Normandy’s Quiet Glamour

Normandy’s Quiet Glamour 

The New York Times

THE anticipation was palpable as French paparazzi and gawkers crowded the red carpet outside the beachfront Grand Hôtel and awaited the arrival of the film festival stars.

With the early evening sun slanting across the sea, teenage autograph hounds squeezed their way to the velvet ropes while a 20-something woman in a T-shirt depicting Woody Allen stood on her tiptoes to see over the rows of heads. Nearby, an elderly man in a pink Lacoste shirt gripped a baguette with such anxious force that he seemed certain to crush it.

For a flashbulb instant, the scene could easily have been mistaken for the Cannes International Film Festival, that two-week, all-eyes-on-it gala held each spring in the resort city in southern France.

But this was the tiny village of Cabourg — located along a stretch of France’s northern coast known as the Côte Fleurie — and the event was the weekend-long Cabourg Romantic Film Festival. Cannes was on the opposite side of the country both geographically and spiritually. Spend a week traveling by car or local bus among the seaside villages that dot the 25 miles of craggy, wind-swept coast — Cabourg, Houlgate, Villiers-Sur-Mer, Deauville, Trouville, Cricqueboeuf and Honfleur — and the differences soon become obvious.

Sure, the Côte Fleurie serves up film festivals (the Deauville American Film Festival in September is second only to Cannes), expansive beaches (particularly the golden sands of Deauville and Trouville), seafood-laden local cuisine (with excellent new spots in the port of Honfleur), artistic history (Monet and other Impressionists painted here), celebrity residences (the Rothschilds, Gérard Depardieu and Yves Saint Laurent are among current and former homeowners) and all-night casinos (place your bets in Cabourg and Deauville).

But unlike its southern sibling, it does so without fanfare. Mega-yachts with helipads are rare, the Lamborghini-per-capita ratio wows almost nobody, and local Calvados apple liqueur (made in the region’s famous orchards) finds far more favor than Cristal Champagne.

Better still, at only two hours from Paris by car or train, the Côte Fleurie doesn’t require a private jet to reach it. If the Côte d’Azur finds its American counterpart in glammy spots like Miami or Malibu, the Côte Fleurie is more the overseas analogue of Newport or Martha’s Vineyard.

“Here, the people don’t come to be seen,” said Sylvain Choblet, general manager of Les Manoirs de Tourgéville, a new luxury hotel close to Deauville. Owned by the Groupe Floirat, known for Côte d’Azur hot spots like the Hôtel Byblos in St.-Tropez, the new forest hideaway of half-timbered pavilions is the group’s first foray into northern France and its most unostentatious project. “It’s much more intimate,” Mr. Choblet said. “People come here to be tranquil, to rest, to rejuvenate.”

The area’s cultural heart is Honfleur, “a ravishing port full of masts and sails, crowned with green hills and surrounded by narrow houses,” as Victor Hugo put it in the 19th century.

Like other Côte Fleurie towns, Honfleur was a fishing village that began to flourish as a cosmopolitan getaway with the arrival of the railroad link to Paris in the 1860s.

On a Sunday afternoon in June, throngs of French travelers filled the town’s spider web of cobbled streets, ambling past town houses — some in red brick, some in gray stone, some with shingle facades — that sported copper lanterns or wooden signs advertising candle and soap stores. Seagulls circled overhead, their cries mingling with the sound of church bells.

Almost every lane in Honfleur seems to turn up some romantic hideaway or hole-in-the- wall. Slip down the Rue des Capucins and you discover La Maison de Lucie, a rustic-chic boutique hotel whose protected garden courtyard and large drawing-room fireplace lend themselves perfectly to cocooning.

At Place Hamelin, two excellent restaurants have sprouted. Under the wooden beams of Entre Terre et Mer, fish are prepared with occasional Asian ingredients. Opposite, in the minimalist white dining room of Sa.Qua.Na, dishes also have an Eastern flair, courtesy of Alexandre Bourdas, a French chef who used to live in Japan. The restaurant made a splash earlier this year when it earned its second Michelin star.

Even more abundant are galleries and exhibition spaces — no surprise in a town that begs to be painted. Many French artists have done just that. Georges Seurat, the founder of Neo-Impressionism, captured the old harbor, which today is surrounded by tiny bars and expansive terrace cafes that serve Belgian beers and croque-monsieurs to linen-clad French tourists. Raoul Dufy pointed his easel toward the centuries-old Église Ste.- Catherine, whose exterior of wooden boards and shingles feels plucked from Cape Cod and now adorns postcards that fill souvenir shops.

