The maritime heritage of Northern France is far from subtle. The boat-lined port of downtown Honfleur is encircled by restaurants with servers donning iconic blue-and-white striped mariniere outfits; several nautical museums dot the town; and art galleries pay homage with paintings of romantic naval scenes and installations from upcycled ship curios. In the high hills above Honfleur, one small church lives out this nautical legacy as well, if not a bit more sincerely.
The Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce crests the Plateau de Grâce, overlooking the iconic Seine River, port of Le Havre, and Pont de Normandie below. Built in the early 17th century, it replaced a former chapel situated a bit too close to a nearby cliff edge. From the outside, it meets the eye as a stout, charming, but unassuming church. Entering the small space, the theme becomes apparent.
Model ships hanging from the ceiling spin lazy circles in the still air; stained glass windows depict various nautical scenes from the Bible; and an intricately carved wooden Mother Mary from the 18th century holds baby Jesus in one hand, and a single-masted schooner in the other. The paintings therein are as likely to depict religious figures as they are to depict stately vessels at rest, or in the tumult of a perilous sea voyage. It’s a mariner’s church through and through, in both decoration and—once a year—festivity.
The church is where the annual Fêtes des Marins (Festival of Sailors) celebrations culminate. Every Pentecost weekend since 1861, Honfleur residents have celebrated their unique heritage by first dressing their children up in traditional mariniere garb, gathering in front of town hall, and parading through the steep hills out of town toward the chapel. The children carry model ships they’ve built, presenting them in an esplanade on the church property before attending an outdoor mass.
Know Before You Go
The church is open for free, public visitation seven days a week. For the best panoramic views of the city below, take a five-minute walk to Panorama du Mont-Joli, just beyond the chapel.