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Our Paris to Normandy River Cruise

I Love Paris in the Summer, When It Sizzles…

Bon jour, mesdames et messieurs! In August 2019 we spent five days in Paris before embarking on a Seine River cruise from Paris to Normandy. We had never been to Paris or spent any significant time in France, so we looked forward to two weeks of art, history, culture and French food! We ate at plenty of bistros, seated side-by-side in the “Parisian” way, strolled along the Paris quays among the booksellers and artists, observed life along the river Seine and did lots of people-watching! Settle in for a long read when you have the time to relive our trip with us.

We stayed at the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel in the 7th arrondissement. We had a partial view of the Eiffel Tower from our bedroom window and an unobstructed view from an upper balcony. What a treat is was to see the tower lit up at night! But when we heard loud “oohing and ahhing” coming from outside later that first night, we discovered that the lights sparkle for five minutes on the hour between 10:00PM and 1:00AM! Magical!

We did a “Paris in a Day” tour on our first full day in Paris. It was a 9-hour walking/metro tour that squeezed in lots of sights. Owww, did our feet and legs complain after walking 7½ miles and climbing 25 flights of stairs that day! Before the start of the tour we were warned about pickpockets – they are everywhere and they are fast. Many are young girls, who the police cannot arrest. They detain them, chastise them and then have to release the youngsters immediately.

   • We started in Montmarte and rode the funicular up to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. From this point the entire city of Paris is visible; it is the highest point in Paris after the Eiffel Tower. A basilica is a place of pilgrimage, and prayers for the city are continuously offered there day and night. We went on to explore the surrounding neighborhood, known for the many famous artists that called the cobblestoned lanes home (Picasso, Van Gogh, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec) and for the many bistros, galleries and street artists there now.

   • After a crowded metro ride to Ile de la Cité, we stopped to view the towers on the west façade of the Gothic-styled Notre-Dame Cathedral, the only place we could get close to the burned-out structure under repair from the terrible fire earlier this year. Construction had been halted and the closed-off perimeter expanded because the workers were being exposed to high levels of lead. We stopped briefly at La Conciergerie, another Gothic-styled structure dating back to the year 1200. It has served as a royal palace, a house of Parliament, the prison that held Marie Antoinette before her beheading and is now a National Historic Monument and courts of law.

   • We walked along the Seine to reach the Louvre Museum. The Mona Lisa painting had been relocated within the museum, which made the wait to shuffle past her extremely long. But she was now in a room full of Ruben paintings, so we were able to feast our eyes on his huge canvas and wooden panel paintings as we waited. The Mona Lisa was certainly a site to see, a half-length portrait believed to be of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, painted between 1503 and 1506. Rumor has it though, that Leonardo Da Vinci’s male lover, Salaì, posed for many of the sittings and that it is his smile captured in the painting. You decide after comparing the photos below.

   • Another metro ride got us to the Eiffel Tower. Built in about 2 years, the tower opened for the Paris World’s Fair in 1889. The views of the tower never disappoint – no matter from which angle, direction or distance you view it. It is an engineering marvel and you know you are in Paris whenever you glimpse this most-visited-monument in the modern world. We did not make it to the top of the 1000-foot structure but we did ascend to the first level at 200 feet and the second at 400 feet. The views of the city in every direction were sweeping and grand, allowing us to identify many of the sights we had visited on street level.

Another day we took an afternoon tour of the Palace of Versailles, about 45 minutes outside of Paris. Our tour started in the extensive gardens. There are 2000 acres of gardens with immense fountains that still run on their original hydraulics. Accordingly, the fountains only run on the weekends, when they are accompanied by classical music piped outside. The Palace was the residence of French monarchs for 100 years during the 17th and 18th centuries. The War Room, Peace Room, Queen’s Apartment, King’s Apartment and Royal Chapel were sumptuous and ornate, but the Hall of Mirrors was the crowning glory. It is considered one of the most impressive single rooms in the world. It was not common to have mirrors in the 17th century, so the 357 mirrors adorning the 17 arches opposite the windows were considered a great luxury.

Before leaving Paris we also visited Le Marais, a district with tons of atmosphere, and Sainte-Chapelle, the royal place of worship for Kings of France until the 14th century.

   • Marais means swamp and it started as such. It became home to aristocrats’ private mansions in the 17th century. After the revolution it became working-class, filled with artisans and immigrants. As home to Paris’ Jewish community in some form or another since the 13th century, it was from here that many residents were abducted and sent to death camps by the Vichy in collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Today it houses many art galleries, trendy restaurants and fashion houses and is a center for LGBT culture. We found a great little gelato store that shaped the gelato into rose petal shapes in the cones!

   • Sainte-Chapelle was built in just 6 years, 1242-1248, in Gothic style. It was built for King Louis IX to house what he believed to be the Crown of Thorns. The relic was kept in a raised altar to which only the King and the priest had access, but it was moved to Notre Dame Cathedral for safe-keeping, and now is in the Louvre Museum. The Chapel has one of the most extensive collections of 13th century stained glass anywhere in the world. There are 15 separate panels of stained glass, covering scenes from the Old and New Testaments recounting the Christian history of the world. The overall effect of the glow of colored light is overwhelming. The chapel is certainly one of the city’s hidden gems.

