We’re on our way home from our second Viking River Cruise, this time with #1 son and his wife along for the experience cruising the Seine from Paris to Normandy and back.
Here’s a look at the highlights (from my perspective) of our wonderful week. There was so much more than we did, saw (and ate!), but this is already a long read. Send me a note if you have questions about anything.
DAY 1 – I GUESS I REALLY AM FRENCH!
The familiar excitement that goes with visiting a new place hit me as soon as I caught sight of our ship, the Viking Rolf, docked at La Pecq, which is about 1.5 km from Paris on the Seine at the town of St Germain Sur Laye.
We arrived in time for lunch and an afternoon walk around the town, including its chateau, wooded park and magnificent view over the Seine right into Paris. Everyone felt crazily jet lagged, but according to our energetic program director, the “proof” that we could be “French” for the week was being able to go 36 hours without sleep, top that off with lots of wine, enjoy a dish of garlicky butter soaked escargots – plus dinner! – and still stay up for the evening’s entertainment of French opera and Edith Piaf songs. As my daughter-in-law would say: “Nailed it!”
(Interesting note. Our entire passenger list of 190 is from North America, but there are only 8 Canadians, of which our family comprises half.)
DAY 2 – CULTURE AND FOOD
Today was a “pretty good” food day: Fresh hot croissants at breakfast, along with the smoked salmon and fresh cheeses and fruits; boeuf Bourguignon and apple galette for lunch; citrus macarons from Maxims as a snack on the bus home; and dinner of French onion soup (made with shallots and Gruyere cheese) and steak et frites for everyone except me (I had moules et frites), followed by Grand Marnier soufflé. Yup, pretty good!
In the morning we toured Paris by bus, stopping briefly at Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower – our goal for the day was The Louvre. Our guide made sure we saw all the “musts” : the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” statues, Winged Victory, DaVinci’s John the Baptist and The Wedding at Canaan, the huge painting of Napoleon’s coronation day, and the 2 ton Egyptian sphinx.
En route we learned fascinating info about living in Paris and the suburbs – rents from 900 to 2500 euros per 10 square metres! Put into size perspective, the largest painting at the Louvre was 70 sq metres….larger than our guide’s apartment. The cost to OWN an appt in a trendy suburb is 80000 euros per 10 sq metres, so a 1200 sq foot apt would be 800,000 Euros (1.6M Cdn dollars). No wonder Parisians consider it rude to discuss money. Before you ask….houses with yards are only for the very elite upper class or international corporations who own them for their execs. Land ownership is in the countryside.
(Today’s “aha” moment: an “avenue” is a street that leads toward an important site/monument/building……. à venue in French!)
DAY 3 – ART AND FOOD
Today we docked in Vernon, in the Normandy region, and our tour was to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh spent his last days. It was amazing to see prints of his paintings beside the actual locations depicted in them. Nothing has changed in the town since he lived and died here in 1890 except for the addition of electricity, plumbing and cars.
What a treat to drive through the French countryside and see piles of sugar beets, snow white Charolais beef cows, trees completely taken over by mistletoe, and wild pheasants on the roadside. The homes look beyond ancient. Could anyone building those daub and wattle houses in the 1600’s have imagined they would still be occupied 400 years later?
We also passed Monet’s home in Givenchy, but the gardens and lily ponds have already been closed for the season, and were full of gardeners prepping the plantings that will make spring spectacular.
Dinner tonight was presented as “A Taste of Normandy”, and featured local cheeses (oh, Morbier! – check it out https://www.cheese.com/morbier/ ; pâtés , breads (of course), raclette with vegetables, a cassoulet of chicken with local mushrooms, pork 3 ways with choucroute (the French version of German sauerkraut and pork), and FROGS LEGS with dill and garlic sauce……. accompanied by an accordion player singing French songs. He was impressed that our table of Canadians knew the words to “Alouette”! The dessert board groaned with custard tart; calvados apple tarte; fresh marshmallows in raspberry, strawberry, lemon, banana and mint; caramels; chocolate eclairs; beignets; fresh local pears and more cheeses. We enjoyed a Calvados cream liqueur with the after dinner activities, which included dancing with both my guys! What a great way to end the day.
DAY 4 – STE. JEANNE, GOTHIC SPIRES AND FOOD
Forget Paris. I am head over heels in love with Rouen.
We got to sleep in today, and breakfasted on the terrace while our ship cruised the Seine and travelled through a couple of shallow locks. My first priority after breakfast was the chef’s demonstration of how to make the perfect tarte au citron, leading into lunch. Yes, it’s (almost) all about the food. Lunch included nicoise salad, vichysoisse, and lovely rare lamb with mint sauce …. after all, we need to keep up our energy level for exploring the cobblestone streets of Rouen this afternoon on our guided walking tour!
