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Visiting Le Havre, a Little-Known World Heritage Site

After living in Paris for 3 years, my love of France developed into a passion. My holiday home there allows me to explore the whole country.

Le Havre as seen from a ferry leaving port.

Le Havre as seen from a ferry leaving port.

A World Heritage Site

It might surprise visitors rushing to catch a ferry or leave for warmer areas in France that Le Havre is fascinating in its own right, considered a prime example of town planning.

I was another of those travellers in a hurry for many years. Le Havre was our port of choice for returning home to England from Paris during our years there, but one Sunday we arrived early. It was quiet, so I took advantage of the spare time and went for a wander around to take some photos.

During those years of rushing through, I had been taken by the tall spire which rose above the skyline, so finding it was my main focus. I found other points of interest as you will see but never did find the other feature of the view—the smaller building rising above the skyline. I have since discovered that it's the bell tower of Le Havre Cathedral. It dates from the 16th century and is one of the very few buildings to survive through the war from earlier times.

The Position of Le Havre

As you can see from the map, Le Havre is not so very far from Paris. I used to count on roughly 2 hours from where we lived on the western outskirts, but I know some people who can do it in less!

I probably wouldn't advocate a special trip all the way from Paris unless you are a dedicated World Heritage Site visitor, but if you are visiting Honfleur it would be worth a detour, as they say. Just pop over the Pont de Normandie and there you are.

Why Le Havre Was Rebuilt

The other notable point about the position of Le Havre is that it is a short distance across the English Channel to England and the United Kingdom. In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, the Germans set up a base in Le Havre with a view to invading Britain.

Needless to say, the Allies started bombing Le Havre which was completely devastated by the end of the war. Over 12,000 buildings were destroyed, the port was demolished and ships deliberately sunk. It was liberated in September 1944.

After the war in the spring of 1945, Auguste Perret was given the task of rebuilding Le Havre. He wanted to reconstruct the whole area in concrete along right-angular lines. The reconstruction was not officially declared finished until 1964 and not until 2005 did UNESCO deem it worthy of being included on the list of World Heritage Sites.

Points of Interest

  • St Joseph's Church
  • Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)
  • Place de l'Hôtel de Ville (gardens)
  • Bassin de Commerce
  • Le Volcan
  • La Porte Océane
  • Le Square Saint Roch and Avenue Roch
  • Auguste Perret's apartment
  • A typical apartment
  • Further out the Jardins Suspendus

I was short of time and it was a Sunday, so I was limited to seeing just a few of these, but it was still worthwhile. As far as I'm concerned, a return visit is a must.

St Joseph's Church, designed by Auguste Perret.

St Joseph's Church, designed by Auguste Perret.

The Hotel de Ville or town hall, designed by Auguste Perret.

The Hotel de Ville or town hall, designed by Auguste Perret.

St Joseph's Church

The only two buildings designed personally by Auguste Perret are St Joseph's Church (above, top), which dominates both the town and the sea, and the Hôtel de Ville (above,lower) which is less easy to spot so you may have to search out.

The church spire is 107 metres high and illuminated at night which makes it a beacon seen from the sea. Because Perret was an atheist, he wanted it to be created as a memorial to the tens of thousands killed during the war, but Raymond Audigier who collaborated in the design wanted it to be a candle of thanks to God for the return of peace.

Perret's collaborator in the design of the Hôtel de Ville was Henri Tournant. The beautiful gardens in front were also part of this design.

Detail of St Joseph's Church showing strict geometric shapes in the design.

Detail of St Joseph's Church showing strict geometric shapes in the design.

Collège Raoul Dufy

Collège Raoul Dufy

Near to the church and faithfully following the principles of Perret's design is the Collège Raoul Dufy. It consists of several buildings surrounding a sheltered courtyard. It demonstrates Perret's influence:

  • exposed structure with columns, trellises, etc.
  • many windows,
  • concrete infill panels in light purples and pinks

A collège in France caters to the age group 11–16 years old.

