“Have you ever been to France?”
“Yes, I visited Paris.”
“Oh, that means you have never been to France…”
Two hours’ journey and three hours’ ecstasy. Étretat is a tiny town on the French Atlantic coast of Normandie with famous chalk cliffs as the main attraction. This coast is also called the Alabaster Coast of France.
Driving around in France and noticing how unlike the French provinces are to each other, we decided to go where we’ve never been before: to Normandie and Brittany.
The initial plan was to see the ruins of the Benedictine monastery in Jumièges, take a ride along the cheese and cider routes, and finally visit Mont Saint-Michel. But we managed to eat so much Camembert and Livarot during the first two days in Jumièges that we could hardly handle visiting the Cheese Farm. So we changed our route on the way and went to Normandie’s White Cliffs in Étretat.
We knew that the famous French writer Guy de Maupassant once lived in Étretat. When we arrived, we found out that his estate called “La Guillette” was up for sale. Someone would have a perfect chance to acquire a historic property, and in an exclusive location, as well.
Étretat is located on the very edge of the Côte d’Albâtre. Upon arrival, we left our car in a parking station, unerringly came out to the sea and… stood still in delight. There were they – the White Сliffs of Étretat, notable around the world as the focus of some of the paintings of Claude Monet. He was a constant guest in Étretat. No matter what the weather, Monet took his easel, came down to the coast, and spent hours drawing.
The grandiosity of this part of the Normandy coast impresses to the very root of your being: the ermine white cliffs extend to the horizon; the air is oversaturated with sea salt, it seems you could even drink it; the tremendous roar of the ocean; and the relentless wind. In order to take some photos we needed to flatten ourselves to the ground like snipers. It looks like such rude winds are constant here; but they are also a part of that common impression of Étretat that gives such a thrill. A symphony of water and wind.
The town of Étretat consists of only 5-10 streets and inaccessible steeps around. You really need to book hotels far in advance. Just as before, it is mainly the French themselves who come to take a rest here. Étretat is away from the standard tourist routes, and that brings a lot of advantages. The rest of French Normandie is at one with nature. This land combines a palette of color, taste, nature, and history.
Seen from the height of the cliffs, the whole beach and town spread out before the eyes. Étretat cannot be compared with its famous neighbors – Honfleur, Caudebec-en-Caux, or Deauville – for size, and only thanks to the writings of the French clerisy of the XIX century, this modest fishing village has become a fashionable and poncy resort in the north of France.
Many artists-impressionists before our time admired these beauties: Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, Henri Matisse, Eugène Delacroix and Claude Monet, who eternalized the magnificence of the cliffs on their pictures. The composer Jacques Offenbach built his villa Orphée here. Writers such as Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Karr, Alexandre Dumas and Guy de Maupassant resided in Étretat for long periods. Why don’t you feast your eyes on high white cliffs, laced with fancy arches, carved by the wind, the sea waves and the time?
The arch called Amont Cliffs, which is located in the north, is notable for the memorable marble Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde, rising above on a hill. Unfortunately the original was destroyed in World War II, so now we can only see the reconstruction. Just outside, there is a monument to two brave pilots who attempted the first continuous flight from Paris to New York, United States, through The North Atlantic in 1927. The plane was never found.
The Customs trail, laid high above the seashore on the Manneporte Arch commands a magnificent view. The lonely cliff in the water on the left is called “the Aiguille.” And of course the famous La Falaise d’Aval – Guy de Maupassant compared this cliff with an elephant, immersing its trunk into the sea.
Maupassant loved this place to the depths of his soul. He had only ten years to take his place in French literature; it was more than enough. However the noisy capital had never become his real home. Many of the short stories by Guy de Maupassant, as well as the last chapters of his best novel Bel Ami, were created in Étretat.
At the age of thirty, Guy de Maupassant achieved his dream: to come back to these White Cliffs. His mother had earlier bought a plot for him and in 1883 he built a house here. The estate was called La Guillette. Maupassant deeply loved this house and his garden with strawberry beds, apple trees, poplars, and ashes. There is a boat, carved by a local woodworker, which was kept in the garden among the apple trees until modern times. Maupassant assured his guests that this boat was thrown into his garden by a sea wave.
But his happiness did not last for long. Six years later he moved to the south because of his poor health. In Côte d’Azur, Cannes, more and more frequently he had attacks of madness, and finally the last retreat of this young author was a mental institution located in the former Palace of Princess Lamballe above the Seine River. Moments of lucidity occurred less and less often, and the last act of his short life was coming to an end. Once in such a moment of clarity, a hospital attendant took poor Guy de Maupassant for a walk in the garden, where the trees descended to the very river.
“Isn’t it beautiful here, monsieur Maupassant?”
“Yes, it is,” nodded the martyr. “But there is nothing quite like the white poplars in my place in Étretat.”
It was the last hello to the native shore from his fading consciousness; no one ever heard another word from the dying Maupassant, except the rare whispering: Étretat… Étretat… Étretat…
Of course it is a sad story; you feel the transience of life deeply in such moments. Maybe some of the fans of the writer would be interested in seeing his house and remaining garden, and remember the great rake and brilliant story-teller during a visit to Étretat. But it is unlikely you would get inside Maupassant’s house, as La Guillette is private property and advertised for sale now. It is located on rue Guy-de-Maupassant, № 57.
Rest in Étretat is quiet and simple. The chalk cliffs and the beach are the only entertainments; or you could also join those desperate golf players who stubbornly keep trying to score a hole in one on an endless course, getting frozen in the rough wind.
However, during the dead season, when the beach is almost empty, I could have spent the whole day, sitting on this large gravel beach, listening to the lapping waves and fingering the stones. It would be even better to take an interesting book and know that my Victor is there, sitting on that balcony and writing something.
Even the gravel is special: large. People say, it protects the shore from the waves and prevents destruction of the cliffs. You may find pebbles of very unusual fancy forms, but you may not collect and take away them, it is prohibited by law. The White Cliffs are in danger of erosion because of it.
White cliffs of Étretat, carved by the impatient attacks of the sea, rain and wind, attract the impressionable audience: artists, writers, and travelling tourists, who wander with acute fascination among these stony giants, some of which reach 120 meters in height. These people draw pictures here, write poems, novels, or simply press the button of their cameras, trying in vain to take away this fantastic scenery.