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Jewel of the Normandy Coast : The picture-perfect French village of Honfleur drew the Impressionists in the 19th Century, but so far has escaped American attention


HONFLEUR, France — Here's my plan. When this life ends, and the authorities ask whose shoes I'd like to fill next, I'll immediately remember the calm water of this town's tiny Old Dock, the dignity of its five-story facades, the stylish traffic in its busy boat slips, the 17th-Century bricks and beams that dominate its narrow side streets, and the scenes that emerge when these elements overlap.

Then I'll give the authorities my answer: Eric Boudet de Dramard.

Eric Boudet de Dramard is a retired Frenchman and oil painter I found on the waterfront at Honfleur, which is a town of 8,000 on France's Normandy coast, near the mouth of the Seine. It's where many of the Impressionists came in the 19th Century. And it is one of the most picturesque towns in Western Civilization.

Dramard, 61, has been painting here for about 20 years, on and off. He sets up his easel, steadies his brush hand with his left forearm, and spends hours tracing on canvas the wind-blown sails, the geometry of the harbor, the aged buildings and their rippling mirror images. Every once in a while, a visitor will interrupt him to offer several hundred francs for one of his paintings, which he'll take. They'll chat a bit, and then he'll go back to the canvas, the rippling water, the drying nets . . . .

And then, in the middle of all this, Dramard will complain.

"Seventy galleries now," he'll growl, nodding toward the artworks in windows all down the street. "Before, there were ships." And then he'll resolve to drive out the next day to gray, industrial Le Havre, where the fishmongers are more genuine.

It wouldn't be a perfect life, after all, unless you had the satisfaction of complaining.

Maybe, given enough time, I would complain, too. Like San Francisco's waterfront, Honfleur's poses at least as much as it works. But that's why all these wonderful restaurants and galleries have alighted here (though Dramard's estimate of 70 looked a little high to me). It's also why the buildings are so well-restored. And in the outer harbor, 20 yards beyond the scores of Channel-crossing English pleasure craft along the Old Dock, there is some honest work getting done. Their ranks may have thinned, but the fishermen of Honfleur still mend nets, paint their hulls in bright purples, reds and yellows, and chug out to sea. Basically, Monsieur Dramard has it made.

I came north from Paris to get here. Since I was too lazy to rent a car, this meant covering the 120 miles by train and bus, drowsing the morning away while monuments of French civilization gradually sunk into the earth and were carpeted over by the rich, green fields of Normandy. Occasionally, a country house would flash past the window, offering a glimpse of green shoots taking root in an old thatched roof. Here, an old stone church. There, a riderless horse tracing circles, trainer at its side. A unfailingly cheerful Tom Bosley look-alike (the father on "Happy Days," remember?) steered the bus. As fast as we were going, you could still feel the pace of life decelerating outside.

Reaching the coast, we followed Highway D-513 through the resort towns and well-shuttered homes of Deauville (for wealthy French gamblers) and Trouville (for the less wealthy French masses). After another eight miles of climbing, swooping and winding two-lane road, I was in downtown Honfleur, looking out at a football-field-sized rectangle of calm water and idle boats.

All of Honfleur radiates from the Old Dock. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, exploratory voyages to North America originated here. A governor appointed by the king held court in the Lieutenance building, overlooking the passage to the English Channel. Norman shipbuilders put up houses in the surrounding hills, and a handful of landmark churches arose. By that time, the Hotel du Cheval Blanc was already a longstanding business, having opened in its waterfront location about 1460.

Five centuries and countless renovations later, all those buildings are intact, and the Cheval Blanc is still a hotel. Owner Alain Petit can lead curious strangers to the oldest beams, or to Room 30, where Monet and others are said to have capitalized on its broad, bird's-eye view of 19th-Century activity on the waterfront.

The Cheval Blanc's rooms have more character than luxury, but they're not rooted in the 15th Century. In the course of gradual renovations, Petit and his wife, Elisabeth, have added such modern conveniences as built-in hair dryers to many. (The Cheval Blanc was already booked by the time I called to inquire about rooms, and so I landed at the newish, nondescript Hotel Mercure. The room was affordable and clean, the staff competent. But next time I'll still try the Cheval Blanc first.)

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