On a side note, if like me you wonder who was Raoul Dufy, the answer is that he was a French artist born in Le Havre. One of his more well-known works is La Fée Électricité (or the Electricity Fairy). This is a fascinating work of art bringing together art and science.

A panorama showing the Porte Océane

A panorama showing the Porte Océane

The Monumental Triangle

The so-called monumental triangle is based on three roads and reaches from the gardens in front of the Hôtel de Ville towards the Porte Océan via the Rue de Paris, the Boulevard François 1er, and Avenue Foch. There are 28 points of interest along the route. You can do it yourself or take a guided tour starting from the Hôtel de Ville.

Le Volcan, Scène Nationale du Havre

Le Volcan, Scène Nationale du Havre

Le Volcan

A much more recent but now famous (or infamous) building is the Volcan, so named because of its shape. It was designed by the world renowned architect, Oscar Niemeyer whose best known work must be the Cathedral of Brasilia.

A 3-Minute Visit to Le Havre

The Le Havre waterfront.

The Le Havre waterfront.

In Perret's words, "I see a waterfront that would bring together all the monuments of the city and would escort ships until they arrived in port. Tall towers would house the offices of major shipping companies, traders, industrialists. They would rise well above the houses in the city, which would not exceed 5 or 6 floors."

I think his his vision has been realised although he didn't live to see it completely fulfilled.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 SheilaMilne


SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on December 04, 2015:

It's definitely well worth a visit and, of course, there are some other great places nearby, Honfleur in particular.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on December 03, 2015:

I have been to France several times but missed this one. Have to do the coast next time. The St. Joseph Church looks amazing.

Jim from Kansas on September 03, 2014:

Love the design of the Volcan.

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on September 03, 2014:

Thank you for visiting! It's a very different sort of charm but definitely worth a visit.

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on September 03, 2014:

I await Milton Keynes' big day with you. :)

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on September 03, 2014:

Thanks, favored! I'm told locals call the Volcan, "the elephant's foot" but I don't know how true that is.

Nick Deal from Earth on September 03, 2014:

I love the historic charming look of this place! My first time hearing about it so thanks for writing.

Mike Hey from UK on September 03, 2014:

I too only ever thought of Le Havre being a port town but it looks like it has more to offer. Funny to think that it has this accreditation for being well planned, I wonder how long until my home town therfore of Milton Keynes is bestowed the same honour!! ;-)

Fay Favored from USA on September 02, 2014:

Like RonElFran obviously we missed all this too. The Volcan building is so neat. Thanks for including the video; I enjoyed looking at the sights, especially the night scenes.

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on September 02, 2014:

Although no doubt the buildings were exactly the same, probably 25 years ago it wouldn't have been so well cared for. I have an idea it's only relatively recently that there has been such civic pride. It was 2005 when the city was listed by UNESCO though there was definitely a considerable campaign before then.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 02, 2014:

I wish I'd had this kind of info when I rushed off a ferry from England at Le Havre and onto a train a quarter of a century ago. Looks like I missed a lot.

MJFenn on August 29, 2014:

SheliaMiln: Sort of, Phoenix rising from the ashes, kind of idea!

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on August 29, 2014:

I think it is that they're classifying the rebuilding as the heritage rather than the precious few remains. I suppose it was a great feat in itself.

MJFenn on August 28, 2014:

It is interesting that, after all the punishment that the RAF gave Le Havre's architectural in World War Two, there is enough of it still in existence for it to be classified a heritage site. Interesting article!

SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on August 27, 2014:

Many thanks for your visit. Yes, Le Havre has more going for it than anyone might expect.

Brian Stephens from Laroque des Alberes, France on August 24, 2014:

Definitely not your typical French town but a lot more going on in Le Havre than many of the travellers passing through will realise. Certainly if I am up that way again in the future I will try to take the time to stop and look. Very good lens and a thumbs up.

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