all white adidas originals How Le Havre went from laughing stock to hipster heaven
Despite celebrating its 500th anniversary in 2017, Le Havre remains under the radar of most UK travellers, though it seems unlikely that willremain the case formuch longer.
The northern port city was granted Unescoworld heritage site status in 2005 for its unique, concrete heavy architecture, designed by architect Auguste Perret, who was tasked with rebuilding a city flattened by bombs at the end of WWII.
Perret’s work was initially greeted with disdain from locals who balked at his designs, constructed in a period characterised by extreme austerity. In recent years, however, it has gained recognition both for its unique nature and Perret’s understated flair for working with cheap materials and using what was available to him.
Amid the buildings, you’ll find subtle differences in the stonework and windows designed to maximise light. Perret’s talent for recycling is evidenced at St Joseph’s Church, where seats from a bombed out cinema make up the pews. The emblematic town hall with its sea of French flags and domineering tower stands out in the centre of town.
Perret isn’t the only architect to have redrawn Le Havre. Oscar Niemeyer designed Le Volcan a hulking, volcano shaped cultural centre in the city centre (locals call it “the yoghurt pot”). Itreopened in 2015 after a facelift and has regular events in its two auditoriums. MuMAis the city’s contemporary art museum, a glass walled building perched on the beach. Inside, Monets, Manets and Renoirs jostle for attention with the views out to sea.
It’s only in the hilly suburbs that I find a few examples of Le Havre’s original architecture: houses with brightly coloured doors and arched windows, and the 19th century Chapel Notre Dame des Flots towering above the city.
But while Perret’s work may have helped the city get the nod from Unesco, it’s away from the city’s feted concrete facades that I find a different Le Havre one with a lively bar and cafe scene, and a smattering of excellent restaurants. Bistrot Grenadineis more indie rock, tattoos and craft beer than 1950s architecture. On the beach, Saison 2 is a laidback, international place, more burgers and fries than moules et frites. Back in town, Le Chat Bleu promises “jazz and friendship”over dinner, and delivers on both fronts impressive, since I’m on my own and usually hate jazz.
There’s shopping that any self respecting hipster would enjoy, too en route to Le Volcan, I find Kilo Shop, a pay per kilo vintage store selling everything from hi vis 1980s Adidas tracksuits to flapper style cloche hats, and LoHo, specialising in trendy Le Havre souvenirs.
And then there’s Les Bains des Docks, Le Havre’s “aquatic centre” and a work of art in itself. Opened in 2008 and designed by Jean Nouvel, its modernist, blocky buildings mid century meets Mykonos have 12 pools, Jacuzzis and saunas between them, as well as a balneotherapy spa. It was, says Nouvel, inspired by ancient Roman baths the idea of ritual, the ability to visit all year round, and the use of it as a meeting space as well as a work out area and is worth the 4.30 ticket price for its looks alone.
Fascinating architecture, good shopping and a design led swimming pool. It’s not the weekend break I thought it would be. After decades of being considered a sight for sore eyes Le Havre has suddenly hit its stride. And it hasn’t half adjusted well.
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