Rouen is where, as our program director so wryly put it, Joan of Arc was “famed and flamed”. From the moment we stepped off the boat, I was enchanted. The streets in the town centre slope up from the river and lead to a spectacular view of the Rouen Cathedral (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rouen_Cathedral). Close to the river the buildings are post WWII, but beyond that we were transported into magical 16th century streetscapes with timbered 3 and 4 story houses, magnificent city gates, and glorious churches. We also toured the 20th century Church of St Joan of Arc, (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Joan_of_Arc) built in the shape of a dragon (!) at the site of St Joan’s burning. Our perfect tour was capped by a wander through the town on our own to read café and restaurant menus and drool at the windows of bakeries, patisseries and chocolate shops. I spent 6 Euros 60 (about 10 dollars) for 2 large marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) that were SO sticky and delicious – a typical French confection that was worth every cent.
This evening’s dinner was pumpkin soup with truffle oil, gnocchi Nicoise, and apple tarte tatin. Because that clearly was not enough food, later in the evening there was a “cheese talk” followed by samples of Comte, Camembert and Roquefort, served with shots of Calvados.
DAY 5 – WAR, REMEMBRANCE AND FOOD
We headed out early today to the medieval town of Bayeux, home to the Baueux Tapestry (http://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/la_tapisserie_de_bayeux_en.html) The tapestry – actually an embroidery – is only 50 cm tall but 70 METRES long, and tells the story of the events of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 that turned William Duke of Normandy into William the Conqueror, King of England in incredible detail, through 57 embroidered scenes captioned in embroidered latin summaries; the world’s first graphic novel, created in the 11th century! It was quite spectacular, and not just for having survived for almost 1000 years.
After a lunch of local Normandy alcoholic cider, butter lettuce salad with Calvados-washed camembert crostini, breast of quail in Calvados cream with chanterelles and duxelles potatoes, tarte aux poire and espresso at 2018 Michelin rated restaurant Le Table de Lion d’Or (http://www.liondor-bayeux.fr/en/restaurant/menus) we proceeded on to the Juno Beach memorial, Juno Beach itself, the Canadian war Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer, and the Pegasus Bridge Museum. It was incredibly moving for me to see the actual Juno Beach bricks that my high school Soldier On club students had sponsored, and then to be allowed to lay roses on the graves. Ted and I do not have family members buried there, but chose the grave of Robert Knox, since Knox was Ted’s mom’s maiden name. Our big regret was that the time allotted to us at Juno was far too short. We would have preferred to be able to walk the beach and reflect.
We returned to an evening meal of Normandy specialties: potato salad, boeuf ragout and almond tarte….. and were then surprised with sharing platters of turkey and all the trimmings plus pumpkin pie, in honour of U.S. Thanksgiving being today. The evening’s entertainment was a French chanteuse accompanied by jazz guitar.
DAY 6 – RUINS AND FOOD
Today we cruised through the picturesque villages and limestone cliffs along the Seine en route to Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_Gaillard ) The low cloud cover and mist made the scenery look like one huge French Impressionist painting.
We are not coming back from this cruise skinny. Tried to stay lighter for lunch today with an open-faced shrimp sandwich, but then was tempted by the dessert of Warm sugar waffle with cherry compote. Sigh. There was an afternoon “tea” which featured coffee laced with Courvoisier under a thick cloud of whipped cream, plus tiny sandwiches, an assortment of pastries, and a tower of macarons. Dinner was an heirloom beet salad, 4-chop rack of lamb, Lyonnaise potatoes and dilled couscous, followed by a trio of profiteroles with chocolate drizzle.
DAY 7 – CHATEAU AND FOOD
The combination of Monte Carlo brandy-based cocktails and Aquavit toasts at last evening’s pre-dinner cocktail party for those who have cruised with Viking before, plus wine with dinner and then more brandy afterward got the best of me. I did not see the morning of Day 7.
After a light salad lunch, we toured the Chateau de Malmaison, short-term home of Napoleon and Josephine, and then her home alone after their divorce. It left me wondering how the French people could so enthusiastically accept a new Emperor and Empress who were almost as conspicuous in their consumption of luxuries as the monarchs they guillotined.
Tonight is our farewell reception and last dinner on board. The end of a grand adventure is always bittersweet…… but another macaron will solve that this time! Tomorrow we return to Collingwood for a quick 3-day turnaround before heading south for the winter.
I’ll do a second much shorter blog related just to the river cruise experience itself.