The French expression Belle Epoque started to be used after WWI, although the period of time it is used for was between 1871 and 1914. In 1871, France was recovering from defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The country suffered a heavy loss then. Right after, Paris suffered through the Commune, a conflict between revolutionaries and the French Government. The conflict did not last long but made a lot of victims. Paris architecture was also badly hit. WWI was another devastating event.
People started to think about the old good time with nostalgia. That distant memory became the Belle Époque, the peaceful time between the Commune and WWI.
During some 40 years, Paris population grew a lot. There were more people there then than there are now. It was an era of progress and prosperity. Paris hosted 3 Expositions to celebrate France's recovery (Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty...) It was also an era of cultural exuberance (Moulin Rouge), scientific and technological advancement (cameras, electricity, telephone, automobile, planes...), imperialism (colonies), fashion and finally art and architecture.
But it was also a period when discontent among the working classes grew, as did political tensions between states, militarism, imperialism, ...
All that was needed in 1914 was a trigger event: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. You know the rest of the story.
The Belle Epoque architecture is well known for mixing several architectural styles, from neo-Byzantine and neo-Gothic to classicism, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. This said, the predominant architectural style was Art Nouveau.
Art Nouveau appears in reaction to Beaux-Arts classicism, considered too conservative. Art Nouveau means "New Art". It was mainly inspired by nature and characterized by the use of long, sinuous, organic lines, making it an ornamental style of art.
Belle Epoque Villegiature
Following the development of railways and medicine, people discovered the seaside as a place of relaxation and not only work or danger (pirates).
Because of the pollution due to the industrial revolution, doctors started to recommand sanatoriums on the seaside. There was also a belief in the therapeutic virtues of sea water, translated into a fashion for sea bathing .
Thanks to the railways built betwen Paris and the seaside, families started to go around Mers-les-Bains, Ault, Nice, ... and discovered the joys of bathing.
Many eventually bought land and build sumptuous second homes in Art Nouveau/Belle Epoque architecture.
The Seaside Villa was invented during the Belle-Epoque.
It is linked to the rise of the bourgeoisie, the introduction of paid leave and the progress made by public transport, including the train.
The architects were inspired by many different styles and created beautiful villas.
Some of these villas were also affordable homes for workers.
Models were devised by architects such as the famous Parisian architect Leon Meriot.
Because of the inflation of the land value, less favored people could not afford to live by the seaside anymore. Thanks to the so-called "Home for All", they could have a "small" house showing though its architecture a minimum of care regarding its architectural achievement, this despite a limited budget.
Unfortunately, nowadays, many of these beautiful houses are abandoned because too expensive to take care of. Others were distroyed during the world wars. Le Tréport is a sad example of this. Once looking like Mers-les-Bains, its seafront is now made of one ugly concrete building. Cliff erosion is also responsible for the disparition of great places. Ault is a great example of this issue. It has been calculated that 30cm of land are lost every year, which is enormous.
Important words of advice
The first time I went to Dieppe, there was a corpse at the foot of the cliff 10m away from the café I was in. It is so ordinary that nobody cares anymore. Suicide or accident, I do not know. What I do know is that, although there are numerous warning signs, people keep going too close to the cliff edges. These are very fragile, and it is very easy to fall down.
There are also a lot of suicides from these cliffs.
It is strictly forbidden to take any peeble from the beaches. They are important to protect the coastline.
Do not feed them. They are pest.
Criel comes from "Criolium", meaning "Chalk". It was a popular pilgrimage site in the ancient times.
Facing the British coasts, Criel was a strategic place during the conflicts with England. Today, only vestiges of Criel’s Castle remain in the area.
During La Belle Epoque, sumptuous hotels, casinos and seaside villas were built. The railway line connecting Dieppe and Eu provided new opportunities for employment and education as well as access to neighbouring towns. Pebble industry was rising and pebbles were sent by rail for industrial purposes all over the world. Criel was wealthy until the First and the Second World Wars happened, although tourism really took off with the apparition of paid leave in 1936 and with the sea bath fashion. Most of the Belle Epoque buildings and the railway station didn’t survive the wars. But there are still a few amazing houses and lovely colourful beach boxes to admire.
From up the hill, there is a fantastic view over Criel.
There are two pebble beaches, Criel-Plage and Mesnil-Val. They are surrounded by some of the highest chalk cliffs in Europe. Beach boxes in Mesnil-Val are lovely to see. They have colourful roofs.
Once just a small fishing port, Mers grew into a seaside ‘bathing station’ partly because of the railway line that ran from Paris to Tréport, making the journey only lasting 3 hours.
In spite of the wars, much of the older part of town developed during La Belle Epoque remained intact. These beautiful villas are now subject to preservation orders. Any refurbishment must be in the same materials and colours as the original work.
Here you will have a great idea of what the coast looked like during the Belle Epoque.
This beautiful Romano-byzantine style church was rebuilt from 1928 to 1934 in a mix of Art nouveau, Art deco, Contemporary and Roman architectures.
It has amazing flamboyant stained-glass windows.
Walking up the cliffs
Between Ault and Mers-les-Bains, there is a beautiful walk with panoramic views over Mers and Le Tréport.
Up there you will find Notre-Dame de la Falaise (Our Lady of the Cliff), also called Notre-Dame-des-Flots (roughly translated as Our Lady of the waves). Dismantled during WWII because Germans feared it could be way point for allies, it has been put back on the top of a bunker used as an oratory.
Mers has a pebble beach although sand can be seen at low tide.
The high chalk cliffs are illuminated at night.
There are several important glass manufacters in the city. In nearby Le Tréport, atop the cliff and near the funicular, you can see a glassmaker at work at L'Atelier du Verre.
Bois de Cise
The ‘Bois de Cise’ is a little gem between Ault and Mers. It is a large wooded area in a valley with access to the sea. There is no real beach here but numerous paths through the woods, a lovely chapel and some beautiful Belle Epoque villas.
Once a busy fishing village, Ault had its port largely destroyed by the erosion of the cliffs and various storms. You can see photos when walking through the village and it is impressive. Before that, Ault was divided in 2 parts: the upper and the lower villages.
As it was developed as a seaside resort after Mers-les-Bains and Le Tréport, Ault is much more quieter.
Church of St Peter
Built in the 15th century, it has an imposing quadrangular tower topped with four gargoyles and a small look-out tower.
Château du Moulinet
There is a beautiful view from up there.
Victor Hugo visited Ault in 1837 and wrote about it to his wife.
You can visit the village while following his description in the letter.
Built in the 17th century, it used to be a place where local artists would meet. It is now a private property.
Lighthouse and semaphore
There are still some remarkable buildings surviving in Ault, especially in Onival. Some have fantastic ceramic decorations. There is also a nice chapel in Onival.
This is the decorated home of the local artist Caroline Dahyot.
Onival-sur-Mer is part of Ault. It is where the cliffs start. At low tide, a large sandy beach is revealed and has stunning views of the beautiful white cliffs on the left (south) and the aviary reserve Hâble d'Hault on the right (north) (when facing the sea).