– dis­cover France on a scenic river cruise

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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

wet cli­mate.

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

sig­na­ture di­ges­tif.

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.

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