It may be a bit presumptuous to name one beach as Normandy's most beautiful, as the number of beaches in Normandy is more than you have time to visit in a lifetime. However, the beach in Étretat is not like any other beach. Surrounded on both sides by 90 meter high limestone cliffs and with a stately church overseeing the town, the frigid Atlantic shows itself here at its fiercest.
Étretat is one of many holiday resorts along the coastal road at Alabaster Coast – The Alabaster Coast. From Le Havre to Le Tréport, the views offer limestone cliffs, steep cliffs and beautiful holiday villas from the 19th century. The English coast is well known for its white cliffs at Dover, but the French cliffs on this side of the Channel have become increasingly popular in recent years. In fact, so popular that the city with its 1400 inhabitants is now met by 1,5 million tourists every year. A considerable number of visitors to a small village along a small road.
Actually, the city's popularity began to increase already in the 19th century, when it became popular for the metropolitan inhabitants of Paris to bathe in the sea. Large holiday villas began to be built in the small fishing village and within just a few years tourism became the biggest source of income.
But Étretat should not be a classic seaside resort. The beach here is hard and stony and not nearly as fine-grained, wide and soft as in Deauville. But what you are offered here instead is small-town charm and views that will make you forget to flip through your paperback.
In addition to healthy bathing, the dramatic cliffs have over the years attracted artists from near and far. The most painted motif is The Falaise d'Aval – the rock that looks like an elephant dipping its trunk into the sea.
Along the entire Alabaster coast, a hiking trail runs along the edge of the cliffs and there is a staircase to get up to the trail. Unexpectedly, neither I nor so many other visitors were interested in going up the cliff on this day. The thermometer showed 38 degrees and the otherwise windy Atlantic coast was almost completely windless. The European heat waves hit hard during the summers and Étretat's location on this day created the feeling of a boiling pot.
The church on the rock
On the opposite side of the beach is the cliff Upstream Cliff, crowned at the top of the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde. The church was built almost 200 years ago by the village's fishermen. A time-consuming job, as stone by stone was carried up the path by hand. However, the stone church that stands here today was rebuilt in the 1950s, when the original church was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War.
In the evenings, Falaise d'Amont is a popular place for visitors to watch the sunset. From here you get a perfect view of the elephant rock, the church and the sea. You get the salty winds for free.
Le vieux marché and seafood plateaus
In the middle of the village is the old wooden fish market. Once upon a time, the market consisted of a number of small wooden stalls under the open sky, but in 1926 it was decided to build the covered market that you see today. Today, the market's fish has been replaced by crafts and tourist shops - for better or for worse.
The building style of the old market feels familiar, maybe it reminds a little of a simple Norwegian stave church? Étretat is said to have been founded by Vikings, and much of the Norman building style in the entire area therefore feels almost a little Nordic.
Small-scale and unique accommodation
Étretat is something so unusual as a popular tourist resort that is completely devoid of large hotel chains and fast food places. Here, it's small-scale and charming and few hotels have more than 10 rooms.
Two dream properties that I spied a little extra are Donjon Domaine Saint Clair (fantastic view and with a 1-star Michelin restaurant) and Les Tilleuls (beautiful pastel rooms with antique furniture in a house from the 18th century). Two hotels that I would love to go to for a weekend with lots of nature and peace.
When is the best time to visit Étretat?
I leave Étretat after a few hours, just like all the other day-trippers on this hot July day. There is chaos in the parking lot and there are many people circulating around looking for somewhere to park their car. My advice is to go here in early autumn or late spring. Book a cozy accommodation, take a walk on the rocks, order a seafood platter at one of the nice restaurants and enjoy the sunset over the sea. Étretat is incredibly beautiful even with many tourists, but it must be something very special to get to know these unique rocks (a little more) for yourself.
Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.