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Impressions of Normandy
Yachts sail in from along the coast and across the Channel to savour the local cuisine. Picture: Martin Stewart

The spiral stone staircase looks daunting at first glance, more in Quasimodo's class than tourists with dodgy knees.

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The rough irregular steps and rope dangling down from the central pillar give it the appearance of something out of a ship, not to be taken lightly in the dim light after dinner and a couple of glasses of wine.

Like everything in the ancient port town of Honfleur in Normandy, the stone house perched above the winding cobblestones of Rue de l'Homme de Bois has a strong connection with the sea. We just have to find our sea legs.

The upper floors of our 17th-century holiday house offer fabulous views of the River Seine and surrounding hills, especially from the third-floor garret which offers somewhere to be left alone to open up the laptop.

It is starting to look promising, after a shaky start. We have arrived fully loaded on the town's main market day. In Normandy, as elsewhere, these are colourful and inviting weekly events, unless you arrive unexpectedly in the midst of a throng of Gallic stallholders.

There is no mistaking the angry gesticulation, or the widespread muttering that bursts into a torrent, as we ease our way gently through the middle of the market. If looks could kill, we would have died a dozen times in two minutes.

Normandy in northern France is blessed with a modern road network and fast access to its towns and cities. But this all ends when you arrive in Honfleur at the mouth of the Seine. Its narrow, winding streets are the stuff of holidaymakers' dreams.

We have no choice but to brave the full and frank advice as we are staying right in the heart of what turns out to be a mostly peaceful and postcard-pretty town, surrounded by chic restaurants, art galleries and tourist shops.

But Honfleur's appeal as a place to visit and use as a base is more than skin deep. Its story is alive with invaders, pirates, founders of great modern nations, kings, artists and slave traders.

And beyond its boundaries lies Normandy, a platform for conquest across the Channel and nearly 900 years later - in the greatest invasion in history - back again. So inevitably Honfleur's past is tied up with the sea and the river.

Tucked away in its back streets are about 30 artist studios and shops. Picture: Martin Stewart

But for a modern-day visitor keen on visual history, its greatest piece of fortune is that, unlike many other towns and cities in Normandy, it escaped the bombing that accompanied the D-Day invasion of nazi-occupied France. High above Honfleur there is even a statue that gives thanks for this great escape.

It is an inspirational town in a strategic location that was occupied by Celts, Romans, Saxons and the Franks before the Vikings descended. Nothing could withstand their terrifying and frequent pillaging. The Seine was an artery into France and, after attacking Rouen several times in the 9th century, they established a base on the banks of the estuary. Historian Henry Decaens described the Normans ("northmen") as "merchants who had nothing to sell".

King of the Franks Charles the Simple got fed up with it and signed a treaty in 911. Viking leader Rollo agreed to taking Lower Seine, now Normandy, and the king's daughter and settle down as the Duke of Normandy.

Rollo's descendant William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and took over the country with just one major battle, at Hastings, and a few minor rebellions. The reason, say historians, was that there were almost no castles in Britain. According to the museum in Bayeux that houses the famous tapestry of the invasion, William had a legitimate claim to the English throne.

As well as being accomplished men at arms, the Normans were great builders. William rapidly embarked on a huge building program that created castles across England, as well as cathedrals that still stand today. Many of them were built with stone shipped across the Channel from quarries around the city of Caen.

But even if these warriors were supposedly Christian, they maintained some ancient customs.

"The Normans' traditional form of marriage meant there was no ceremony and the future bride was not necessarily consulted. The bride's consent was of no importance," writes Decaens. Some Viking traditions obviously died hard.

But by 1204, Philippe Augustus had reasserted his claim to Normandy and the Normans effectively became integrated into what became modern-day France.

During the Hundred Years War between France and England (1337-1453), Normandy was again a battlefield, with England winning crushing victories at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). Honfleur was taken and retaken four times.

The town later became a fertile breeding ground for good seamen who set off to discover the world. Jean Denis D'Honfleur landed in Brazil in 1504 and then explored the mouth of the St Lawrence Seaway 28 years before Jacques Cartier reached Canada and sighted Newfoundland, of which he took possession.

In 1608 Samuel Champlain, with an Honfleur boat and crew, founded Quebec City and thus created the commercial route that drove Canada's development.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars brought battles with the mighty British Royal Navy, until fishing once more took over as the town's major industry.

Then in the second half of the 19th century painters who were the precursors of Impressionism came to work on the Normandy coast.

In 1858, poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire discovered Eugene Boudin, the son of a naval gunner, exhibiting his paintings of the beaches, waves and skies of the coast. Attracted by the colours and light, many artists came to Honfleur to paint - among them Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet. It remains an artists' colony to this day, with dozens of studios and art shops throughout.

All this history has left its mark on Honfleur, which is a fascinating place to explore, but it is also a base to explore Normandy.

World War II's D-Day landing beaches are just over an hour's drive to the west. Bayeux, the first major town liberated by the Allies in 1944, has a modern museum dedicated to the invasion, as well as the famous tapestry depicting the invasion of England in 1066.

The American military cemetery, made famous in the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan, is at Colleville-sur-Mer, a tiny town with a huge graveyard. It lies just behind the infamous and bloody Omaha Beach.

The vast German cemetery at La Cambe and the British cemetery at Bayeux are also breathtaking in their scale and design. There are numerous museums, as well as the individual landing beaches to visit. For a brief glimpse of those historic days and weeks, the 360-degree cinema at Arromanches strikes a delicate balance between the horror and the rejoicing at the liberty that followed the war.

To the east of Honfleur, Rouen is the city where the legendary Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake at the tender age of 19. In the Vieux Marche, you can see the spot where the tribunal cast her into the flames, marked by a crucifix and flanked by a church in her honour. She was cleared of all charges and declared a martyr 25 years after her death, then later beatified as St Joan - one of France's patron saints.

In earlier times, this was the city where Rollo's descendants chose to build their prototype of the typical medieval castle, which was used by William the Conqueror as a model for the first Tower of London, built in 1066-67.

Rouen's Notre Dame cathedral is magnificent in its scale and design; repairs to the damage caused in World War II have taken more than 50 years.

The city's fine arts museum also lays claim to having the biggest collection of Impressionist paintings in France outside Paris.

Le Havre, across the Seine estuary from Honfleur, is one of France's busiest ports but also boasts the Musee Andre Malraux. In addition to a fabulous collection of French art (Sisley, Renoir, Monet), it also celebrates the era of the transatlantic liners Normandie and France.

Their epic luxury and classical fittings are on display in a mock-up of first class cabins which reflect the optimism and finery of La Belle Epoque.

South of Honfleur is Lisieux, the second most famous place of pilgrimage in France. The basilica is as impressive in its way as any medieval cathedral, though it was only completed in 1954.

The produce in Normandy is varied, cheap and tasty. Stores and markets sell a huge variety of local cheeses, seafood and types of bread. The area is also known for its cider and Calvados, an apple brandy.

The harbour-side restaurants and cafes in Honfleur are numerous and seriously competitive; a decent three-course meal can be bought for less than 20 euros ($25), without wine.

It's a place to eat cheap, wholesome food in company with French holidaymakers, stroll around and just enjoy the long summer evenings that so impressed the Impressionists.