The Essence of Étretat

As the peloton approaches 20 kilometers to the run-in at Le Havre, they’ll be speeding along and looking forward to getting out of the wind. Much of the 191 kilometers (118 miles) of Stage 6 will be exposed to the winds of the English Channel. While the peloton looks for shelter though, the small fishing and resort town of Étretat is a perfect place for spectators to stretch the legs after the riders passes.

What has attracted generations to Étretat may not be clear from a distance. Yet roads seem to make a special point of diverging to the town of only 1,500 residents. The same could be said of many visitors for centuries. Driving into town along D11, the road quickly descends and it’s obvious that this is a village nestled into the nook of a narrow basin that opens to the sea. Be sure not to blink or pretty soon you will find yourself exiting Étretat and climbing back up the plateau.

Once in town, the high-style historic architecture betrays a past as a popular retreat for the French and British alike. Parisians and their countrymen made Etretat one of their favorite resorts in the late 18th century, even attracting the likes of renowned painters and authors like Monet and Maupassant. Although moved to Étretat a little later, the exquisite Norman style Hôtel de La Salamandre, with its exquisite gables, wood siding, and contrasting colors may be the most prominent example of these residential vacation homes. The building was originally constructed in Lisieux, in Lower Normandy, in the 14th century and moved to Étretat in 1912. Needless to say, a walk through the small town is worthwhile and not too time consuming to get a sense of this past. Head straight for the promenade, though, for the real highlight of town.

A mere quarter of a kilometer to the north is a 600 meter-long promenade. From here the falaise, or cliffs, come into full focus. In an instant, one becomes immensely aware that they are in the heart of the Pays de Caux. This is a region defined by chalky plateaus that can reach heights of about 50 meters (260 feet) and end abruptly at the water’s edge. Think “White Cliffs of Dover”. These cliffs define Normandy’s coast for 140 kilometers. While there may be higher cliffs elsewhere along this stretch as close as the neighboring village of Vaucottes 5 kilometers away. And there are larger towns like Fécamp, 13 kilometers away. But Étretat is renowned for its three portes, or portals, that create picturesque frames above the sea. This truly is the essence of Étretat. Two of the portals, the Porte d’Aval and Porte d’Amont, enclose both ends of the Étretat beach. The third, and largest porte, is beyond. This creature is the Manneporte and juts into the sea just beyond the Falaise d’Aval. Because it is not viewable from the beach, the Manneporte offers a perfect excuse to hike up the cliff for a better all-around view.

Surely one cannot make the trek to Étretat without climbing one of the adjacent cliffs. It’s not only a must-do, but at a relatively short 2 kilometers one-way, there’s almost no excuse for not. You won’t be alone for this is a popular excursion. Once the peloton passes, weave through the highlights of town to the promenade. Take in the view and stroll west towards the Falaise d’Aval. At the end, you’ll come face-to-face with a wall of 180 stairs winding up the white cliff face. Once at the top, watch out for stray golf balls but enjoy the manicured landscape of historic Golf d’Étretat. This must be one of the world’s spectacular sea-view golf courses with the likes of Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, or St. Andrews. Even at the top of the plateau, there’s still another 27 meters in elevation to Porte d’Aval. Here, you walk along the 10th hole of this Julien Chantepie and Arnaud Massey designed 1908 course. Join the crowds out on the spit of Falaise d’Aval and enjoy the windy but spectacular view of both Étretat and your first glimpse of the Manneporte. Soak it in, but keep in mind that your visit isn’t over. It’s another .6 kilometers and 40 meters of climbing to the Manneporte. The Manneporte awaits, but be sure to enjoy the sea views along the climb. As you look out into the Channel, England remains invisible but it’s fascinating to know that the resort of Brighton lies 121 kilometers to the north, a puny distance compared with the 191 kilometers of the day’s Stage. The overlook on top of the Manneporte is much less crowded, so use this opportunity to just be aware of your surroundings and take in the moment.

This is the good life and it is relaxing to know that it gets better. On the return trip, take a detour and stop for a drink or even for the night at the quaint and perfectly situated, meaning expensive, Dormy House Hotel. The lawn serves as the perfect closure to the perfect day on the Tour or in Étretat. Luckily the sunset in July comes after 10:00. If you can muster up enough energy, grab an aperitif from the bar and watch the sun’s last lights glimmer against the town below before retiring yourself.

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