With this year’s les vacances de la Toussaint already done, I’d thought that I would recount where I went this time around during my second year as an assistante in France. In comparison to last year’s grand adventure in Belgium and Prague, this year’s vacation was more of a weekend getaway than an actual, lengthy trip. Regardless of the short time spent away from my flat, I still nevertheless got to enjoy myself a bit, as well as really got to explore some of the smaller, more off-the-beaten-path towns that I otherwise didn’t get to the first-time around.
That said, I’m beginning with my first destination of the weekend: Le Havre, France!
To start off, les vacances de la Toussaint this year started on a Thursday, which to me having been used to the Saturday start-off last year kind of threw me off. In any case, though, I had made plans to return to Le Havre, a port city along the coast of Normandy, to visit an old colleague while also using it as a base to visit other nearby towns.
Before leaving, I had been in contact with my old colleague from last year and she was more than happy to have me over in her flat, as well as take me around the region and overall spend time with me. That was really nice of her to host me, as well as the fact that I didn’t need to find accommodation on my own, thereby saving money (budget travel life-pro tip there!). In return, I made sure that I kept my space clean in her flat, as well as share stories and good conversations with her- that wasn’t too much to ask in return!
In any case, I caught the late-morning train over to Le Havre from my town; the ride took about two hours, and eventually I arrived around 13h00 at la gare, where she was waiting for me with her adorable dog (a 15-year-old terrier who was deaf and had sort of a breathing problem from time to time. Poor thing!). We walked out of the station over to her car where her teenage daughter was sitting in the passenger seat, and we first drove over to Sainte-Adresse, a small town not too far from Le Havre where we spent part of the afternoon hiking along the cliffs by the sea (more on that in the next post).
Later that afternoon, we drove down to Le Havre again, where we walked a bit along the beach. Considering that I’m placed farther from the Normandy coast this year, it was a rare opportunity for me to visit, and so I felt super happy (elated, even) that I was here- really here– at the beach, listening to the waves crashing against the boardwalk and feeling the windy sea breeze against me. Having grown up near the beach in Los Angeles my entire life, it was just so refreshing to be able to see the ocean again, although from “the other side.”
Really, I love Le Havre; I fell in love with it last year as an assistante in the region and even though I didn’t live or teach there, I made an effort to visit often, sometimes as frequently as two, three times a week. There was a bus that ran from my small town to the city, and even though it was a 45-minute ride, it was a way to escape from the boring, small-town life (don’t get me wrong, it was a pleasant place, but there just wasn’t anything to do…).
Funny enough, the very first time I ever went to Le Havre turned out to be a mistake; I was riding the bus one day (I clearly remember it being a Sunday) back to my flat after stopping in my town’s centre ville to run some errands. Considering that I rarely ever rode public transportation in Los Angeles and didn’t know that you had to press the button to signal the bus driver to stop at your intended stop, the bus zoomed past my stop and I panicked! I froze, unsure whether to press the button for the next stop or wait until someone else did so I could get off at the next one and just walk back home, but as I was thinking these thoughts, the bus kept going and going, all the way to Le Havre.
Eventually, we arrived in the port city where I got off and ended up spending the afternoon walking all over and slowly falling in love with the streets, the beach, and everything that it had to offer. I ended up catching the last bus ride home later that afternoon, but since then, I continued to return to the city whenever I could.
Besides being a port/beach city, Le Havre is also surprisingly very modern compared with other cities in France; much of the city was destroyed during World War II and so it was basically rebuilt from scratch by architect August Perret during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and today contains widely-paved sidewalks, tall cubicle buildings, and straight grid-like streets that remind me a lot of those in the United States. Really, it just feels like home.
This time around during les vacances de la Toussaint, I spent most of my time with my colleague, who took me into centre ville as well to visit St. Joseph’s Church, which was built in the 1950’s and today is also a memorial to the lives lost during the war. Compared with other, old churches that I’ve seen in France, let alone throughout Europe, this one is like no other, since it kind of reminds me of some sort of 1984-esque building, with its sharp, geometric designs and whatnot. Nevertheless, it’s an icon of the city, so why not appreciate it?
Near St. Joseph’s Church, my colleague and I also checked out les Halles Centrales, which is a covered marketplace that has different shops selling specialized items like cheese, bread, charcuterie, seafood, wine, and so forth. Quite pricey, if you asked me, but the sights and smells of all things sweet and savory inside that place definitely made my stomach grumble!
There was also this boulangerie that my colleague took me to just right outside of les Halles, which she claims is reputed to be the “best boulangerie in Le Havre.” Called la Maison Portier, the family has been making bread and pastries since the 1920’s; while a bit on the pricey side compared with other boulangeries out there, their products are nothing short of delicious, and the ficelle comté (wand-shaped bread stuffed with Comté cheese) and douillon (a pear pastry- with an entire pear baked inside the crust!) were simple, but sublime.
Aside from St. Joseph’s Church, another distinctive-looking building in Le Havre is none other than le Volcan, which is a performing-arts center with theater plays inside. Right next to it is la bibliothèque Oscar Niemeyer, a library which just reopened earlier this year after remodeling; I’ve been inside before, and it’s so nice!
In any case, after we wandered around centre ville for a bit, my colleague and I went over to her flat to rest for the remainder of the day. I was shown to my room (formerly her son’s) and she was nice enough to give me her Wifi password (a life-saver, considering that, as you know, I was without Internet in my flat for almost a month) before leaving me to relax and do my own thing for the night.
The next morning, I had some free time to myself, since my colleague had to go run some errands earlier that day. One thing that I hadn’t been to in Le Havre so far then was le Musée André Malraux, or the “MuMa” for short. Located right by the sea, this museum houses one of the largest collection of Impressionist paintings out there, and for me being a huge Impressionist fan, I had to go visit.
I walked over to the MuMa and spent the time looking at the different paintings from different artists, from the famous ones like Monet and Degas to the more local ones like Boudin and Dufy. Also, admission was free (specifically for under-26), so that was a plus!
After the museum, my colleague picked me up from there and we spent the afternoon visiting other neighboring towns near Le Havre (more on them later). Later that evening, we met up with another assistante who was living in the city (and funny enough, is working at the old collège I worked in last year); we got some drinks in the centre ville, chatting for a bit before heading home to rest for the night.
My colleague had to leave for Paris the last night I was in Le Havre, but was kind enough to give me her keys to the flat; I just needed to drop them off in her mailbox before I left. I didn’t spent much of the rest of the time I was there exploring the city, since I had grad school stuff and work to take care of (eh…), but I did go out a bit on Sunday to visit les Docks Vauban, a large outlet store right across from la gare with just about everything you need for the perfect mall experience: clothing stores (H&M, Adidas), restaurants, even groceries (E-Leclerc is my go-to store; I would go there often for groceries last year, since it was much cheaper than the Super U in my small town). There’s also a small harbor as you cross the bridge over and on a sunny day, it’s absolutely gorgeous.
…and that’s about it during my time in Le Havre this time around! I was very glad to have been able to go back and see the port city, visiting old and new places with company this time. While I wasn’t able to go see les jardins suspendus (a large, botanical garden), I’m pretty satisfied that I saw everything else that I wanted to see, and perhaps I’ll make another trip over to see the gardens some other time.
More on my les vacances de la Toussaint adventures to come soon. À bientôt!