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OH LA VACHE. Aka, holy cow!!!!!! There will never be enough exclamation points to convey my wonder. A weekend trip to Etretat Normandy was MORE than I dreamt it would be. Usually I go places hyped up on photographs, and am usually disappointed or not overly impressed. Let me tell you…Etretat exceed anything I could have expected. And, if you love the French Netflix series “Lupin,” you’re going to love this town. You may even recognize a few of the locations.
Visiting Normandy: Les Falaises d’Étretat
We boarded a 7am train, eyes full of sleep, and sped through the countryside with stops along the way. Rouen Rive Droit, Bréauté, a string of small towns anchored by Rouen and Le Havre. After a speedy (and very speedy) ride on the départmental given by a kind friend in a rickety van, we arrived, spilling (literally) into the street in front of his favorite bakery.
A tad disoriented, we moseyed to find a picnic (quiche lorraine and tarte framboise on the menu) before heading to the sea. And that’s when I said, OH LA VACHE. It was incomprehensible beauty, despite the fog and drizzle, and winds to whip your hair about. The cliffs braved it all beautifully.
We decided to take a hike and after a moment’s indecision, I planted my pink Hunter boots firmly left, and off we went. The stairs made me think twice, but coming over the crest made me forget every huff and puff. The weather was a tempest, however, nearly blowing me off the cliff. My knees hit the small mount of dirt only a few feet from the edge, as the wind accosted me from behind. I did this all in the name of art. And I can see why some of the greatest painters loved this place, too. Something about the sea is calming, the cliffs graceful yet imposing. I would come back here to do portraits (to do others’ and to have my own).
A fellow photographer on the trip nimbly manoeuvred the narrowest of passages, hanging himself precariously, as we (well, I) alternately held our breath and squealed. There is no gradient, and the cliffs plunge into the shores of the pebbled beach.
As the sun set, I trusted a friend enough to lead me through a short tunnel to the other side of the “elephant,” and it was indeed another world, as she described. The sheer monstrosity, the untamed wind and waves, and the softening light as the clouds rolled in flooded me with at once fear and wonder. I crawled back through to the other side, memories, just mine, running through my mind.
Visit Étretat, Normandy
Weekend vs. Day Trip from Paris to Étretat
If you have stamina, this is a great day trip from Paris. Take the train to Le Havre if you want to see the city. Alternately, take the stop before, at Bréauté – Beauzeville. However, because the bus is less than reliable, it’s less stressful (in my opinion) if you rent a car or take a few days to see all the sights so that you don’t feel rushed. Étretat is beautiful, so it’s a shame to miss it.
How to Get From Paris to Etretat Normandy
To arrive at Étretat from Le Havre, you can take Bus 24, which stops at the SNCF station. (Cost is 2€.) It doesn’t come very frequently and be sure to check the schedules. Summer hours are different. I believe (please check so you are not stranded) that it leaves Le Havre around 10am year-round. There is a 16h30 bus from Étretat back to Le Havre year-round (I am passing you this information because I learned the hard way). The ride is 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on the route. To be sure, I would call the Étretat tourist office to verify hours.
Snag a picnic at Le Petit Accent, an excellent boulangerie with a raspberry tart I highly recommend (I ate three).
Things to Do in Etretat
There are two paths you can take as you face the sea. I recommend walking left first. There is more to see and more hill to climb, The path to the right will take you to the church, Notre Dame de la Garde. The views are also spectacular, but the terrain is not as varied.
I also really recommend going down onto the beach. If you walk through the tunnel beneath the “elephant,” you will have some of the most delicious views. PLEASE BE CAREFUL and know the schedule of high tide. The shores are not long, and during the highest tide there is no shore. Wear good, sturdy swim sandals. I opted for rain boots, which worked just as well. This trek is not for the faint of heart nor the out-of-shape. Climbing; mud sliding; uneven terrain; drops; and other landscape guaranteed.
Where to Stay in Etretat Normandy
We stayed in a lovey bed and breakfast (in the traditional sense, no AirBnB here) about 2.5 kilometres from the city center. I highly recommend; they were welcoming, warm, and kind. They even came to fetch us from town, because we realised it was a quite a far walk in the pitch black. Clean, comfy. It’s called Étretat’s Motel and you can find them on Booking.com. [Note: At the time of post update (3/12/22; trip was in 2019), I cannot find them…but if you are able to do a bed and breakfast, you’ll meet some really amazing local people!]
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