Our trip along the Seine River from Paris to Normandy began with meeting other travelers and the staff of Olivia Travel, the lesbian tour company with whom we often travel, before we transferred from the hotel to our ship, the ms Avalon Tapestry II. We have traveled on Avalon cruises before and the quality of the staff, food, service, cabins and ship are unrivaled. We got off to a great start when leaving Paris by first going close to a little port in the middle of the Seine, Pont du Grenelle, to view the Statue of Liberty’s little sister. After France gave the Statue of Liberty to America in 1886, the American community in Paris gave a quarter-scale replica of the same statue to Paris in 1889 to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. The view of the statue with the Eiffel Tower in the background is a charming one!

In order to fit under the very low bridges along the Seine in Paris, the captain had to lower the bridge completely and just stick his head out of a hole in the top of the lowered ceiling in order to navigate! As we headed downstream on the Seine, we passed through 6 locks, each adjusting the water level between 9 and 25 feet.

Our first stop was Conflans, where we visited the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. Vincent Van Gogh lived and worked here for the last 70 days of his life, and he is buried here. As we walked through the village and surrounding fields, there were photos of Van Gogh’s paintings set up near the actual scenes so you could see how he captured them – Wheat Field with Crows, Church at Auvers, Stairway at Auvers, Town Hall at Auvers. The artist led a tortured life and died at 37 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. On our return to the ship our guide made the visit more poignant by playing a 1971 Don Mclean song that was a tribute to Van Gogh – “Vincent”, also known as “Starry Starry Night”. You might recall it; some of the lyrics are: “For they could not love you, But still your love was true, And when no hope was left in sight, On that starry, starry night, You took your life, as lovers often do, But I could have told you, Vincent, This world was never meant for one, As beautiful as you”.

In Giverny, we visited Claude Monet’s house and gardens. It was a rainy day, so we huddled under our umbrellas as we walked through the beautiful, lush gardens that were the inspiration for some of his most famous masterpieces – Waterlilies, The Japanese Footbridge, The Row Boat. Monet spent the last 43 years of his life here and the house is kept as he left it.

Rouen, the capital city of Upper Normandy, boasts of some of France’s finest Gothic church architecture, some of which inspired a famous series of works by Monet. It is also known as the place where Joan of Arc was tried and burnt at the stake in 1431.There is a modern Church of St. Joan of Arc here in the shape of an overturned longship. It holds 16th century stained-glass windows that were removed from other churches for safekeeping during the bombing of World War II. Many churches were destroyed in the bombing, so the windows found homes in newer churches after the war. The town also boasts a fascinating 14th-century astronomical clock (Gros-Horloge) in an arch spanning the main road and an impressive Gothic church with the tallest steeple in France. In addition to the many half-timbered buildings, the town has a restaurant where Julia Childs first discovered French food in 1948, La Couronne. We did not stop to eat there as we were advised it would be a true French meal lasting several hours.

The night before we visited the beaches of Normandy, the ship had a World War II historian come on board to provide us with great context and history. Since we had American and Canadian passengers, the tours split to visit one of the beaches where the American forces landed (Omaha Beach) and one where the Canadians and British forces landed (Juno Beach). We docked in Caudebec-en-Caux and rode for several hours by bus to reach the sites. We stopped at Omaha Beach, a 6-mile stretch overlooked by 100-foot cliffs. So much went wrong with the invasion – amphibious tanks sank, tides misdirected landings, German gunners poured fire into the invading ranks, troops were left on their own with limited exit paths. By the end of D-day, the Americans suffered 2400 casualties on Omaha Beach, but were successful in landing 34,000 troops. At the Point du Hoc section of the beach, Ranger battalions were deployed. Again, much went wrong – heavy seas, two landing crafts sunk, German guns they were to capture at the tops of the cliffs were not in the casements, they were unable to signal their landing success and get reinforcements. Only half of the 180 troops that landed survived and held out for two days until help arrived. There are moving monuments depicting some of the young Rangers who perished along the beach. The Normandy American Cemetery contains graves of more than 9800 American military dead and the Wall of the Missing with over 1500 names. It was an emotional experience to walk along the rows of crosses and Stars of David, inscribed with the service member’s name, rank and division, date of death and hometown. It includes 33 pairs of brothers buried side by side.

Honfleur is a sleepy port village on the Normandy coast that was one of the few lucky ones to escape the WWII bombing that destroyed most of the villages. This was our favorite village, where many Parisian flock to on weekends and for holiday in August. It was charming, with winding cobblestoned streets and sidewalks, 16th-18th-century townhouses and a picturesque harbor filled with yachts and bordered by restaurant tables with colorful umbrellas. It was easy to see why it has been the subject of so many artists.

Upon returning to Paris for one night before flying home, we went to dinner and a show at the Moulin Rouge, the most famous cabaret in the world! Since 1889 it has dazzled the world and was noted as the birthplace of the can-can dance. Originally it was a seductive dance since none of the women wore knickers & the men could get more than a dance for their money. Nowadays it is a cabaret show with some topless dancers (with itty-bitty titties), incredible costumes and several variety acts mixed in. Photos inside were not allowed so you’ll have to go to the Moulin Rouge link to get a good sense of the show. Moulin Rouge We were at a table for 10, with the stage bumped up against our table. Absolute front row seats – what a way to end our time in Paris!

It was a terrific vacation, exposing us to French culture, people, food, arts and history. It dispelled the myth that the French are not welcoming to Americans, as they were always friendly and usually helpful. We met new friends onboard ship with whom we hope to stay in touch and perhaps travel with again in the future. One of my (K) goals while in France was to eat croissants, baguettes, chocolate and caramels every day – I’m happy to say “Mission Accomplished”! Au revoir, mes amis…

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