Everyone knows of Dover's stunning white cliffs in the UK but did you know that France has its own version? The home of impressionist art, it is the striking cliffs of the Alabaster Coast that feature in so many works by Monet, Boudin, Pissarro and more...
The white cliffs of Normandy
The Alabaster Coast, or Côte d'Albâtre in French, is a striking 80 mile stretch of the Normandy coastline made of magnificent white chalk cliffs and pebble beaches. Geologically similar to the cliffs at Dover, the Alabaster Coast forms the sea edge of a chalk plateau known as the Pays de Caux.
The area has provided writers and artists, especially the impressionists, with great inspiration. Monet, Sisley and many other impressionist artists painted canvases here and were captivated by the play of light and shadow on the cliffs.
Normandy is celebrating its affinity with the impressionist art movement at its annual Normandy Impressionist Festival from 16 April to 26 September. This year's theme is impressionist portraits and there is plenty going on with major exhibitions in Rouen, Caen, Honfleur, Le Havre and Giverny. You can find out lots about the festival, the history of the movement and the best museums on Normandy Tourist Board's impressionism pages.
Top places to visit on the Alabaster Coast
First stop on your itinerary after getting off the ship has to be - to stay in Le Havre. This bustling port city has been one of France's busiest ports for centuries and, in the 19th century, it became a haven for artists who arrived wanting to capture the unique light in the estuary. Le Havre was particularly attractive because of its proximity to Paris at a time when travelling meant a stagecoach on land or a steamboat down the Seine!
Today, it is an eclectic city with a lively harbour-front (it's the second-largest port in France!), the beautiful old architecture of buildings like the mairie and the cathedral, and the eye-catching modernist architecture of Auguste Perret - the 'concrete poet' who rebuilt much of Le Havre after its devastation during WW2.
The most notable of Perret's works has to be the Eglise St Joseph. The 107m high tower of the church, covered in stained glass windows, is an unmissable point on Le Havre's skyline that you can see as you're coming into port. It really is well-worth a look inside to see the play of colour from all that stained glass.
Also unmissable is the Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art, more commonly known as MuMa, where you will find the largest selection of impressionist artworks outside of the Musée d'Orsay. Alongside some Monet's and Renoir's are a large collection of paintings by Eugene Boudin and several Pissarro's, Degas' and Sisley's.
It's like taking a walk through the Normandy landscape from the coastal charm of Pissarro's 'The Pilot's Jetty', painted in Le Havre, to Boudin's 'Studies of Cows' that encapsulate the quintessential beauty of the Norman countryside. The perfect way to whet your appetite for all the stunning sights along this coast and a delve into the impressionist world, or a great way to round off your trip if you dropping in at the end of your journey before you head home.
From Le Havre, head up the coast to one of the most recognisable landmarks in Normandy, and a frequent presence in many of the impressionists' paintings. Etretat was a particular favourite for its spectacular arches and the needle of rock known as l'Aiguille (The Needle).There's a hiking trail along the cliff edge that is a fairly easy walk and affords dramatic views of the cliffs and beaches below.
But it's not just the impressionists who have made Etretat part of the public consciousness, to the French at least. France's answer to Sherlock Holmes, the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, famously travelled here in the novel, The Hollow Needle, and discovered the fortunes of the Kings of France hidden inside The Needle. There is a museum all about this legendary fictional character in the town itself.
Today, the area draws tourists not only marvelling at the beauty that inspired Monet and other artists, but also gourmets who come to try the variety of fish and shellfish on offer and celebrate the various food festivals showcasing the wealth of fruits de mer caught off the coast.
And, if golf is your kind of thing, there's a golf course perched on the top of the cliffs! The constantly evolving Golf d'Etretat course is over 100 years old and the sensational clifftop views make a game here a truly memorable experience.
With its 300 feet high cliffs, the coastline at Fécamp is an impressive sight. The highest cliffs in Normandy and a subject of Monet's paintings, they really are a spectacular sight from the beach - or admire them from another angle by getting out on the water in a boat or kayak.
Traditionally a fishing port, many yachts as well as fishing boats dock at Fécamp today. It was from here that many French ships headed out to Newfoundland to search for cod but people were also drawn to Fécamp for another reason - its renowned abbey attracted many pilgrims coming to see the blood of Christ, and was well looked after by the Dukes of Normandy.
