Most ferry passengers head straight out of the port of LE HAVRE as quickly as the traffic will allow to escape a city that is regularly dismissed as a dismal transport hub. While it's hardly picturesque or tranquil, however, it's not such a soulless urban sprawl, even if the port – the largest in France after Marseille – does take up half the Seine estuary, extending way beyond the town. The city was originally built in 1517 to replace the ancient ports of Harfleur and Honfleur, then silting up. Under the simple name of Le Havre – "The Harbour", it became the principal trading post of France's northern coast, prospering especially during the American War of Independence and thereafter, importing cotton, sugar and tobacco. In the years before 1939, it was the European home of the great luxury liners such as the Normandie, Île de France and France.
Le Havre suffered heavier damage than any other port in Europe during World War II. Following its near-total destruction, it was rebuilt to the specifications of a single architect, Auguste Perret, between 1946 and 1964, an enterprise circumscribed by constraints of time and money. The sheer sense of space can be exhilarating: the showpiece monuments have a winning self-confidence, and the few surviving relics of the old city have been sensitively integrated into the whole. Admittedly, the endless mundane residential blocks can be dispiriting, but with open public space and expanses of water at every turn, even those visitors who fail to agree with Perret's famous dictum that "concrete is beautiful" should enjoy a stroll around his city.