During my hunt for a seaside destination in Normandy, I came across Étretat quite incidentally. Although a fairly small town with no train station, it is well-known for its chalk cliffs and being the residence of fictional character Arsène Lupin. On normal days, Flixbus operates daily between Paris and Étretat, making it an easy day trip. However, due to Covid-19 restrictions at the time of my travel, they paused the route just when I was about to visit.
Not to be defeated, I decided to look up ways to visit the town. It helped that I was willing to explore beyond it, so I looked up nearby cities that I could reach via train. Yet even then, it was no easy fit trying to find out how to get to Étretat — Google Maps did not quite achieve this. All I could rely on were Google Translate, and as many relevant local websites as I could find.
The only mistake I made at the time was making Rouen my base. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rouen for its beautiful medieval building, but I was here for Étretat. It turns out that, although they are both in the same Normandy region, the bus company (Astuce) that operates in Rouen does not travel to Étretat. The only way was to take the train to Le Havre, a city that is already sitting by the coast, and then from there catch the public bus to Étretat.
Now here’s a trick I found: almost all tourism websites will tell you to take bus number 24 operated by Kéolis Seine Maritime, which runs between Le Havre, Étretat and Fécamp. What I found was another bus company LiA that travels the same direction on number 13. It runs nearly every hour, and doesn’t cost more than 2 euros per trip. It’s easy to buy a return ticket from the office at the bus terminal beside Le Havre train station. The ride takes no more than 40 minutes, and you may catch a glimpse of the coast in Le Havre as you head out. I did, and it told me I should’ve spent extra time in Le Havre.
The reason why I took bus 13 was the fact that it would end right in Étretat so I didn’t have to worry about missing the stop. The stop is a carpark, the same place where I would wait for the return bus at the chosen timing stated on the schedule. The town is small enough to be walkable, so I could easily spend 1-2 hours just exploring it.
When I visited, it was during a weekday coupled with partial lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. None of the restaurants was open, so the only thing I could do was to skip over the town entirely and make my way towards the beach. On the way, I found a couple of traces of Lupin to reminisce my childhood.
While I wasn’t looking to swim during the winter, the pebble beach didn’t look all that ideal for one anyway if you value safety. While unique, many signs tell that the pebbles are there to protect the coast from erosion, thus advising not to remove a single stone even for a souvenir. Despite these, I enjoyed the sound of waves and seagulls, and more so the majestic cliffs to the right.
Before the cliffs to the right side of the beach, I followed some stairs and signs up to the top of the rocks. The wind was strong with no safety railings for the steep climb, but the view of Etretat from this point was breath-taking. I easily found Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, followed by Les Jardins D’Etretat which might look more beautiful with the flowers in the spring. Further past them are more cliffs and colder wind, so I opted to turn back and hike the other side of the beach.
The climb to the rocks on the left was more straightforward with stairs, paths and signs. I weaved through the WWII bunker and took in a different view of historical Etretat, but otherwise was hindered by incoming rain that eventually got too heavy for me to continue my exploration.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, the town and beach would be lively with activities and tourists here for the resort. But I got to enjoy a serene sight instead, so I wouldn’t complain. No wonder Monet found this place worthy of his famous brush. Once again, while it is possible to get here by a 5-hour bus from Paris, I found the bus journey from Le Havre a lot more charming. I truly got to see what a beautiful region Normandy is from this.
*All photos featured in this story are taken by the author.