The Cliffs of Etretat

I’ve been in France almost 3 years (!!) and still, I’m always finding out about new places to see and new beauties to explore.  Case in point – The Cliffs of Etretat (or Les Falaises d’Etretat).  My obsession with visiting this stunning location started with my trip to Giverny and the former house of Claude Monet.  There, hanging in Monet’s former living room amidst the paintings of flowers in gardens, I was struck by a stunning painting of white cliffs.  This same painting was sold as a postcard in the gift shop and it was there that I learned that the subject of this painting was The Cliffs of Etretat, located not too far from Giverny, on the Normandy coast.

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Fast forward 4 months.  We happened to be visiting friends in the nearby city of Rouen, and we decided to make the trip to Etretat for a day.  Etretat is located about an hour and a half from Rouen, and about 3 hours from Paris (depending on traffic).  I typically hate traveling anywhere in August (because the rest of France seems to be vacationing there, too!), but I was hoping that the cloudy skies and the fact that it was a Sunday would deter people.  Nope!  Although it’s possible that there were fewer people there than the day before, there were still plenty of tourists and cars to invade this little touristy town.

After a bit of an ordeal to find parking, we were ready for lunch.  Our friends had recommended a crêperie called Lann-Bihoué, stating that it was one of the best that they’ve had in France, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.  Living here in France, I’ve definitely had my share of crêpes, but I hadn’t experienced crêpes like this before.  The combinations were inventive and interesting (not just your plain ham and cheese or jambon/fromage).  I had the special galette of the day (galette is what they call a salty crêpe in French) which consisted of shrimp and fish in a cream sauce, and for dessert, a salted caramel and pear crêpe.  Accompanied by a small bowl of cidre, of course!  (Note:  Normandy is well-known for their apples, and therefore, their hard apple cider.)

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With bellies full of good food, we were now ready to see Etretat.  Our tour started with a brief walk through the small town.

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An obedient sea-gull crossing in the crosswalk

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The distinct architecture of Normandy

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This old building is still a restaurant and a hotel

After our short walk through the town, we came to the beach and the cliffs.  Even with the plethora of tourists about, we were still able to marvel at the striking beauty all around.

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There are two ways to see The Cliffs of Etretat – from above and below.  Both are easy to do in a few hours and are not too difficult.  Although you can walk around in flip-flops, the stone beaches can make life a little difficult, so I definitely recommend shoes with a thicker sole.  I was grateful to be wearing my Birkenstock’s – those Germans really know how to build a good quality sandal.

But I digress… There are 3 main arches to The Cliffs of Etretat.  Arch/Cliff #1: Porte/Falaise d’Amont.  On top of this cliff (or falaise) sit a chapel, the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Garde and an out-of-place arrow monument called Nungesser et Coli which is dedicated to 2 French pilots who tried the first non-stop transatlantic flight from Paris to New York in 1927 and sadly failed, being last seen near Etretat.

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The beaches of Etretat, with Falaise Amont in the background.  On top Falaise Amont, you can see Chapelle Notre Dame de la Garde and the Nungesser et Coli monument.

Arch/Cliff #2:  Porte/Falaise d’Aval. Like Porte/Falaise d’Amont, this arch can easily be seen from the town of Etretat

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To the left of the Falaise Aval, you can see a little opening to a cave.  At low tides, you can walk into this cave, up a ladder and through a tunnel to the other side of the falaise.   Tide timetables are posted nearby.  I highly recommend checking the timetables to see when low tides are.  We did not before we went, but we were very fortunate to be there at low tide, and were able to see the white cliffs from the other side in perfect lighting.

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Porte d’Aval with its accompanying needle-like rock formation

From here, we walked towards Arch/Cliff #3:  Manneporte, which is known as being the largest of the 3 arches.  Famed 19th century French writer Guy de Maupassant once said that Manneporte’s arch was so enormous that a ship could pass through.  It is also known to look like an elephant dipping its trunk into the sea.

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Manneporte, the largest of the 3 arches

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Under the massive arch of Manneporte

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More beautiful cliffs lie beyond Manneporte

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Looking from Manneporte back towards Porte d’Aval

As we were taking our photos from Manneporte and slowly soaking in the surrounding beauty, a woman in a blue vest came up to us speaking urgently in French.  I didn’t understand everything except for, “Dépêchez-vous!” (English, “Hurry up!”)  Looking back to the beach we had just crossed, I saw that everyone had either left or was in the process of leaving.  Putting 2 and 2 together, I realized that the tide was coming in, and we had to hurry up and cross the beach, take the tunnel and descend the ladder to the other side of Porte d’Aval if we didn’t want to swim back to the town.  So our time in this beautiful little area was limited, but thankfully we were fortunate just to experience it at all.

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One last look at the Porte d’Aval before the tide comes back in

After this, we did a little hike to the top of Porte d’Aval so that we could get another beautiful perspective of the arches and beautiful white cliffs from above…

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After spending a day in Etretat, I could easily see why these beautiful cliffs provided the inspiration for many of Monet’s paintings and Maupassant’s writings.  It truly was a breathtaking experience.


À Savoir:

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