A port city in northern Normandy, Le Havre is a place that will truly surprise you. Being a popular ferry crossing point, many people simply pass through the city, onward south towards warmer climes or toward the delights of Brittany. But those who underestimate this fascinating port commune are making a big mistake. Le Havre’s turbulent World War II history saw it completely levelled, to dust. What rose in its place has gone on to surprise the world, no least the residents of this fair city themselves.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the inner city architecture and rich cultural attractions have transformed this city into the pride or Normandy, and one of the most remarkable achievements in town planning history ever. Kasha and I were invited to visit the city on behalf of Brittany Ferries and the Normandy Tourism Board last year along with some great bloggers Heather On Her Travels and Mrs Aylas Adventures. So, suspend your preconceptions and let me share why I think Le Havre is a symbol of hope and rejuvenation in France.
Like many conversations about Le Havre, we must begin with Auguste Perret. When the war ended, the fierce bombing of the city by allied forces, left many of the residents homeless. A plan was put into place to quickly and efficiently provide homes for 80,000 citizens. The architect who won the job was Perret. This interesting man had his own ideas about just how he could quickly build homes, concrete. While this may not seem like the kind of material favoured by the stylish people of France, it had one virtue, it was quick to build with.
So Perret formulated a series of apartment blocks, with a bone like structure running throughout and the use of enormous concrete slabs. You can actually visit one of Perret’s original apartments on a guided tour (5 Euro), where you’ll see that his innovation extended beyond the exterior. This flat feels completely untouched from when it was first built in 1946, complete with furniture and ’50s products.
While post war buildings often never even had indoor toilets, the modern amenities in these apartments were designed to cater for the needs of a modern family.
Cooking space, toilets, washing line, baby room, ingenious furniture, storage space and the list goes on, all designed with space saving in mind. What I found particularly ingenious was the children’s furniture, a chair that can convert to whatever age the child is by turning sides, steadily getting larger.
All the blocks were designed to sit in harmony together, with even the height of each building carefully considered, creating a unity of post-war construction.
What I found fascinating was the public reaction to these clever constructions, they hated them. Because many residents had owned grand houses, they considered the flats pokey (being from London I personally think they were being fussy). However public option took a U-turn when the city was awarded UNESCO heritage status, then people began to quickly appreciate the ingenuity behind these buildings, and saw their true value.
St Joseph’s Church
Another reason why Perret is so revered is because of the other structures he gifted the city. Not believing in God did nothing to stop him from pursuing the job of building the city’s church. From anywhere in the city you can see this concrete tower rising up 107-metres into the sky, so I was naturally curious what the interior would hold.
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t you average church. This masterpiece of engineering and architecture contains an eye-watering 50,000 tones of concrete, and 12,650 pieces of stained glass courtesy of Marguerite Hure, a famed glass artist. But these are not your typical glass windows, each panel is a different colour, intended to represent a different meaning according to our guide, yellow and orange stood for the glory of god, purple and red the blood of Christ and blue represented the Virgin Mary.
What you are left with is a startlingly beautiful kaleidoscope of colours that shine through the church, lighting the interior with all the colours of a rainbow. Now considered a symbol of the city, this church is easily one of the most spectacular places of worship I have ever we had the pleasure to visit. Take your time gazing up the enormous tower and spend a peaceful moment reflecting here, it’s very calming.
Honestly, I would visit Le Havre again at the drop of a hat. Not least for this fascinating story of post-war revival, but because of the proud, undefinable spirit of this charming city.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not check out the stunning architecture of St Mary’s Church in Gdańsk.