On this afternoon, art aficionados drifted among the airy rooms of the Musée Eugène Boudin to gaze at coastal scenes of Honfleur by Impressionist and pre-Impressionist masters — Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Édouard Villard, Johan Barthold Jongkind — whose works comprise a gala exhibition called “Honfleur: Entre Tradition et Modernité, 1820-1900.” Running through Sept. 6, the 225- work exhibition is one of the many cultural events in northern France that are part of “Impressionist Normandy,” a yearlong festival that celebrates the region’s role in unmooring painting from the strict rules and realistic storytelling styles of the past.

“Normandy was one of the key birthplaces of Impressionism — some would say the birthplace,” said the museum’s curator, Anne-Marie Bergeret, adding that the museum’s namesake, the Honfleur painter Boudin, was among Impressionism’s pioneers.

A self-taught artist who was a decade or so older than the other Impressionists, Boudin wasn’t beholden to the orthodoxies of his day and “became interested in ephemeral things: clouds, the sun, the coast, the metamorphosis of objects in changing light,” Ms. Bergeret explained. She stood next to a Boudin masterwork, “Coup de Vent Devant Frascati, Le Havre,” an 1896 canvas churning with the raging seas, dark clouds, driving rain and wind gusts that still make the Normandy coast a favorite of painters and romantic souls.

Charles Baudelaire, whose mother owned a house in Honfleur, met Boudin in 1859 and surveyed the artist’s depictions of brooding seascapes.

“All these clouds in fantastical and luminous shapes, these chaotic darknesses, these hanging green and pink immensities, these gaping blazes, these skies of black or purple,” the poet rhapsodized, “affect my brain like a powerful drink or like the eloquence of opium.”

But it was on the young Claude Monet that Boudin wielded the most influence. The two knew each other from Le Havre — where Monet lived and Boudin did at times — and one day ran into each other in an art supply shop, Ms. Bergeret said. “Boudin really started hectoring him to paint nature, because at the time Monet was only doing caricatures,” she said. “So he dragged Monet outside and they painted the same landscape scene, near Le Havre.”

Afterwards, Monet came often to Honfleur, capturing scenes that are still played out along the Côte Fleurie: weekenders filling the sands of Trouville beach, sailboats buffeting along the whitecaps outside Deauville harbor, people ambling along cobbled streets. The fashions may have changed — the beachgoing ladies have swapped their long white dresses and chairs for bikinis and beach towels — but the rituals endure.

The vibe morphs from the artistic to the aristocratic as you make the 20-minute drive or bus ride along the snaking, tree-lined roads that link Honfleur to Deauville. After crossing the Touques river, you emerge in an impeccable town of Norman mansions: elegant, Old World, half-timbered houses with wooden balconies, Queen Anne-style protrusions, steep A-frame roofs and witches’ hat turrets. It could easily be some storybook village if it weren’t for the Louis Vuitton shop and the Lancel boutique with its 900-euro Adjani handbags.

Like its paint-soaked neighbor, well-cologned Deauville is celebrating a major retrospective of its own this year: its 150th birthday. Once a fishing hamlet, the settlement found a fan in the Duke of Morny — a half-brother to Emperor Napoleon III — who arrived from Paris in 1860, purchased much seafront land and created a luxurious summer resort.

Within four years there was a railway station, a racetrack, a casino (replaced in 1912 by a massive one that still crowns the town) and a wave of neo-Gothic and neo-Norman seaside mansions (which have proliferated since). In succeeding decades the Rothschilds bought homes, Coco Chanel opened her first shop and Europe’s crème de la crème flocked in: King Alphonso XIII of Spain, King Farouk of Egypt, Queen Elizabeth II, the Aga Khan.

Today Deauville is mainly a getaway for Parisians, a Gallic answer to East Hampton. Come weekends, deep-pocketed visitors from the capital arrive in Range Rovers and BMWs, drink bottles of Bordeaux among the celebrity photos at the Chez Miocque brasserie, and dance until dawn at the Casino’s basement nightclub, Régine’s, a haven of retro 1970s kitsch.

On a June morning, the streets were filled with Deauville’s social whirl. Women in blazers and dark glasses sipped hot chocolate at the Dupont pâtisserie. Weekenders strolled about the outdoor market, filling their bags with blocks of butter, white disks of cow’s milk cheese, bottles of apple cider and other Côte Fleurie bounty.

