PARIS TO THE NORMANDY BEACHES WITH AVALON WATERWAYS
Who knew the Seine could be so utterly beautiful? It’s a relatively narrow waterway as it wends its way from Paris towards the Normandy beaches. Its low bridges and winding nature mean its free of the cargo traffic carried on other major European rivers. Its peaceful and in springtime, picture postcard perfect. It’s easy to see why the impressionists found it so beguiling.
We have hopped aboard the Avalon Tapestry 11 for what promises to be a week of encounters with the rich and varied history of the Normandy region. After a short cruise downstream we tie up in Vernon ready to explore the countryside just outside the French capital.
A visit to Claude Monet’s exquisite house and garden in the little village of Giverny is one I’ve long anticipated. It doesn’t disappoint.
Its heavenly….the early morning dew still clinging to the irises and poppies that spring in such profusion from his multi coloured borders. We’re there a little early for the waterlilies to be blooming, you can usually catch them at the end of May, but his famous ponds are otherwise just as he painted them. He found inspiration here for more than twenty years, in fact we’re told he painted his waterlillies at least 277 times ….very precise… such was his fascination with the changing light and seasons.
I reckon that’s the only way to see this beautiful garden, without hoards of tourists! Entry to the garden also allows you entry to his house ….. a simple French country home, still much as he left it.
If you’ve already seen Giverny you can choose to visit Chateau de Bizy instead. Known as the ‘Normandy Versailles’ it has a magnificent courtyard, water garden and stables.
Or you may just choose to relax on board and enjoy the sun, or wander off the ship and explore the little town of Vernon, sip a coffee with the locals and do a spot of people watching.
Further down the Seine we stop again at the little village of Les Andelys ….
It’s the ruined castle on the hill above the town that fascinates me… it was a fortress, built by Richard the Lionheart, King of England and Duke of Normandy in the 12thcentury.
Chateau Gaillard was Richard’s way of protecting his Norman holdings against the French king, guarding, as it did, a broad stretch of the Seine near the Norman capital Rouen. It’s well worth the hike to the top to wander among the ruins. You get a real sense of history up there and the view is spectacular.
The following morning the ship docks at Caudebec and we set off to explore the abbeys of Normandy ….again a close encounter with history and if, like me, you get goosebumps standing in the spot where William the Conqueror stood and addressed the faithful, then you won’t be disappointed. Victor Hugo, the 19th century French writer, famously called Jumiege Abbey the most beautiful ruin in France. It is striking even on this bitterly cold and wet spring day.
We move on to a working Benedectine abbey and spend a delightful hour with Brother Lucien who is given a special dispensation to depart from his vows of silence to give visitors an insight into life in the abbey. He’s thoroughly entertaining!
I spend a happy few minutes browsing in the abbey’s shop and emerge with a very smelly washed rind cheese and some of the brothers’ excellent wine, not to mention a beautiful tapestry cushion cover which I think will look good at home!
That afternoon we join a group heading to the picturesque fishing port of Honfleur, situated at the mouth of the Seine. This is one of a number of optional tours offered on board and I really recommend it.
The central part of the old port dates back to the middle ages. It’s cobblestoned wharf is encircled by rows of fifteenth and sixteenth century narrow terraced houses. This port also has the added allure of a pirate past!
Its pouring with rain when we visit and very cold …. but we are entranced by the place and its history.
Our guide also points us in the direction of the local Calvados shop where they welcome those who’d like to taste the local tipple ….the perfect antidote to the chill of the day. Calvados is one of Normandy’s most famous products, made from the apples that grow abundantly here, its guaranteed to warm the coldest heart!
The Tapestry 11 is heading down the Seine to the site of the famous D day Landings of World War 2. The evening before our visit to the beaches, a local academic joins us on board to set the scene with lecture on the strategy surrounding the landings. It adds great context to our exploring.
There are two tour options on this Avalon Waterways trip. The first to the American beaches of Omaha and Utah, which include a visit to the American Cemetery and the Pointe du Hoc monument. The monument is perched atop the sheer cliffs that troops had to climb in order to disable German gun emplacements.
The second option concentrates on the British and Canadian beaches of Juno , Gold and Sword. There was a big contingent going to Omaha. Three buses set off from our mooring at Caudebec. Each with their own guide.
Just a word here about the guides that Avalon uses. They are all local people with a sound grasp of English. They are thoroughly knowledgeable but also lively and entertaining. I have been on three Avalon cruises so far and can honestly say I have enjoyed each and every guide we’ve had, there wasn’t a bore or a pedant among them! They give you just the right amount of information without over cooking it and are always happy to answer questions. You’d certainly miss a lot without them.
We chose to explore the British and Canadian battlegrounds and began our day by paying our respects to the fallen in a beautiful sunlit cemetery nestled beside the village church of Ranville.
As if in salute, a lone jet pierces the blue overhead.
