SAILING THE SEINE
– discover France on a scenic river cruise
The Englishman making himself a cup of tea in the Club Lounge sighed heavily. “It’s been such a long day,” he said. “We had to leave London so early to get here. And then there’s the time change!” I left him mournfully stirring his tea and continued exploring our new home for the next eight days. The Tapestry II is a river cruiser belonging to Avalon Waterways and her patch is the Seine, between Paris and the Normandy region in north-western France. My journey from New Zealand had been somewhat longer than the weary Londoner’s, but I knew it would be worth it. Launched in 2015, the Tapestry II is full of luxurious comforts enjoyed by just 128 passengers in her all-suite accommodation. The biggest on the water, these suites are unique in having the beds facing panoramic windows, allowing for surely the laziest sight-seeing ever.
A river cruise from Paris to the beaches of Normandy introduces Pamela Wade to magnificent scenery,
sobering history and delicious local cuisine.
Not that I spent much time in my suite. In this respect, river cruising is less relaxing than its ocean-going equivalent, for the simple reason that there is always something to see. That’s the problem with 360-degree scenery: obsessive types like me are always afraid they’re missing something and the endless parade of pretty villages, farmland, woods and hills, a cast of waving fishermen and dog-walkers, and a soundtrack of birdsong, lapping water and chiming clocks, had me spinning like a top.
I soon gave in to the challenge of seeing as much as possible — and the standard was set high right from the start. The garden at Claude Monet’s house in Giverny is a dazzling celebration of his art. As local guide Marie-Hélène explained, Monet considered this garden his greatest masterpiece and in real life, his muchpainted lily ponds are simply gorgeous, surrounded by roses, hollyhocks, azaleas, and sweet Williams, the Japanese bridges over the water dripping with wisteria. Inside his house, I was delighted to discover that he and I share a bright yellow dining room — but while I stopped at the walls, his professional boldness with colour extended also to the table, chairs, dressers and sideboards. “Colour followed him to the end,” Marie-Hélène declared, telling how his body lay in state in his bedroom, draped not in black, which he never used, but in patterned curtains from the house, pulled down by his friend, prime minister Georges Clemenceau.
Interesting snippets like these make the guided walking tours a pleasure, as well as providing indispensable insight into long
The endless parade of pretty villages, farmland, woods and hills had me
spinning like a top.
centuries of complicated history. In Normandy that includes Vikings, Richard the Lionheart, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, and D-Day – all of them bringing both glory and misery to the land.
At Les Andelys, the beautiful castle shining white on its green hilltop above the river was where sheltering townspeople were evicted by soldiers during a winter siege in 1203 as “les bouches inutiles” (useless mouths) and left to die of starvation and cold in the moat outside, trapped by the enemy.
The city of Rouen is a riot of colourful, medieval half-timbered buildings, but its two main attractions are the site where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake, and its ancient cathedral, which was severely damaged by the 6,000 bombs that fell on the city in 1944.
It’s at the D-Day landing beaches, of course, where the shadows of the past fall most darkly over Normandy’s green landscape, its little towns each with a memorial cross and stories to tell. Passengers were taken by coach to either the American or Allied sections of the coastline, to sandy beaches with resonant names: Omaha, Utah, Juno. We went to Arromanches to see the concrete remnants of Mulberry harbour, visited museums and stood on the cliff where the sides of bomb craters are now velvety with grass but the bottoms are shockingly deep. We went to the cemeteries and looked out over the graves, the straight lines of the headstones bringing order now to what was chaos, fear and courage.
It made for a long and sobering day; but the cruise has plenty of delights as well. Even in the rain — “There’s a reason why Normandy is so green,” city guide Stéphanie told us cheerfully — Honfleur was glorious. Tall, narrow houses surround a small harbour bristling with the masts of yachts and narrow cobbled streets wind up the hill past inviting little boutiques to the unusual double-nave church of St Catherine.
Bayeux would have warranted a visit even without its famous tapestry, chaffinches trilling in neatly pollarded trees, a little river
running past water mills, the domes and buttresses of its cathedral worthy of a much bigger city. We saw the local version of thatched cottages, the ridges held together by the roots of flowering irises. Beuvron-en-Auge was outrageously, over-the-top pretty, dazzling with colourful half-timbering.
And then there was the food. “When you are angry, you must heat!” said guide Estelle, in charmingly accented English. And eat, we did. Local cheeses — Camembert, Pont l’Évêque, Livarot — and crêpes, cider and Calvados, home-made quiche, six-hour rice pudding, and lamb raised on the salt marshes. Some of it was at markets from local producers, some served by our hostess Madame Françoise in her Beuvron summerhouse, most of it in Tapestry II’s own dining room, where waiters Tiago and Shady had a refreshing disregard for the refined half-glass pour and filled our wineglasses to the brim. “We have so much of it!” they cried.
The pièce de résistance was Paris: Notre Dame, Versailles, Montmartre, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower “scintillating” in the dark, as the guide so aptly described it. Our last night took us to the Moulin Rouge, where the expected topless dancers with their feathers and slick routines were supplemented by unexpected, and astonishing, variety acts: acrobats defying gravity, roller skaters defying physics, aquatic pythons defying their handlers and escaping from their water tank.
I hope the Englishman thought the cruise was worth his epic journey; I know I did.
Waiters Tiago and Shady had a refreshing
disregard for the refined half-glass pour.
Historically one of Europe’s first thoroughfares, the Seine is still busy with barges carrying cargo.
From top: the harbour at Honfleur; a selection of Normandy’s famous cheeses; the locals are cheerful about their
From left: the elevated Promenade Plantée walkway in Paris; the famous Notre Dame cathedral; an old water mill in the picturesque town of Bayeux.
Left: different styles of butter can be bought by the chunk in Rouen’s market. Right: a glass of Calvados, Normandy’s
From left: the pretty village of Beuvron-en-Auge; a colourful pyramid of macarons in Rouen; the city’s ancient halftimbered houses.
From left: the bedroom of Napoleon’s wife Josephine in the
Château de Malmaison; the Galeries Lafayette department
store; a portrait of Napoleon.
The Tapestry II.