But most of the action was along Les Planches, the town’s celebrated beach boardwalk. Taking advantage of the sunny day, people sprawled under the forest of colorful umbrellas that are permanent fixtures. Others filled the outdoor Bar de la Mer restaurant, eating fresh oysters and langoustines. Sporting a bridal veil, a young woman and her bachelorette-

party pals posed for photos beneath the names of American film stars — Samuel L. Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Kim Novak — that adorn the dressing cabins.

After Paris and Cannes, no place in France is as immersed in cinema as Deauville, which was immortalized in the 1966 New Wave film classic “Un Homme et Une Femme.” Indeed, its director, Claude Lelouch, lives in the area and his onetime estate, a complex of half- timbered Norman-style pavilions around a swimming pool, is now the Manoirs de Tourgéville hotel, which opened in June. Fittingly, the hotel has its own movie theater.

Deauville has also become synonymous with its two festivals, notably the Deauville American Film Festival, which has its 36th edition this September. (The Deauville Asian Film Festival normally kicks off in March.) The yearly gala has drawn the likes of Harrison Ford and Meryl Streep, and features a competition for best film juried by international actors and directors. Unlike Cannes, however, the Deauville festival is accessible to the public, who can attend screenings just by buying a pass.

Deauville’s other obsession is horses. The town’s calendar is full of events for the four- legged set, and you can practically chart the seasons by the attire of the riders or handlers. Colored silks and whips? It’s racing season, primarily July and August. Long mallets and impossibly tight white trousers? Get ready for the August polo championships, with international teams competing for the Lucien Barrière Deauville Polo Cup. Suits and ties? The October yearling sales have arrived.

“Horses are the life of Deauville,” said Simonne L’Hermitte, who paints abstract works depicting horses, as she entertained guests at her stand in the Hippodrome de la Touques, one of its two outdoor stadiums for equine events.

Hundreds of fashionable spectators — men in straw boaters, women in riding breeches — milled around the large sand obstacle course, where a jumping competition was under way. Some sipped Perrier or Champagne. Others filed into the Restaurant V.I.P. for a bite.

“People from all over the world come for the competitions and the big sales,” Ms. L’Hermitte said. “All the Saudis come by plane to the local airport to bring their horses, or to buy some.”

Suddenly, a rider and his mount burst into the ring. They ran hard around the course, thundering around turns, leaping over gates and landing with a heavy thud in explosions of sand. As they soared over the final obstacle, the announcer gave the time — “55 seconds! Fourth place!” — sending up cheers.

“It’s really the horse center of France,” Ms. L’Hermitte went on. “In Deauville they built the racetrack before they built the church.”

Back in Cabourg, nocturnal masses strolled down a red carpet that had been unrolled along the Avenue de la Mer, a lively strip of bistros, ice cream parlors and souvenir shops, for the Romantic Film Festival’s closing night.

Clad in evening wear for the final dinner, Camille Genton, a 20-something ad agency employee and arts enthusiast who lives between Paris and Cabourg, sipped a drink inside the wood-lined Chez Gouillou cocktail bar and elaborated on his plans to “really put Cabourg on a cultural track,” starting this year.

Compared with Deauville, he explained, “Cabourg is more bourgeois, more Bohemian.” Marcel Proust, he noted, spent summers at the Grand Hôtel, the vast century-old, Belle Époque structure that still lords over Cabourg’s expansive beach, known for its sublime sunsets at low tide. “Here it’s more intellectuals, patrons of art and literature.”

Accordingly, he said, the first prong of his plan was the Cabourg Project, an international photography festival that he and some associates had organized for the end of this month. With help from the Pompidou Center in Paris, the multiday event will feature images snapped by young photographers from around the world. To establish Cabourg’s cultural cachet more permanently, Mr. Genton went on, he and his Cabourg Project associates were searching for a permanent exhibition area.

“We’re trying to get an old garage and make it into a cultural space,” he said. “There’s going to be a cultural area, with four major projects per year. There will also be an area for artists, as well as a conference area.” He was also trying to persuade top galleries in Paris to set up summer branches there.