Fans of the classic war movie ‘The Longest Day’, will remember the audacious plan to take the strategically crucial Pegasus Bridge over the river at Benouville.
The bridge was a vital link for the allied troops as they fought to hold the Germans back from the site of the D day landings. The story of how the bridge was taken, under cover of darkness, by a fleet of flimsy gliders is the stuff of legend. The gliders swooped in over the Normandy Coast before dawn on D Day, June 6th1944, each bearing up to thirty troops or equipment. Miraculously, they managed to land within metres of the bridge they so desperately needed to hold. It’s a stirring tale of derring do, powerfully told by our guide. There’s an engaging museum at the site that’s well worth a visit and a full-sized replica of one of the gliders. The bridge is preserved there too, bullet holes and all.
The whole D Day plan was audacious from start to finish. It involved a top secret unit …a ghost army of actors and fake tanks and armoured personnel carriers that would fool the Germans into thinking the landings would happen further north to deflect attention from the D Day beaches. Another extraordinary allied achievement was to conceive and carry out the building of an entire port to service the landings, in the space of just over a week. The existing ports were far too heavily guarded by German troops. We visit the remains of this makeshift port at Arromanches. It’s fascinating. An outer breakwater was formed from old merchant ships then huge concrete boxes were towed from England to create an inner breakwater. A series of floating causeways completed the port. When finished the port at Arromanches had the same capacity as the British port of Dover.
Again, there’s a museum that’s essential viewing ….don’t miss the film, its excellent wartime footage of the port in operation.
Our day of immersion in war history ends at Juno Beach. The site of the Canadian landings.
A rather bleak stretch of coastline east of the American landings. It’s a nice touch that young Canadian students man the museum here. They’ll take you on tours of the landing sites and the bunkers …. their mission, to preserve their countrymen’s legacy for future generations through education and remembrance. There are less visitors here than there are at Omaha. We walk quietly along the shoreline and reflect on the bravery of that generation now largely lost to us.
As the Tapestry 11 heads back up the Seine to Paris we stop in the ancient Norman capital, Rouen, where we come face to face with the spot where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake, eerily quiet in the early morning light.
We visit the exquisite 13th century Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen, its here that Richard the Lionheart’s heart is laid to rest, following a custom in the Middle Ages that led to various body parts being buried in different places.
Rouen also has a beautifully preserved medieval centre complete with a sixteenth century astrological clock that still keeps time today.
Another of the optional tours on offer takes us to Napoleon and Josephine’s country retreat of Malmaison. Again this is one not to miss. Our guide brought the house to life with her vivid story telling and her acute grasp of the history of the time.
Josephine had been married before she met Napoleon. She was born, Marie Josephe Rose, in Martinique, part of Creole gentry. Rose, as she was known, was married off to a much older Parisien who eventually found her too provincial for him. They separated. She took her children and headed for a convent ….as you did in those days. She left France when the 1789 revolution began and then later returned where she met the young general from Corsica,Napoleon. They fell madly in love and he adopted her children. He also changed her name. “I think your name has been pronounced by too many men, he apparently told her, I shall call you Josephine.” Theirs was a volatile relationship. Their marriage would last just 14 years. She would never bear him an heir. They would divorce in 1809. Malmaison remains though, a symbol of their love.
Josephine bought the house in 1799. Napoleon was away on his Egyptian campaign when Josephine was renovating the Chateau. There are many nods to that campaign in the decor, from the front entrance which is like a military tent to the furniture much of which is decorated with gilt pharaohs’ heads and serpents.
You can see Napoleon’s desk with its ingenious sliding top which allowed him to keep his battle plans and private affairs, secret. And upstairs, as well as Napoleon’s private quarters, the extravagantly decorated red and gold bedroom that was Josephine’s containing the bed in which she died in 1814 ….. a confection of gilt draped in brocade ….. suprisingly tiny. It is a fascinating place to visit, and again, we were there ahead of the crowds!
Our cruise ends, as it began, in Paris. There are a number of tours on offer here. The included ones are a sightseeing tour of Paris which takes in all the usual monuments like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and so on, its great for getting a handle on the city but if you’ve been before I’d recommend the walking tour which takes you through the Ile St Louis, the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame.
Again, the Avalon guide adds immeasurably to your enjoyment of this walk. the optional tours are Discovering the Metro and a walk in the Marais district, handy if you’re going to explore on your own later, the Paris Sweet Tour, which takes you off the beaten track to explore the delights of Parisienne Patisseries, and the Paris Evening Tour , which takes you again to all the monuments which are illuminated at night.
Paris is one of the world’s great delights enjoy it! Eat like a local. Buy a selection of delicacies from the local market and picnic on the banks of the Seine, or in one of the many little and large parks! take a seat at any of the bustling cafes and watch the world go by. Buy a ticket to a classical concert in one of the ancient churches, and seek out your favourite artists , chances are there’s a museum dedicated just to them!