Le Havre Cruises

Le Havre, city (1990 pop. 195,932), Seine-Maritime dept., N France, in Normandy, at the mouth of the Seine River on the English Channel. It was founded in 1517 as Le Havre-de-Grace by Francis I. Le Havre became a major seaport in the 19th cent. and is now the second-most-important port in France after Marseilles. It was a major port for transatlantic travel until the advent of widespread commercial air travel in the 1970s. Among the city's industries are oil refining and the manufacture of automobiles, cement, synthetic rubber, and fertilizers. During World War II the British bombed the city to prevent its use by the Germans for an invasion of England.

Most ferry passengers head straight out of the port of LE HAVRE as quickly as the traffic will allow to escape a city that most guidebooks dismiss as dismal, disastrous and gargantuan. While it is not the most picturesque or tranquil place in Normandy, however, it is not the soulless urban sprawl the warnings suggest, even if the port – the second-largest in France after Marseille – does take up half the Seine estuary, extending way beyond the town. The city was originally built on the orders of Franà §ois I in 1517 to replace the ancient ports of Harfleur and Honfleur, then silting up, and its name was soon changed from the mouth-challenging Franciscopolis to Le Havre – "The Harbour". It became the principal trading post of France's northern coast, prospering especially during the American War of Independence and thereafter, importing cotton, sugar and tobacco. In the years before the outbreak of war in 1939, it was the European home of the great luxury liners like the Normandie, ile de France and France .

Le Havre suffered heavier damage than any other port in Europe during World War II. Following its near-total destruction, it was rebuilt to the specifications of a single architect, Auguste Perret, between 1946 and 1964 – which makes it a rare entity, and one visibly circumscribed by constraints of time and money. The sheer sense of space can be exhilarating, as the showpiece monuments have a dramatic and winning self-confidence and the few surviving churches and other relics of the old city have been sensitively integrated into the whole. The skyline has been kept deliberately low, but the endless mundane residential blocks, which were thrown up as economically and swiftly as possible after the war, get dispiriting after a while. However, with the sea visible at the end of almost every street and open public space and expanses of water at every turn, even those visitors who ultimately fail to agree with Perret's famous dictum that "concrete is beautiful" should enjoy a stroll around his city

One reason visitors tend to dismiss Le Havre out of hand is that it's easy – whether by train, bus or your own vehicle – to get to and from the city without ever seeing its downtown area, giving the impression that it's merely an endless industrial sprawl.

The Perret-designed central Hotel de Ville is a logical first port of call, a low flat-roofed building that stretches for over a hundred metres, topped by a seventeen-storey concrete tower. Surrounded by pergola walkways, flower beds and flowing water from an array of fountains, it's an attractive, lively place with a high-tech feel, and is often the venue for imaginative civic-minded exhibitions.

Perret's other major creation, clearly visible northwest of the town hall, is the church of St-Joseph . Instead of the traditional elongated cross shape, the church is built on a cross of which all four arms are equally short. From the outside it's a plain mass of speckled concrete, the main doors thrown open to hint at dark interior spaces within resembling an underground car park. In fact, when you get inside it all makes sense: the altar is right in the centre, with the hundred-metre bell tower rising directly above it. Very simple patterns of stained glass, all around the church and right the way up the tower, create a bright interplay of coloured light, focusing on the altar.

Le Havre's boldest specimen of modern architecture is even newer – the cultural centre known as the Volcano (or less reverentially as the "yoghurt pot"), standing at the end of the Bassin du Commerce, and dominating the Espace Oscar Niemeyer. The Volcano, designed by the Brazilian architect after which the espace is named, is a slightly asymmetrical, smooth, gleaming white cone, cut off abruptly just above the level of the surrounding buildings, so that its curving planes are undisturbed by doors or windows; the entrance is concealed beneath a white walkway in the open plaza below.

The Bassin du Commerce , which stretches away from the complex, is of minimal commercial significance. Kayaks and rowing boats can be rented to explore its regular contours, and a couple of larger boats are moored permanently to serve as clubs or restaurants – it's all disconcertingly quiet, serving mainly as an appropriate stretch of water for the graceful white footbridge of the Passarelle du Commerce to cross.

Overlooking the harbour entrance is the modern, recently renovated Musee Malraux (Mon & Wed-Fri 11am-6pm, Sat & Sun 11am-7pm; 25F/3.81), which ranks among the best-designed art galleries in France, using natural light to its full advantage to display an enjoyable assortment of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French paintings. Its principal highlights are over two hundred canvases by Eugine Boudin, including greyish landscapes produced all along the Norman coastline, with views of Trouville, Honfleur and Ãtretat, as well as an entire wall of miniature cows and a lovely set of works by Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), which make Le Havre seem positively radiant, whatever the weather outside.

If you have the time to spare, you might like to see what old Le Havre looked like in the prewar days when Jean-Paul Sartre wrote La Nausà ©e here. He taught philosophy for five years during the 1930s in a local school, and his almost transcendent disgust with the place cannot obscure the fascination he felt in exploring the seedy dockside quarter of St-Franà §ois, in those spare moments when he wasn't visiting Simone de Beauvoir in Rouen. Little survives of the city Sartre knew, but pictures and bits gathered from the rubble are on display in one of the very few buildings that escaped World War II intact, the Musà ©e de l'Ancien Havre at 1 rue Jerome-Bellarmato, just south of the Bassin du Commerce (Wed-Sun 10am-noon & 2-6pm; 10F/1.52).

The once-great port of Harfleur is now no more than a suburb of Le Havre, 6km upstream from the centre. While no longer sufficiently distinctive to be worth visiting, it earned an undying place in history as the landing place of Henry V's English army in 1415, en route to victory at Agincourt. Laid under siege, Harfleur surrendered in late September, following a final English onslaught spurred on – according to Shakespeare – by Henry's cry of "Once more unto the breach, dear friends "

Three daily P&O ferries sail from Portsmouth to the Terminal de Grande Bretagne , not far from the train and bus stations in the Bassin de la Citadelle (tel The gare SNCF is 1.5km west of the Hotel de Ville, on cours de la Republique, right alongside the gare routià ¨re across boulevard de Strasbourg. Shuttle buses from the gare SNCF run to the ferry terminal.

Le Havre's rather inconspicuous and not very central tourist office is on the main oceanfront drag, at 186 bd Clà ©menceau, near its intersection with avenue Foch (May-Sept Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 10am-12.30pm & 2.30-6pm; rest of year Mon-Sat 9am-6.30pm, Sun 10am-1pm; tel, www.lehavretourism.com ). There's also a tourist information kiosk at the ferry terminal, open in summer to coincide with sailings.

Few of the restaurants in Le Havre are worth making a fuss about, except perhaps for some in the suburb of Ste-Adresse . There are, however, lots of bars, cafes and brasseries around the gare SNCF , and all sorts of creperies and ethnic alternatives – North African, South American, Caribbean – in the back streets of the St-Franà §ois district.

If you're shopping for food to take home, you could try the central market , just west of place Gambetta and ideal for fresh produce, or two Auchan hypermarkets (both open Mon-Sat 8.30am-10pm): the larger, at the Mont Gaillard Centre Commercial, is reached by following cours de la Republique beyond the gare SNCF , through the tunnel; the other, at Montivilliers, is signposted off the Tancarville road.

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