France // Normandy //

Le Havre

While LE HAVRE may hardly be picturesque or tranquil, neither is Normandy’s largest town the soulless sprawl some travellers suggest. Its port, the second-largest in France, takes up half the Seine estuary, but the town itself, home to almost 200,000 people, is a place of pilgrimage for fans of contemporary architecture.

Built in 1517 to replace the ancient ports of Harfleur and Honfleur, then silting up, Le Havre – “The Harbour” – swiftly became the principal trading post of northern France. Following its near-destruction during World War II, it was rebuilt by a single architect, Auguste Perret, between 1946 and 1964.

The sheer sense of space can be exhilarating: the showpiece monuments have a winning self-confidence, and the few surviving relics of the old city have been sensitively integrated into the whole. While the endless mundane residential blocks can be dispiriting, even those visitors who fail to agree with Perret’s famous dictum that “concrete is beautiful” may enjoy a stroll around his city.

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