Stopover in Etretat, on the breathtaking Alabaster Coast in Normandy.
Let’s be honest: the city of Etretat offers little interest as such, and if you come, it is mainly to admire its magnificent cliffs. The small town, nestled in the heart of a valley, flourishes on the seafront with a beautiful pebble beach flanked by two cliffs themselves adorned with two arches naturally dug in limestone and chalk.
The Amont cliff is surmounted by the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde chapel, protector of fishermen, which offers a striking panorama.
The Amont cliff has its own arch – the Amont Gate, which Guy de Maupassant compared to an elephant plunging its trunk into the water.
The cliff of Aval is the most impressive, with its monumental Arch and its 55 meter high Needle. An underground river and the erosion of the sea have carved out these natural beauties.
Next to the Arch of Aval, there is a huge black hole in the cliff: the “manhole” which takes its name from a Swedish sailor, the only survivor of the sinking of his ship due to a violent storm. He would have been thrown by a blade into this cavity, thereby ensuring his survival.
Dug in the limestone basement and partially covered with green algae, we can also notice old oyster beds, the cultivation of which lasted only a few years. Etretat cultivated, refined and delivered oysters overnight in Versailles for Queen Marie-Antoinette who consumed them fresh in the morning.
But let’s go back to the Arch of Aval and the Needle. It is impossible to mention them without mentioning Maurice Leblanc and Arsène Lupin. Maurice Leblanc is a French novelist of the beginning of the 20th century. Born in Normandy, he knows his Pays de Caux by heart and settles in Etretat – his house has become a museum, the “Clos Lupin” – where he wrote 19 novels depicting his paper son: Arsène Lupin.
I have a confession to make here: I read all of Arsène Lupin, I also read all of Sherlock Holmes, and my teenage heart constantly hesitated between these two paper lovers. One is the ultimate French gentleman: charming, clever… and thief of his condition. The other one is addicted to drugs, sociopath, rough… and detective of his condition.
Arsène Lupin is a gentleman thief and a master of disguise. In addition to being a sportsman and a seasoned fighter, he always shows a great deal of sagacity. His childlike and charming side, willingly mocking, coupled with a tortured and mysterious character, made him a lovable character. In addition, even if he is on the wrong side of the law, he defeats rich people who are worse villains than he is.
Arthur Conan Doyle was very upset when Maurice Leblanc published “Arsène Lupin against Herlock Sholmès” since Maurice Leblanc obviously ridiculed the very transparent avatar of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Relegated to the rank of “French Conan Doyle”, Maurice Leblanc has always suffered from not having the recognition of writers versing in “serious literature” but has always aroused a strong passion among lupinologists. Conan Doyle suffered from this same lack of recognition, and aroused the same passion among holmesians.
To return to Etretat, Maurice Leblanc’s novel “l’Aiguille Creuse” – “The Hollow Needle” – features the famous needle, which has, in the novel, a secret room and which contains many treasures. We can always dream of this amazing story while admiring the gigantic Needle…
At a water level, the cliffs are hollowed out by numerous caves, which allow to go from one beach to another. One of these caves was converted into a café, where artists and sailors met, the “Turkish Café”. At the top of the cliffs is the “Chambre des Demoiselles” – “the Damsels Room”, a set of three rocks hollowed out of a cavity. According to a local legend, a vicious aristocrat desired three beautiful sisters. They ended up locked in a tiny cavity where they died, later haunting the cliffs and the aristocrat.
The Manneporte, the largest of the three arches, is so high and wide that it could let pass a boat with all sails deployed, if writer Guy de Maupassant is to be believed.
The Courtine cliff also has many caves, including the “Keyhole”, which provides easy access to Antifer beach.
The beauty of these chalk cliffs is breathtaking.