Cruising the River Seine

By Rick & Chris Millikan


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Above River Seine and Les Andelys Photos: Rick & Chris Millikan

Our June cruise promises comfortable access to remarkable sites along the River Seine. Docked west of Paris, the Viking Rolf’s crew welcomes us aboard with smiles, ship’s newspaper and daily itinerary. Following the chef’s lunch buffet, we settle downstairs.

Our economy cabin proves perfect for relaxation, reading, writing journals and playing Scrabble. Stylish cabinetry well accommodates belongings. Sans balcony, windows admit sunshine… and moonlight. And shiny-bright, the bathroom is ideal for primping and prepping for good times ahead.

Lounge entertainment often follows delightful four-course dinners. Tonight, a piano virtuoso accompanies three sensational chanteuses who sing arias from French operas and croon beloved cabaret songs. Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regret Rien” inspires many like us to sing along!

A morning bus tour introduces Paris. Just past the iconic Arch de Triomph, the ship’s guide points out the Champs-Élysées fashionable shops, Latin Quarter’s early churches, Luxembourg Gardens, Pantheon and Sorbonne University. Hopping off at 17th century City Hall, our group walks to Notre Dame Cathedral. Inside, stained glass imagery and statuary evoke its sublime past. Returning along the Seine, we admire its World Heritage waterfront. Back aboard, shipmates toast embarkation with chilled champagne as scenes of riverside activity slide past.

The port of Vernon enables a jaunt to Claude Monet’s Giverny home. A village pathway leads our group toward a bamboo thicket. Through this wall of greenery, we behold Monet’s huge pond, often focus of his paintings. Now dotted with budding water lilies, its silvery surface mirrors the surrounding splendour of vibrant lilacs, columbines, azaleas and foxgloves. Fragrant wisteria drapes a moon bridge.

Nearby, traditional gardens embrace brilliant irises, roses, poppies, daisies, peonies, hollyhocks and other spring flowers. Local guide, Monique, tells us Monet’s gardeners continually planted flower arrays to provide new patterns for his canvases.

Red geraniums line the front of Monet’s pink farmhouse. Inside, cozy rooms feature numerous woodblock prints. This Japanese artwork was very popular and influenced turn-of-the-century artists. In his studio, sofas remain positioned for patrons to watch him work. Famous replicated paintings adorn three walls. Woman with a Parasol shows beloved wife, Camille, with their son on a park outing. Luminous Rouen Cathedral: The Portal epitomizes his many portrayals of this church. Two water lily paintings flank a table with photos of a white-bearded Monet and Camille. Working here until his death at age 86, Monet became the most productive impressionist.

In the ship’s lounge, Monique provides an afternoon presentation with insights into French Impressionism. “Loving water reflections, Monet often painted marine subjects. Using innovative tube paints, he and fellow artists worked easily outdoors, immediately capturing nature’s ephemeral beauty,” she explains. "Monet’s hazy seascape: *Impression, Sunrise* inspired the name of this innovative painting style."

In Normandy’s historic capital, a walking tour takes us from the dock into Rouen’s medieval core. Ornate spires of its gothic cathedral soar above centuries-old three-story homes. Inside this wondrous cathedral, we discover sculpted likenesses of famed Norman Dukes on two marble tombs. In one lies Rolf, a Viking raider granted Normandy through a treaty. In the other, Richard the Lionhearted, better known as an English King.  

Weaving onward through narrow streets, we pass former stone-built palaces and more of Rouen’s 700 half-timbered houses. A 16th century astronomical clock decorates an archway, its gilded face featuring one single hand. We guess that knowing the hour was enough for early folk. In Market Square, a plaque identifies where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for alleged heresy. At her nearby memorial church, a white marble statue evokes her saintly grace.

From Rouen the next day, American shipmates eagerly head for Normandy’s Omaha Beach. Our smaller group of Brits, Aussies and fellow Canadians travel to Commonwealth beachheads, first stopping in Bayeux.

