Fécamp & Étretat, France

“I dunno – cliffs and sh*t?”

My response when our friend, Michelle, asked what we were going to see on our road-trip through France.

The cliffs at Étretat.

It’s been a long and boring summer – well, for me at least. Hence why the blog was dead as a doorknob until Shane came back from Corsica.

In all honesty it hasn’t been that bad. Maybe you heard, but we actually had a few heat waves in Europe (38 ºC here!) so we spent a lot of time outside and at the bouldering gym. Regardless, June through August is vacation season in the Netherlands, so one can get a little salty watching colleagues leave for their (standard) three-week summery vay-cay.

But alas, I endured! (ha)

Thanks to our friends, Sarah & Barend, we were heading to the Brittany region of France to see these two lovebirds get married and decided to turn it into proper road trip.

We booked a Mini Cooper. We got a VW wagon. Slight disappointment.

First up, the cliffs! I’ll get to the sh*t later. 😏

Fécamp

I’ll be honest, the only reason we stopped in Fécamp was because a night in Étretat, even in the shoulder season of September, was more expensive than we were willing to pay. Fécamp, located on the coast of Normandy, is a quick 25 minutes north of Étretat and 7 hours south of Groningen so it was a good stopping point on day 1.

Tip: For a stopover night on a budget, stay at the Ibis Budget Hotel. It has free parking and is an easy 25 minute walk to the boardwalk.


Honestly, it looks like a painting. So it should come as no surprise that this area of Normandy has been the inspiration for many an artist over the years. Displayed on the boardwalk is a plaque with the painting below, by Jules Achille Noël, from 1871. I was shocked by how alike the painting and the modern day view were – even the church is still there!

The beach at Fécamp.
Crinolines sur la plage, Fecamp (thank you Wikipedia for the image).

The other unique thing about both Fécamp and Étretat are the “pebble” beaches. I say “pebble” because some of them were flat-out rocks. The pebbles are created from the soft white chalk cliffs that make up a 125 km (80 mile) stretch of coastline called La Côte d’Albâtre (the Alabaster Coast) where these two towns are located. Over time, they are perfectly polished by the waves. The sight and, oddly enough, the sound of the water moving through them was a new experience for both of us!

Tip: Have a drink (or a snack!) on the boardwalk around sunset. Hard apple cider and mussels are a specialty of the region.


Étretat

Étretat is home to (in my opinion) the most famous cliffs on the Alabaster Coast, and for good reason! They are STUNNING. The kind of place that photos don’t do justice. We arrived in the area not knowing what to expect and left in awe of the natural beauty!

Similar to Fécamp, there is a boardwalk on the beach which allows direct access to paths up the cliffs on either side. We arrived early enough to enjoy a coffee on the beach, then head up the cliffs. We started to the right of the beach, if you’re facing the English Channel.

Tip: Park for free outside the town and walk in. The signs say 10 minutes walking; expect 15 – 20 minutes but it’s a straight shot.


Of course, you can go up and stop – that’s were a lot of people ended their cliff journey. But if you’re feeling a little adventurous and the tide is out, then pick one of the paths down and go exploring! We followed the path less traveled and ended up by ourselves on the beach underneath the cliffs.

Danger?! He laughs in the face of danger! Ha Ha Ha Ha!
(name that movie… 🦁)
We made it!

The cliffs look huge from a distance, but standing at the bottom really put things into perspective. Can you spot Shane?

This was also biologist Shane’s dream world – so much life in the rocks that wouldn’t have been visible at high tide. Mussels, anemones, other things I certainly can’t identify…

Tip: If rock-hopping is your thing, look up the tide schedules before you go and plan your day accordingly.

And, a little public service announcement:

Don’t be an asshole – throw your trash away in a proper trashcan! Better yet – ditch the plastic and get a reusable bottle. We brought as many plastic bottles that we could safely carry back up the cliffs, but it’s always astounding the amount of trash tucked away in corners. #endrant


All that danger (and trash collecting) works up an appetite – a galette and some cider did the trick, then we were off to explore the other side!

If you’re facing the English Channel and turn left, you will walk towards two natural arches (Porte d’Aval and The Manneporte) and L’Aiguille (The Needle), a 70m tall pointed chalk formation. Similar to heading right, you can walk up a clearly marked path to the top for what I can assume are some spectacular views. Unfortunately for us (or maybe fortunately?) there was a triathlon taking place which used the path so it was blocked off. No worries though, the tide was low and I read online that you could walk THROUGH the arch at low tide!

And damn it – if I could walk through that arch I was walking THROUGH THAT ARCH!

That wasn’t quite the case – the water in no way goes out far enough at low tide to walk through. What you can access is a cave with a tunnel that shoots you straight through to the beaches on the other side.

I’ll take it.

View of the beach from inside the cave.
And don’t worry – if you improperly time your adventure the cave is a safe spot. You’ll just be waiting a while before you can leave again…
The views from the other side certainly made it worth the risk (the Needle & Porte d’Aval (arch)).

In the photo above, we are actually standing underneath The Manneporte (the largest arch) so I guess I did get to walk under one after all! And to put things into perspective the sheer size of this arch…

Looking up.

Tip: Wear sturdy shoes. Your feet will thank you later.


With tired calves we made our way back to the car for the ~2 hour drive to our next stopping point – the D-Day landing beaches.

Final tip: Visit this area (!) and go in the shoulder season.

The towns, the cliffs, the views – all exceeded expectations, and by coming in the fall you miss the masses of tourists. The towns themselves are small; by mid-day it was a little crowded but not annoyingly so, and you were able to be alone out on the cliffs. I can imagine it being easily overwhelmed during peak-season.

By car, it’s a little under 3 hours from Paris so it could be seen in a day, but if you have the time then spend the night so you can explore at leisure.

If it’s inspiring enough for Claude Monet to create 20+ paintings, it’s good enough for a one night stay!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

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We are two Americans living in the Netherlands with our fat cat, Meatball. The Shwits is a diary of our time abroad!

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