As the film festival’s awards ceremony wrapped up, Mr. Genton hopped off to join the after- party. By 1 a.m. the vast, vaulted bar of the Casino was in full groove, thanks to a soirée organized by Le Baron, the Parisian nightclub, which last year began holding monthly summer galas in Cabourg. But no velvet ropes barred the entry. No bouncers stood menacingly around the door. No woman with a clipboard was telling people that they weren’t on the list.

As the festival participants and Paris elite filed in, so did townsfolk and vacationers. The small-town Cabourg youth and the City of Light’s gilded youth danced side by side as two of the Paris club’s signature D.J.’s — Greg Boust, sporting a green Mohawk, and Mr. Moru, in skinny tie and porkpie hat — spun Phoenix and MGMT.

Marina Hands, a French actress, sat drinking Champagne with friends on a very un-V.I.P. couch, all but ignored by a group of beer-swilling local guys. An ocean breeze blew in from tall windows.

Finally, as the wee hours rolled past, the groups became indistinguishable, like a mix of molecules dissolved together by the low lights, the blasting anthemic music and the welcoming Côte Fleurie air.


Multiple daily trains run between the Gare St.-Lazare in Paris and Trouville-Deauville station; the journey takes around two hours and sometimes requires a change of trains in Lisieux. Expect to pay between 40 and 60 euros, or $51 to $77 at $1.27 to the euro, for a round-trip ticket. Once there, line No. 20 of the Bus Verts transportation service (, French only) connects Honfleur, Deauville and Cabourg. Ticket prices typically cost just a few euros.


La Maison de Lucie (44, rue des Capucins; 33-2-31-14-40-40; is a rustic upscale 12-room boutique hotel with doubles from 150 euros.

The minimalist-cool seafood-specialist Sa.Qua.Na restaurant (22, place Hamelin; 33-2-31-89-40-80; has two Michelin stars, making it the top new restaurant in the region. Menus at 65 and 95 euros.

Across the street, Entre Terre et Mer (12-14, place Hamelin; 33-2-31-89-70-60; offers seafood dishes, with menus at 28, 38 and 55 euros. The restaurant also has a 14-room hotel with doubles from 105 euros.

The Musée Eugène Boudin (Place Erik Satie; 33-2-31-89-54-00) is filled with works by the namesake painter and other Impressionist masters. Adults 6.50 euros.


The former Club 13 hotel has been expanded (with a new restaurant and spa) and renamed Les Manoirs de Tourgéville (13, chemin de l’Orgueil, Tourgéville; 33-2-31-14-48-68;, a 57-room neo-Norman luxury hotel. Doubles from 130 euros.

For seafood, La Péniche (Boulevard de la Mer, Marina; 33-2-31-98-52-75; is a sleek new floating restaurant near the beach. A three- course meal for two, excluding wine, costs about 80 euros.

The chic and understated L’Essentiel restaurant (29-31, rue Mirabeau; 33-2-31-87-22-11; offers Euro-Asian fusion. A meal for two is about 90 euros.

Old-school pastries, teas and hot chocolate await at Dupont (20, place Morny; 33-2-31-88-20-79; For a drink, the 02 Sofa Bar in the Casino Barrière (Rue Edmond Blanc; 33-2-31-14-31-14; is a plush, Baroque-kitsch retreat.

Deauville is the festival capital of the Côte Fleurie. The newest is the five-year-old Omnivore food festival (, held in February, which invites top young international chefs for a weekend of talks and demonstrations. The town also hosts the Deauville Asian Film Festival ( in March and the Deauville American Film Festival (

For its 150th anniversary this year, Deauville has a yearlong program of exhibitions, concerts, screenings and other events. Visit or the town’s tourism site (


The majestic 103-year old Grand Hôtel Cabourg (Promenade Marcel Proust; 33-2-31-91-01-79;, has 68 rooms and 2 suites; doubles from 225 euros.

The 24-room, half-timbered Hôtel de Paris (39, avenue de la Mer; 33-2-31-91-31-34; hotel- is a cozy budget option. Doubles from 57 euros.

Seafood, classic French brasserie fare and Art Nouveau-style interiors are on order at La Belle Époque (61, avenue de la Mer, 33-2-31-91-13-87).

Chez Guillou (4, avenue de la Mer; 33-2-31-91-31-31) serves cocktails in wood-lined surroundings. More animated is Le Kaz, the bar inside the Casino (Promenade Marcel Proust; 33-2-31-28-19-19;

In summer, Le Baron (, the Paris nightclub, hosts periodic weekend D.J. parties there.