitors all year round.

An hour’s drive away is Rouen, the capital of Normandy. The Cathedral here is a must-visit, and Monet’s canvases depicting its magnificent facade have made it one of the most loved buildings in the city. Unlike Paris, Rouen is laid-back. One of the best experiences you can have here is a leisurely stroll by River Seine. A museum in honour of Joan of Arc, Historial Jeanne d’Arc, is housed in the Archbishop’s Palace, located next to the Cathedral. Lined in a row from east to west, through the centre of the city, is a string of churches such as the Saint-Ouen, Saint-Maclou and the Cathedral – one of the reasons, perhaps, why author Victor Hugo famously described Rouen as the city of “a hundred spires”.

I followed the Seine to the picturesque port at Honfleur on the river’s estuary. It is an enchanting experience, with historic houses that vie for attention on the quay along

with a number of galleries and restaurants. Standing on the edge of the harbour there, I found it hard to imagine that Honfleur was built essentially for commercial purposes. It was a treat to visit the nearby Notre-Dame de Grâce chapel and take in the stunning view over the Seine estuary from the esplanade bordering the chapel.

North of Honfleur is the port of Le Havre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that also boasts a waterside art museum. It is an important cross-Channel ferry port that was also made famous by a Monet painting – Impression, Sunrise (1872).

I finally made my way to Etretat, a small village where nature has worked its magic by creating dramatic white cliffs made even more spectacular by a many-hued sunset – a sight that Monet also captured in one of his canvases. Walking along the stunning cliff top, the sea breeze gently caressing my face, I couldn’t have imagined a better conclusion to my holiday.

With inputs from en.normandie-tourisme.fr

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