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In Honfleur, the feeling you’ve slipped into a painting

The Vieux Bassin area in Honfleur, with its boats and historic buildings, is a scene worthy of a painting.Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe

HONFLEUR, France — The late afternoon light washed over the tall-masted boats, bleaching them white and sending shimmering reflections into the still water of the Vieux Bassin (Old Dock). The wood bell tower of the 15th-century Saint Catherine Church split the deep blue sky. In outdoor cafes smiling visitors sipped wine or Calvados. We had the sense of having slipped into a painting.

In fact, Honfleur has been the subject of myriad paintings over the years, notably those by native son and early Impressionist Eugene Boudin, whose work is displayed in a museum here. While the seaport city is well worth a visit for the art and the Calvados, the best reason to visit Honfleur may be just to walk the narrow, cobblestone streets, drinking in the picture-postcard views of the harbor, admiring the buildings that seem to have been lifted straight from a fairy tale, and exploring winding alleys to nowhere.

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Our visit was an excursion offered as part of a Paris-to-Normandy cruise with Viking River Cruises, which gave us access to a charming and well-informed guide, Anne-Marie LeBlic. The Vikings settled Honfleur as early as 900 AD, she said. Its favorable location at the mouth of the Seine River allowed it to flourish as a commercial port. In the Middle Ages, it became a walled town, and the remnants of the fortifications are still visible in the area of the Lieutenance, one of two gates into the walled city, at the very end of the Vieux Bassin.

The wood Saint Catherine Church, built by shipwrights after the Hundred Years War, is notable for its freestanding bell tower, also made of wood. Since bell towers often acted as lightning rods, the church founders decided to build the bell tower apart from the sanctuary, so that if the tower caught fire, the church might escape damage. Today the bell tower houses a museum of religious art.

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Visitors enjoy wine and Calvados at an outdoor cafe by the Vieux Bassin.Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe

Along the Quai Sainte-Catherine, a row of tall, narrow houses creates a striking tableau. LeBlic explained that a 17th-century ordinance awarded settlers 25-foot-wide plots. Enterprising homeowners discovered that although they couldn’t add living space on either side, they could build up, and they built entire homes on a second level, opening onto elevated back streets. Even today, most of those houses have two different owners, she said.

The route from the port to the Eugene Boudin Museum winds through the Arts Quarter, filled with galleries, studios, and antiques shops. Walking through streets barely wide enough for a single car feels a bit like an archeological dig, with houses that are fieldstone on the bottom, then brick, then stucco, then half-timbered, the different materials sometimes literally piled on top of one another.

The first French painter to paint landscapes outdoors, Boudin is considered to be the precursor of Impressionism. In 1858, he met Claude Monet, who often stayed in Honfleur and painted many of his works there. At the Eugene Boudin Museum, which displays work by Impressionists and other artists who have lived or found inspiration in the area, we especially liked Boudin’s Honfleur scenes and his portraits. The museum’s third floor offers a scenic view of the city and the Seine Estuary.

Another famous Honfleur native was Erik Satie, whose home has been transformed into Maisons Satie, a museum that immerses visitors in the talent and eccentricities of the composer and his age. Using audio guides, visitors take a tour through a series of musical tableaux, each one reflecting an aspect of this unusual musician, a forerunner of modern music.

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Sophie Chevalier sells Calvados, apple brandy made from local orchards, at Les Calvados de Sophie. Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe

There are a dozen or more shops in Honfleur selling Calvados, an apple or pear brandy made from Normandy fruit, and many offer tastings. Calvados is always a blending of several varieties, LeBlic explained, and the age on the sticker is the age of the youngest one. “If you don’t see the age on the sticker,” she said, “don’t buy.”

Armed with this knowledge, we stopped at Les Calvados de Sophie, where proprietor Sophie Chevalier showed us vintages from two to 70 years. Some of the most popular products, she said, are cider, crème de Calvados (a caramel blend that she likened to Bailey’s), and locally made salted caramel. We tasted a smooth 15-year-old Calvados and a sweet pommeau, an aperitif made with Calvados and cider. Chevalier is proud to support small local growers: “It lets me highlight and preserve the heritage of our Norman terroir.”

If you’re not lucky enough to have a personal guide, start your visit to Honfleur at the tourist office on the Quai Lepaulmier, where you can pick up an audio guide, along with maps and brochures. Throughout the year the office offers themed guided tours focusing on history, food, and art (ot-honfleur.fr).


Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen.albanese@gmail.com.