The town's other big claim to fame is the Benedictine Palace, home of the Benedictine liqueur. Based on a recipe written down by a Venetian monk at the abbey in the 16th century, the herbal Benedictine liqueur was rediscovered by businessman Alexander LeGrand who turned it into a bestselling beverage. You can visit the ornate half-Gothic, half-Renaissance palace and see the distillery and the extraordinary art collection that LeGrand left behind.
A seafaring history dating back to the Vikings, the departure point for many adventurers to the Americas and Africa, and a name that reflects its deep waters - its fair to say that Dieppe is a place where life has long revolved around its proximity to the sea. This led to great wealth in the town but war led to large parts of the historic port being destroyed until it became a fashionable seaside resort for Parisiens in the 19th century.
The town became known as a holiday destination amongst the rich and was the first French holiday resort - and it's easy to see why. The beauty that attracted holidaymakers also drew the impressionists and a bohemian set from both sides of the Channel made Dieppe one of their favourite places. Monet, Renoir and Whistler were among the artists who painted here.
If you like learning about history, there's a museum inside the chateau that details the town's history and its importance in maritime trade in days gone by. There's also the Mémorial du 19 août 1942 where you can watch a film all about the failed Allied raid on Dieppe, codenamed Operation Jubilee, and how the Allies learned from it in preparation for Operation Overlord, the D-Day Landings, nearly two years later.
Head south of Le Havre to the Côte Fleurie
South of Le Havre, across the Pont de Normandie, lies the gorgeous Côte Fleurie, the land of elegant Belle Epoque seaside resorts. Honfleur, just a 30 minute drive from Le Havre, is one of the most easily recognisable for the tall, thin buildings that surround the quaint harbour. You'll find plenty of artists working around the marina even today.
Further south are the sister resorts of Deauville and Trouville. Deauville is a favourite for the horsey set with two racecourses in the vicinity and several studs in the surrounding countryside. It also hosts the American Film Festival every year in September, which attracts some of the biggest Hollywood stars. Last year saw Keanu Reeves, Sir Ian McKellen and Elizabeth Olson on the red carpet.
Deauville's beach promenade features the names of many Hollywood stars from now and yesteryear and the beaches at Trouville have earned it the nickname the 'Queen of Beaches'. Both feature in paintings by Monet and Boudin, and Trouville was also a favourite haunt of writers including Proust and Flaubert. While you're in the area, stop in on Cabourg too, another chic favourite of Proust.
Head inland from Le Havre to Rouen and Giverny
Go east inland and you'll find yourself in Monet country at his estate in Giverny. This charming little village is now known the world over as Monet's home thanks to his paintings of his garden - especially the waterlilies series that are some of his most famous works. You can visit the garden with its Japanese gardens crossed by the little green bridge and the house itself, which contains reproductions of some of his most famous paintings.
Normandy's capital, Rouen, is another stop for Monet fans to see the magnificent cathedral in the heart of the city. Monet painted a whole series of studies of the cathedral in different lights and at different times of the year. There is lots to do in Rouen and the city has a strong medieval past.
It was here in Rouen that Joan of Arc met her unfortunate end when she was executed in the Place de Vieux Marché. In 2015, a new museum opened, the Historial Jeanne d'Arc, where cutting edge technology and multimedia exhibits enlighten visitors on her life and times. Another unmissable sight is the Eglise St Jeanne d'Arc, a contemporary church built in her honour that has an incredible array of stained glass windows - they had been removed for safekeeping from another church, which was sadly destroyed by bombing in WW2.
Whilst admiring the beauty of the area is one thing, there's also lots of great activities going on in this landscape for outdoorsy types. The coastline is full of miniature gorges, known locally as valleuses, which allow access through the cliffs to the sea. There are some great routes for hikers and cyclists.
Follow the GR 21 hiking route from Le Havre to Le Tréport all along the Alabaster Coast and enjoy the incredible views from the clifftop; the quaint chapels and picturesque manor houses; some wonderful flora and fauna, especially the wild flowers and many bird species; and watch the fishing boats going in and out from the port towns of Etretat, Fécamp and Dieppe and other small ports along the coast.
Why not get out in the sea with some water sports including sailing, windsurfing and diving, or take a leisurely boat trip and go fishing?
Have you taken a road trip along the Alabaster Coast? Do you have any other favourite places to visit that we've missed? Let us know in the comments below.