The little town of Etretat is located in the Pays de Caux, on a section of the coast of Normandy called “La Côte d’Albâtre”, and is renowned for its impressive white cliffs, featuring arches, a large rock needle and tunnels.
Etretat, a harbour in Normandy
“If I had to show the sea to a friend for the first time, I would choose to go to Etretat”
French novelist Alphonse Karr (1808-1890)
Etretat is one of many stops of interest on the coastal road along the Côte d’Albâtre, 130 km long from Le Tréport to Le Havre. The resemblance with the opposite coast in England is striking, for the English and French coasts share the same common feature: high chalk cliffs.
Étretat, a bit of history
An old legend says that the village was founded following a Viking invasion. Étretat’s fame was settled in the 19th century when, from a fishing village, it quickly became a fashionable seaside resort. Little by little, the traditional activity of fishing was substituted by tourism. Paris and the largest cities in Normandy were not far and the construction of a railway line made transportation easier towards this little town.
The train line has since been taken out of service, only to be transformed into a touristic train: le train touristique Étretat Pays de Caux. You can reach Les Loges downhill by handcar (6km) and come back by an old-fashioned train.
However, one doesn’t come to Étretat just for bathing. Unlike other places nearby, Étretat does not have sand but pebble beaches. Here, the real features are the surrounding cliffs, one of the most visited sites in Normandy.
The pebble beach
Once standing on the beach, the cliff formations are visible on each side: the Falaise d’Aval to the left and the Falaise d’Amont to the right. As it is surrounded by cliffs, the little beach is relatively protected from the winds. Many tourists come here in summer to admire the magnificent setting of Étretat, contributing to its festive atmosphere.
Taking the shingle from the beach is forbidden as it serves as a protection from erosion by the sea. The beach is separated from the village by a long promenade, named “le perrey” after a local dialect word meaning “in stoned” (empierré). A “perrey” used to be the place where boats were running aground.
Today, the sea-wall serves as a protection for the town from violent storms, particularly during the large tides of equinoxes. The little town’s origins as a fishing village are still evident with capstans and fishermen’s huts on the sea front, next to the beach.
To enjoy a visit to the small but popular beach and the surrounding cliffs, it is essential to know the high and low tide timetables, in order to avoid being trapped between two cliffs by the rising tide!
The outstanding 70 metre-high white cliffs of Étretat are world famous and are classified as a national site, with its three rock formations, known as:
– Porte d’Amont (the upstream cliff) – a large rock that juts into the sea,
– Porte d’Aval (the downstream cliff) – arguably the most impressive cliff with its arch and needle, and
– Manneporte – featuring a second natural rock arch above the sea.
The Falaise d’Aval
The Falaise d’Aval is reached by a set of stairs (180 steps) leading up to the crumbling (and windy!) side of the cliff. The path starts at the right end of the beach, where you can see remains of bunkers, part of the “Atlantic Wall”, an extensive system built by the Germans to defend against an anticipated Allied invasion of continental Europe from Great Britain.
The local flora has adapted to the cold and violent winds hitting the coast, which have the effect of drying out the soil. This explains why the plants are smaller in size, as well as the absence of trees.
From the top, the view reaches as far as Le Havre. But the eye is drawn to the abrupt cliff and the notorious arch, looking as an elephant dipping his trunk into the sea. Standing next to it is the “Hollow Needle” (L’Aiguille Creuse), made famous by Maurice Leblanc. The French novelist, a contemporary of Conan Doyle, created the character of Arsène Lupin, the Gentleman Thief and set his legendary refuge inside the Needle.
Leblanc is not the only artist who found inspiration in Étretat: Monet, Boudin, Maupassant and Flaubert were also impressed by the grandeur of this part of Normandy. Several paintings from Monet were painted in and around Etretat.
The Falaise d’Amont
As for reaching the top of the Falaise d’Aval, a very steep stair-path winds up to the top of the “Falaise d’Amont”. (You will need approximately 1 hour for a return walk). Here stands the Notre-Dame de la Garde Chapel, made of stone. In 1854, Étretat’s fishermen decided to build a chapel dedicated to the Holy Virgin, their Patron Saint. The Nazis blew out the building in 1942 and it was rebuilt in the early 1950’s. Behind the Chapel stands another monument, which looks like a tall white arrow, dedicated to aviators Nungesser and Coli, who were the first to attempt the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean without stopping. They departed on the 8th May 1927 but were never seen since.
Along your walk on Étretat’s cliffs, many birds can easily be observed at a close distance: Common Gulls of course, but also Herring Gulls, Arctic Fulmars, Peregrine Falcons and Cormorants.
The view from the top is outstanding for it embraces the bay of Étretat and the Falaise d’Aval with the Hollow Needle.
Étretat’s Town Centre
In the town centre of Étretat are many interesting half-timbered houses and an old market hall on Place Foch, which has recently been restored to its original wooden beauty. It is not really used as a traditional French market nowadays as it houses tourist boutiques.
Opposite the market hall, on Boulevard René Coty stands the famous half-timbered house, the “Manoir de la Salamandre”, now a hotel-restaurant.
To see many of Étretat’s old houses, you need to walk down the main street Boulevard du Président René Coty which will lead you towards the seafront.
As for Étretat’s restaurants, it will be of no surprise to find a fine selection of seafood and fish here, without forgetting the local moules-frites and crêpes.
How to get to Etretat
Étretat is not reached by a motorway, but its closeness to Normandy’s largest cities such as Le Havre (19km) and Rouen (90km) makes it easily accessible by car from Paris (219km), Calais and Caen.
From Paris, take the A13 and A131 motorways in the direction of Le Havre. From there, follow the single carriage-way route départementale 79 which runs through the Côte d’Albatre.
If you are travelling from Australia, either take a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and rent a car from there, or fly to London. Ferries cross the Channel regularly from Portsmouth to Le Havre.
Visit the Tourist information centre of Etretat for more information.