Beyond the town’s great Cathedral stands a 17th century seminary, now displaying the famed 70-metre Bayeaux Tapestry. Inside, audio guides help interpret this amazing chronicle of the Norman Conquest. Initial panels show King Edward promising his English throne to William of Normandy. Later, needlework conjures Edward’s brother-in-law Harold betraying this vow. And the consequences are portrayed in William’s 1066 invasion of England. Dramatic scenes illustrate the Battle of Hastings: charging cavalry, combative swordsmen and archers firing the fatal arrow into Harold’s eye.

At Juno Beach, an amphibious British tank perches atop a sand dune. Such tanks, we learn, helped Canada’s infantry crash through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. “That concrete Nazi blockhouse is one of five that housed machine guns,” guide André explains. “Barbed-wire and landmines covered this sandy expanse and fields beyond.” 

On the beach lies a rusted landing craft that carried 36 men. Offshore waves break on disintegrating caissons, remnants of an artificial harbour named Port Winston, honoring Churchill, its mastermind.

In Juno Interpretive Centre, a film features some of the 14,000 Canadians who landed nearby and advanced through Normandy. Exhibited memorabilia reflect their wartime lives. And at Pegasus Museum, we learn of British Airborne’s amazing success.  

Caen Canal Bridge and a replicated glider rest on its large lawn. “That wooden fuselage accommodated two pilots and 28 soldiers,” André notes. “Released at midnight, 15 miles off Normandy, pilots navigated six such gliders with stopwatches… landing on target.” Suffering minor casualties, their platoons captured two strategic bridges.

At three of the 15 Commonwealth cemeteries, we pay respect to fallen soldiers. Gravestones stand in endless rows across manicured lawns. Maple leaves, hometowns, ranks and names of each soldier are etched onto gray limestone markers. We solemnly place roses at several gravesites.

The next day’s shuttle includes a stop in Les Andelys. From the village centre, a steep trail leads to Château Gaillard, Richard the Lionheart’s favourite castle. Crossing dry moats, we pause below a crumbling chapel. "After Richard’s death, Philip II laid siege, catapulting stones against its high, round walls. His soldiers eventually succeeded crashing through these chapel windows," guide Pierre recounts. “In capturing this key fortress, the French King reclaimed Normandy.”
 
Back in Paris, we lunch at a brasserie along the bustling Champs-Élysées. Extraordinary flooding makes boarding riverboats impossible. Instead, Viking accommodates us in a hotel near the Eiffel Tower, great for strolls along the Seine and launching tomorrow’s excursions.

Château de Malmaison reflects the evolving French Republic. Once Napoleon’s seat of government, the foyer’s classic Greek sculptures would have impressed dignitaries. Most rooms reflect Roman and Egyptian décor, celebrating his Mediterranean victories. Large paintings depict him as the glorious hero with long red capes. His upstairs bedroom encloses camp-like chairs and tented bed with a gilded eagle perched above symbolizing his supremacy. Portraits in other rooms reveal Josephine’s imperial fashion: Greco-Roman inspired high-waisted, free flowing dresses.

Palace of Versailles maintains its 17th century magnificence… and royal opulence that sparked the French Revolution. Amid 700 rooms, the State Apartments flaunt red brocade drapes, silk-upholstered furniture and gilded moldings. Roman gods look down from resplendent ceilings. Mythical landscapes decorate walls. In the throne room, a marble bust of Louis XIV sits high on a pedestal. The adjoining Hall of Mirrors bedazzles visitors with crystal chandeliers, idyllic ceilings and gilded statuary. And outside, immense gardens boast godly sculptures, elaborate fountains and manicured lawns.

Cruising the Seine surpasses expectations. Aboard, we enjoy extraordinary cuisine, camaraderie, entertainment and comfort. Ashore, informative tours highlight the fascinating history of each intriguing destination.

IF YOU GO:

Check out www.vikingcruises.com regarding River Seine itineraries. Book early for discounted fares.
For convenient flights, see www.airfrance.com
You may easily check schedules and buy train tickets at: http://raileurope.ca

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