For the last seven days, my home has been the River Baroness, a river boat on which we slowly cruised our way down the Seine, from Paris to Normandy. The country side is beautiful, and every so often a village would pop up, with thatch-roofed houses and spired churches sitting up on a hill. As I sat in the Monet Lounge on that first morning, watching the sun come up over the river, I thought to myself; “this is going to be the most relaxing week of my life.” That, of course, was until record rainfall at home caused my basement to flood, which is primarily why I have not updated this trip's blog until this point. Though the week was not the relaxing respite I had planned or expected it to be, the trip was still an interesting way to see France. Here are some of the highlights.
I have only been on one river cruise in my life, and one cruise for that matter. But my cruise down the Nile river a few summers back was no where's near as luxurious as this boat.
Giverny and Monet's Garden
Monet lived in the village of Giverny for about 40 years, until he died in 1926. It was in this village, that Monet complete his famous water lilly and windmill paintings. One can visit the gardens, though they are extremely crowded with herds of tourists being dropped off by the busload every morning. Still, if one can brave the massive amounts of people, and get there early enough to actually enjoy it, the place is worth a visit.
As my mom and I were on this cruise to celebrate our birthdays, the Uniworld staff went above and beyond to make it special for us to celebrate. During the Captain's Farewell Dinner, they suprised us, bringing each one our own birthday cakes. When we returned to our room, there were birthday cards for us as well, along with a bottle of wine provided by our travel agent, Kathy.
This was the real highlight of the trip for me, being it is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, when the Allied forces liberated France (and Europe) from Nazi occupation.
We started the tour, visiting Juno Beach; the section of the Normandy coast that the Canadians were in charge of during the coordinated Operation Overlord. As you drive through the towns and villages that make up the coast, you come across American, British, Canadian, French, and European Union flags flying high above houses and stores.
From Juno Beach, we traveled to Arromanches and visited the D-Day Museum there. Arroanches was a prefabricated harbor created by the British to bring goods in to aid the invasion of Northern Europe and whipe Hitler out permanently. From June 6th to August 19th, the Allies worked to cross the Seine River and gain a foothold on the continent, forcing Hitler and the Germans to have to fight on two fronts, eventually leading to their defeat. The museum does a nice job of showcasing the events that took place during those months, with exhibits honoring the men and women who lost their lives in order to liberarte Europe.
While the entire day was intersting, the two specific highlights were visitng Omaha Beach, and the American Cemetery dedicated to those men (and two women) who lost their lives during that fateful day of June 6th, 1944. For those of you that are not history buffs, half of the Allied men were killed in their effort to arrive on shore at Omaha beach. In the cemetery, there are 9,387 American soldiers who lost their lives, with the average age being 22. The headstones in the cemetery all head west, towards the United States. Not everyone was buried there, as families had the option to bring the bodies of those deceased home, but this was often the more expensive option.
The historic capital of Normandy, Rouen is an amazing little medieval city that captivated me from the moment the ship pulled into port. Many famous people have called Rouen home, including Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionheart, Claude Monet, and Gustave Flaubert. On our first night in the city, I was wired after dinner and went for a stroll when I came across the famous Notre Dame church which has an amazing light show every night. Though my initial reaction to light shows at major tourist destinations is skeptical, this was not cheezy in any sense; it was art! It is hard to convey in pictures, but if you are ever in Rouen on vacation, I highly recommend this!
During the full day in Normandy, there was a walking tour of the ancient city, but because we were with the “gentle walkers”, we wound up on a trolley tour that took us through the historic heart of Roen. While I enjoyed this trip, (and it worked much better traveling with mom), it was in the afternoon when I really had the opportunity to go out and explore the city, such as the historic market square where Joan of Arc was martyred.
After the boat docked in Caudebec-en-Caux, we took a bus to about two hours to the adorable sea-side village of Honfleur. As we drove through northern Normandy, we passed through picturesque villages and rolling hills.
Located on the southern bank of the Seine, and is one of the oldest ports in France. The port is characterized by old, slate row houses that wrap around the main road, dotted with cafes and restuarants specializing in the delights of the sea. The Vieux Bassin (old port) was the main area where my mom and I hung out, just enjoying a Cappuchino by the bay, shopping a bit, then treating ourselves to a delcious meal of local specialties such as fish soup, lobster salad, mussels, Normandy cheeses, and of course, wine.
This little village, located about 20 miles outside of Paris, served as Vincent Van Gogh's home for the last few months of his life. Van Gogh shot himself on July 27th, and died two days later, but the village has changed little over time, visiting the 12th century church which Van Gogh immortalized in his famous painting “The Church at Auvers”.
Other highlights include walking up the famous wheat fields which he painted, and then later on, shot himself in. Next to the fields, one can visit an old cemetary where Van Gogh is buried.
The last day we arrived in Paris and took a morning bus tour to orient us to the city. The guide was good, but the people we were stuck on the bus with were loud, and obnoxious, which I will explain in a moment.
But first, some highlights of Paris:
Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, though I'm not sure seeing it through a bus window for three hours would do the trick for me.
Overall Reflections on River Cruise:
The cruise is beautiful, the boat is gorgeous, the river is scenic, the food is excellent, and the service and staff are absolutely exceptional. That said, I felt rather limited in experiencing “real” French culture, particularly because we happened to be on a boat with a large group traveling together from Decatur, Illinois. Out of 118 people on the ship, 100 were in this large group, and many had travelled on these trips together before, so immediately there was a sense of “we don't belong.” Do not get me wrong,I have many good friends I have met over the years from the midwest, and there were quite a few people in this group who were extremely friendly to both my mom and me, but I felt as though I was on the Tea Party Express. Now if you are one of my Republican friends who happens to be reading this, please don't take offense; just imagine you were on a ship with 100 radically left, bleeding heart liberals who quoted Rachel Maddow all the time, and you will get a sense of what this experience was like for me. For example, lunchtime conversation, with some of the more pleasant people in the group mind you, often turned to Obama silencing his opposition like Hitler, secretly plotting to run for a third term, and his birth certificate not being real. And while on the bus tour yestersday, the particular group that was sitting behind us, rather than listen to the guide and learn a bit of French culture and history, chose instead to sit in the back of the bus, chatting about shopping and farming in Illinois, and rubbing hand-sanitizer on them whenever they came back on the bus because some Senegalese men were trying to sell them trinkets, and “they're black, so they're Muslim, so be careful.” True story!
Thank God for Caroline and Jonathan; two retired professors from Wisconsin, and Al and Maxine; two former New Yorkers who live in Boca Raton. Both couples were super friendly, nice, and interesting to talk with. My mom and I were very thankful we were able to get to know them over the course of the week. Overall, I'm can see how taking a river cruise is an enjoyable way to travel through a country, but for me, I felt as if you don't really get to meet the locals or experience the many trials and humorous ancedotes that usually accompany travel; the stuff I find most meaningful and memomorable. Thankfully, we have a few more days on our own in Paris, before I get to return home to a flooded basement:)