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9 Dec 2008

Honfleur and Quebec City

The town of Honfleur is foolishly pretty, especially around the Vieux Bassin, the inner harbour. Surrounded by tall, thin houses from the 17th century and earlier, reflected in the water, it is no surprise that Manet, Courbet and other impressionists painted it time and again, and today there are people with easels and palettes all around, always. The photograph gives an idea. We sometimes took the overnight ferry to Le Havre, and drove over the extremely elegant Pont de Normandie bridge over the mouth of the Seine to Honfleur, arriving as the cafes were opening and there were only a few people about. Having coffee and croissants as the sun rose over the water was rather splendid.

At the entrance to the Bassin, by a swing bridge, there is the Governor’s House, the home and office of the governor since the 14th century. On one wall is a plaque, recording the fact that in 1608 Samuel de Champlain left Honfleur to found the city of Quebec in Canada. This is 12 years before the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ left Plymouth, Devon, to settle in North America, and escape the criticism of their somewhat fundamentalist puritanism. Quebec very quickly prospered, whereas the pilgrims lost half their settlement in the first year, and only survived on handouts from the native Americans.

When I visited Quebec city, I found a similar plaque on the old church, except that it recorded the fact that Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec when he arrived in 1608. What also struck me is that standing on the bank of the St Lawrence river, the early Quebec houses are almost exactly the same as those in Honfleur. The difference is that then, at the beginning of March, there was much snow, and the mile wide St Lawrence was completely frozen: an ice-breaker chugged up and down continuously, keeping open a very small channel. Average January temperature in Quebec City is minus 17.6 C, with average snowfall of 73 cm. With wind chill as well, temperatures were below minus 40 degrees: so cold that my breath instantly froze and fell tinkling out of the air. In general, from November to April, there is permanent snow and temperatures below zero. That the early settlers survived, and prospered, is remarkable. There were even several wig makers living there in 1650.

The singer Jonie Mitchell, who most people think of as American, is in fact Canadian. On her record Blue there is a song called 'I wish I had a river I could skate away on' , which I had assumed was just artist's whimsy. However, my wife is Canadian, and one day mentioned that she used to skate to school as a child, along a river. Different world from temperate Normandy.

 One aspect of the Norman connection with Quebec is that the Quebecois accent is very similar to the Norman accent. Not necessarily a good thing, as the Norman accent is a bit like a Somerset accent: not highly rated. There are also similarities in the patois, words you hear only in Normandy, that also persist in Quebec. Honfleur is by the mouth of the Seine, between le Havre and Caen, in Calvados. Apart from tourism, it is still a working fishing port.  


Bluefish said...

Hi, I found your blog on I've been living in Montreal for 16 years now. I never knew that Quebecer accent is similar to the one in Normandy. This post is great and very informative:)

ChaumiereLesIris said...

A lovely post on Honfleur. Must try the sunrise arrival sometime, and you make me want to see Quebec City too.