Without any hesitation, I would say that the highlight of my stay in France was our adventure-filled road-trip to Étretat. It was during the transport strike, so we decided to rent a car and head up north to Normandy. Oh boy was it fun navigating ourselves in and out of Paris through the biggest and most daunting traffic circle we have ever seen! The Arc de Triomph has no lanes (or lines) and no apparent direction. Nerve wrecking, and I have a video to prove this!
The beauty of the countryside landscape is just breathtaking, and we fell in love with the charming little villages along the way. Étretat is a town on the north coast of France, and it completely stole our hearts! It’s known for the striking naturally formed rock formations carved out of its chalky white cliffs, rising up 90 metres above the sea. Erosion has created extraordinary arches in the chalk on either side of the town. There’s also an amazing needle-like structure, known in French as an Aiguille (featured in the famous 1909 novel The Hollow Needle by Maurice Leblanc, the author who created the popular French character Arsene Lupin, a suave gentleman burglar). Claude Monet did several paintings in the area particularly of the natural cliff arches, and you can see them strategically placed on billboards from his vantage point. The town centre is also worth a look around as it is full of pretty buildings, boutiques, independent shops, bakeries and churches.
We were there during off season (winter), which had it’s pros and cons. The good thing is that it was almost completely deserted and no tourists (really, we felt like we were the only people in the village!), which we loved, but not many shops and restaurants were open. The one that was open, was really fantastic though. We loved their food and atmosphere so much, that we went there every night! We got to experience real traditional Normandy cuisine and French hospitality at it’s best.
We went for long walks on the unique pebble beach, and however much you are tempted, you are not allowed to pick up the pebbles from the beach (there are even surveillance cameras). There are no sand, just the pebbles, and the very first thing we noticed when we got to Étretat, was the crushing sound of the waves onto the pebbles, and then a very unique whistling sound that follows, as the pebbles wash back with the retracting waves. The rock formation changes dramatically as you walk along the beach towards the Needle (make sure you check the tide tables or you might get stuck). A beauty that transcends words.
Being on the Normandy coastline, it also has it’s place in history with the infamous D-Day invasions. We visited the bunkers where the attacks happened from, and saw photographs that are put up to mark all the significant places of the war. It is quite humbling when you come face to face with history in this way.
We climbed up the cliffs to visit the Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde and were met with dramatic views. We also saw the last place in France from which the 1927 biplane The White Bird (L’Oiseau Blanc) was seen. French World War I war heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli were attempting to make the first non-stop flight from Paris to New York City, but it disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic. It is considered one of the great unexplained mysteries of aviation. A monument to the flight was established in Étretat, but destroyed during World War II, when the Germans occupied the area. A new and taller monument was constructed in 1963, along with a nearby museum.
Although the views from the top were spectacular, the real gem was hidden in the gardens. The Jardins d’Etretat (Garden of Etretat) on top of the cliffs overlook the iconic “Needle” rock cliff. It is a public avant-garde experimental garden, in the form of an open-air art museum. At the end of the 19th century the Villa Roxelane belonged to Madame Thebault, a famous French actress. She was a good friend of Claude Monet who came regularly to Etretat to paint. He inspired her to create this garden in this idyllic spot on the clifftop. The blend of landscape and art makes the gardens a delight for both garden and art lovers and of course the dramatic natural landscape only adds to the beauty. You can spend hours walking through the maize of over 150 000 different plants, and be surprised with sculptures around every corner.
There are also many hiking trails, a golf course on the slopes of the mountain and museums to keep you busy during your stay. It is also a fantastic hub to do more day trips from, while in Normandy, like Bayeux, Mont Saint Michelle and Rouen.
This is one trip that was truly magical and unforgettable. I will always think back fondly on this, and hope to return again, experiencing a different season on the outstretched beaches of Étretat.