Discovering Etretat and its cliffs

Etretat is a French commune located in Normandy and famous for its white chalk cliffs rising up to 80 meters. A seaside resort since the 19th century, Etretat has also been a source of inspiration for famous painters and writers, such as Claude Monet and Maurice Leblanc. Located north of Le Havre, on the Channel coast, the cliffs of Etretat attract nearly a million French and foreign tourists each year. In this article, we are going to discover the different cliffs present in the town of Etretat, while stopping at the essential places to visit and the personalities who have contributed to the celebrity of the site.

The history of the town of Etretat

Etretat is a small seaside town located on the Alabaster Coast, near the Seine estuary, and known worldwide for its majestic cliffs sculpted with 3 successive arches. The commune of Etretat is 25 kilometers north of Le Havre and 70 kilometers from Caen and Rouen. A stroll along the cliffs of Etretat is also a must for the many tourists staying in Normandy or the Pays de Caux, Deauville or Honfleur. A former fishing village, the town of Etretat saw its fishing activity replaced by tourism during the French Revolution. At that time, a project to build a military port had been ordered by François 1er, King of France, but the project was definitively abandoned during the reign of Napoleon 1er. In the 18th century, the commune of Etretat cultivated oysters for Marie-Antoinette, which she had delivered overnight to the Palace of Versailles to preserve their freshness. The remains of an oyster farm cultivated in Etretat are now visible at the bottom of the Aval cliff. From 1850, the number of fishing boats moored in Etretat decreased sharply to reach only one unit, gradually replaced by canoes practicing coastal fishing as far as the town of Dieppe. Alphonse Karr, author of a successful novel on the town of Etretat in 1836, will strongly contribute to the development of this small resort. Roads joining the cities of Fécamp and Le Havre are built and a seaside resort project is launched. Many style villas appear in the town of Etretat and the first investors are the artists of the Paris Opera. The proximity of Le Havre and Paris, as well as the paintings of the cliffs made by Claude Monnet contribute to the notoriety of Etretat internationally.

The cliff of Aval and the hollow needle of Etretat
The cliff of Aval and the hollow needle of Etretat

The cliffs of Etretat

The cliffs of Etretat are mainly composed of limestone from the Cretaceous, that is to say essentially white chalk with flint, which explains the presence of pebbles on the beach. Indeed, following the collapse of sections of cliffs, the limestone, in contact with sea water, dissolves and the action of the moving waves ends up polishing the flint, which is thus transformed into a pebble. The cliffs of Etretat are composed of:

  • The Aval cliff (or Aval gate) : the Aval cliff is an enormous arch made of flint and it resembles, according to Guy de Maupassant, an elephant dipping its trunk in the water. The cliff of Aval offers a breathtaking view of the village of Etretat, but also of the Manneporte, another cliff, as well as the entrance to the chamber of the young ladies, a crevasse nestled at the top of the rocks. The Aval cliff owes its origin to a coastal river which ran along the beach of Etretat and dug its bed, as well as to marine erosion. Culminating at 80 meters above sea level, the Aval cliff is also the highest of the 3 cliffs of Etretat.
  • The cliff of Amont (or Porte d’Amont). The cliff of Amont owes its name to the river, and more precisely to its position “upstream” on the river. The Amont cliff is located to the right of the town of Etretat, facing the sea. At the top of the cliff, we discover the small chapel of Notre-Dame de la Garde, as well as the Nungesser Coli Monument, a 24-meter high spire, built in memory of the aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli. The cliff of Amont is accessible via a long staircase of 263 steps and a car park also allows you to get there by car. 24 meters high, the cliff of Amont is the ideal place for a walk or a family picnic on the weekend.
  • La Manneporte : this cliff located at the end of Jambourg beach owes its name to the old French “great door” and remains easily identifiable by the imposing diameter of its arch which, according to Guy de Maupassant, would allow a ship to pass through it, all sails deployed. The GR 21 hiking trail which passes near the Manneporte offers a breathtaking view of the Aval cliff, as well as the hollow needle. It is also possible to admire the Manneporte at low tide, by walking through the manhole, a cave in the Aval cliff.
  • The hollow needle of Etretat : the hollow needle of Etretat is a rock formation culminating at 55 meters. Located away from the cliffs, the needle remains a mystery to this day and according to the novel by Maurice Leblanc, the needle would be hollow, which would have allowed his famous fictional character Arsène Lupin to hide there in order to to evade pursuers.
  • The rock Vaudieu and the needle of Belval : Located to the right of the Amont cliff, the Aiguille de Belval rises 70 meters above sea level. The rock of Vaudieu appears as an isolated section of wall in the middle of the ruins. With the Porte d’Amont, the Roc Vaudieu forms a creek where the currents turn in circles.
  • The manhole cave : it is a small cave whose name refers to a Swedish sailor who survived a shipwreck in 1792. A tunnel now connects the beaches of Etretat and Jambourg.
  • The room of the young ladies : the room of the young ladies is a crevasse nestled at the top of the cliff of Aval. According to legend, 3 sisters would have taken refuge there in order to flee the advances of the lord of Fréfossé. Furious, the latter would have condemned the entrance to the crevasse where the young ladies succumbed after 72 hours. Today, their ghosts are said to still haunt the place.
The gardens of Etretat offer breathtaking views of the sea and the cliffs
The gardens of Etretat offer breathtaking views of the sea and the cliffs

The gardens of Etretat

In 1905, Madame Thébault, famous actress, owner of the Roxelane villa, created the first wooded area on the Amont cliff. Renovated in 2016 by the landscape architect Alexandre Grivko, the gardens of the villa extend over an area slightly less than one hectare and are mainly adorned with plant sculptures spread over 7 themes:

  • The avatar garden
  • The emotional garden
  • The garden print
  • The garden of Aval
  • The Upstream Garden
  • The Zen garden
  • The garden La Manche

The gardens of Etretat also house an important collection of contemporary art and offer a breathtaking view of the sea, the beach and the cliffs. These gardens made up of 150,000 plants are classified among the largest gardens in the world and also display a star in the Michelin green guide.

During your stay in Etretat, don’t forget to visit Maurice Leblanc’s house “le clos Lupin”, a museum dedicated to the famous gentleman burglar. You will discover photos, paintings and objects that belonged to his fictional hero Arsène Lupin. You will find all the useful information to organize your stay in Etretat on the website

Le Clos Lupin, former home of Maurice Leblanc
Le Clos Lupin, former home of Maurice Leblanc


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