Le Havre, showing Malraux Art Gallery

After the Second World War, Le Havre was held by some sources to be the most damaged port in Europe - damaged by British bombing. Certainly nowadays, a pre-war building is very much of rarity in the town center. It had only been liberated on 12. September 1945, well after Paris and Marseille had been liberated (and five days before Operation Market Garden began). 11 000 tonnes of bombs had been dropped by the Allies in their final assault - 5000 people had been killed and 80 000 made homeless (about 50% of the population).

Two years were needed just to clear the rubble away before re-construction could even start. This re-construction was entrusted to Auguste Perret - the 'wizard of reinforced concrete'.

In pictures from the early 1950s, you can see there were still large areas in the center with not a single building.


It's possibly a question of debate as to whether Le Havre was a completely new town, or whether it was an extension of the pre-existing Harfleur (the former Gallic town of Caracotinum Cauchois, which is now a suburb of the town). Anyway the port was brought into being in 1517, as a replacement for the existing one at Harfleur, as well as for Honfleur and Caudebec, which had all silted up. It was baptised Ville Françoise-de-Grâce, in honor of the king, Francois 1 (which appears to have become 'shortened' to Le Hâvre de Grâce).

The area of St. Francois was laid out from 1541 in a grid-pattern by Jerôme Bellarmato. This area along with Notre-Dame to the west formed the heart of the new town.

Richelieu and Colbert favored the town, setting up an arsenal, turning it into a naval base, and prompting trade.

In 1793, the town became briefly Le Hâvre de Marat, then shortened to Hâvre Marat.

In 1795 it became Le Hâvre.

Under Napoleon III, the fortifications were torn down, and the town started to absorb neighboring communes.

Older Remnants

There are some pre-war buildings still in existence, although possibly heavily restored after wartime damage.

  • The Cathedral of Notre-Dame,

  • The Museum de l'Ancien-Havre housed in a 17th. century building in St. Francois.

  • Museum of Natural History, adjacent to the cathedral, the museum is housed in a former court house from the 18th century. The work of the 19th century naturalist, Charles-Alexander Lasueur, is well represented.

Musée des Beaux Arts André Malraux

Le Havre, showing Malraux Art Gallery

The Malraux Art Gallery, opened in 1961 and containing many impressionist paintings, is situated in the general area from which the picture Impression, soleil levant was painted

The original art gallery had been destroyed in the bombing and this museum claims to be the first French museum to be reconstructed after the war.

It was opened by André Malraux himself, the Minister of Culture at the time, and later became the first of the 'Maisons de la Culture' which were instituted in France in the 60's, for the express purpose of decentralizing the arts from Paris. This latter function moved to the purpose-built Volcan in the 80's.

In the adjacent photo, the gallery is the "darker" building at the extreme right.

Malraux Art gallery, 
inside Eugène Boudin has over 220 of his paintings on show. Although Boudin was born in Honfleur, he does have connections with Le Havre - he received financial from the Arts Society to study painting in Paris. Boudin also encouraged Monet who has obvious connections with the town. A number of impressionist paintings stress the connection between Le Havre (and the surrounding area) with the impressionist movement.

The side of the gallery facing the Bassin is almost totally composed of glass, as shown in the adjacent photo.

Impression Sunrise

Impression, soleil
 levant - Impression Sunrise

The Bassin was depicted in Monet's picture Impression, soleil levant (Impression Sunrise) of 1872, the picture which gave the impressionists their name.

The glass wall of the Malraux Gallery gives you a view of the Bassin from a similar viewpoint to that shown in the painting.

The Volcan

Volcan, Le Havre The Volcan was designed by Oscar Niemeyer (at the time he was living in France after being expelled by the junta from Brazil), and is a purpose-built home for the Maison de la Culture of Le Havre (MCH). The 'Maisons de la Culture' were a long-standing ambition of Andre Malraux, who became Minister of Culture in 1959. The idea was to de-centralize the arts from Paris, and it was Malraux's aim that every departement would have such an institution, an aim which was never fulfilled.

Technically speaking, Le Havre had the first 'Maison de la Culture' housed in the Malraux Art Gallery. However, in 1968, Grenoble opened the first purpose-built Maison de la Culture (now known as Cargo), and this is considered by some to be the first 'proper' Maison.

In 1982, the MCH moved into The Volcan (volcano in English), although it didn't actually receive this name officially until 1990). A few sources (though not many) claim it has the nickname of 'Elephant's Foot'. There are actually two 'volcanoes', the smaller one being 'lower down' and less visible from ground-level.

In 1991, it was classified as a 'scène nationale', a term used by the Ministry of Culture to denote the top 70 cultural establishments in France. Le Havre actually belongs to the 'top five', along with Grenoble, Bobigny, La Rochelle and Créteil.

St Joseph

Eglise St Joseph

Perret's church of St. Joseph's is 106 meters high, and allegedly visible for 60 km out to sea. It is obviously one of the predominant features of the town.

Funicular and Circuit des Escaliers

The immediate area to the east of the city center lies at altitude above the town. There is a funicular up the slope, or you could follow a sequence of staircases up and down the hill - one such route being classified as the Circuit des Escaliers.

At the 'top' of the hill adjacent to the funicular, by turning to the right you will eventually come to a viewpoint, offering a magnificent view over the town. According to the information, you can see Caen on a good day, although this is probably quite optimistic. THe Normandy Bridge over the Seine should be very prominent on a 'normal' day.

There was formerly another funicular further east, and plans existed for others.

Jenner Tunnel

Work on the tunnel was started before the war and the works were used as a bomb shelter during the war (although officially this was not allowed). On September 6th 1945 a bomb caused the roof to cave in, killing 319 people. The tunnel was completed in 1954, and you can walk through it (almost 700 meters) from the Cours de la Republique to Montgeon, an open space of 270 hectares.

St. Francois

St. Francois is one of the oldest areas of the town, and a pre-war red-light district, I am led to believe. It was a haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre during the couple of years he spent here. Rebuilt in a uniform style (but different from the main 'Perret' style), the area has presumably lost a lot of the character it had in Sartre's day.

Sartre's Bouville (mud-town) which features in his highly-acclaimed book Nausea is allegedly based on Le Havre, and reflects his dislike of the place.


It was in Harfleur that Henry V makes his rousing speech in Shakespeare about

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
etc . etc

The English arrived in 1415, about one month before Azincourt. They expelled the French and made the town an English colony. It was retaken by the French in 1435.

There is a museum - the Musée du Prieuré in the rue de la République.

The Port

The port covers 8 000 hectares. It once welcomed ocean-going liners, and although superficially a lot quieter these days, it is still a major port in terms of volume handled.

Flag of Normandie

Other Sites

This Site