Normandy, the picturesque French province on the Atlantic coast, is a land of sprawling landscapes that inspired painters, writers and composers, a land forever associated with the heroic battle of D-Day on June 6, 1944.
The best way to explore the region is aboard a river cruise, sailing down the Seine through this pastoral countryside, once the home of Joan of Arc, Richard The Lionheart, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh.
We recently sailed through Normandy aboard the Avalon Creativity on an 8 day round trip from Paris.
LIFE ON BOARD THE AVALON CREATIVITY
The ship is long and narrow, designed to navigate under low bridges and through tight locks along the Seine. It offers 70 bright and comfortable cabins appointed with queen size or single beds, built-in closets, and modern baths with stall showers. Rooms on the two upper decks have French doors, while the ones on the lowest deck have fixed windows.
The ship’s main public area is the salon, an all purpose space used for orientation talks, cocktail parties, tea time, performances, and live music.
In the back of the ship, in the intimate lounge/library, guests can enjoy complimentary cappuccino, coffee, tea and cookies around the clock.
Life on board is relaxed, unhurried, and follows a daily routine. Mornings start with a generous breakfast spread and an early or late risers continental selection. The day continues with sightseeing trips followed by a buffet lunch with salads, daily entrees, and carvings. Afternoons are dedicated to shore excursions, sun tanning on the upper deck, or sailing through the enchanting countryside.
Dinner is the main culinary event, served a la carte with a daily changing menu. On special nights the chefs prepare celebratory, multi course tastings, and one evening, a visiting French chef served a Provençal dinner. If you wish, you can always order a salad, steak, chicken or grilled salmon.
Complimentary red and white house wines accompany the meal. After dinner, guests relax in the salon sipping drinks, dancing, or just listening to music. At 10:30pm, a warm snack is offered at the bar.
MONET’S HOME AND GARDENS IN GIVERNY
We visit Claude Monet’s house and studio where he lived from 1883 to his death in 1926 and created most of his masterpieces.
We amble through his manicured gardens where thousands of flowers burst into a symphony of colors and shapes. We stroll around the serene water lilies pond, immortalized in many of his paintings. Monet is one of the few impressionists who achieved fame during his lifetime and enjoyed his fortune until his death at 86.
VAN GOGH’S FINAL MONTHS
IN AUVERS SUR OISE
The village of Auvers sur Oise is a popular stop due to its most famous resident, Vincent Van Gogh, who came in 1890 to be treated by Dr. Gachet. He lived in the village only for a couple of months before dying from a self inflicted wound.
The inn and the miniscule room where the tormented painter lived during these last months are open to visitors.
Throughout the village streets and neighboring fields there are reproductions of his works placed in the exact spot where he painted them. We pass by Notre Dame D’Auvers, a 12th century church, the subject of one of the artist’s masterpieces. On top of a hill, wheat fields surround a small cemetery where Van Gogh is buried next to his younger brother Theo, who died only a few months after him.
We travel by bus along the Allied landing beaches, and as our guide points out the different sites, the fateful day comes alive. In Arromanches, we visit a small museum dedicated to the artificial port built here from floated caissons. Parts of that construction are still standing in the shallow waters — a silent testimony to the port, jetties and the floating roadways that carried 2.5 million soldiers, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies.
On Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans lost their lives, we observe the high bluff from where German machine guns mowed down the disembarking soldiers. The area is still scarred by the huge craters made by Allied bombardments.
The beaches of Normandy are dotted with museums and memorials dedicated to the allied forces who liberated this area.
The last stop is at the American Cemetery, the final resting place of 9,386 soldiers. The cemetery houses only about 40% of the fallen, since many remains were repatriated per the families’ requests.
The cemetery staff organizes a brief ceremony, playing the National Anthem and Taps, and we each place a solitary rose on a hero’s grave. We return to the ship in a somber mood with a new understanding of this epic battlefield and the sacrifices that the “Greatest Generation” made.
The ship docks close to a medieval church and a quaint downtown with several shops. Atop a high hill stand the ruins of Chateau Galliard, a formidable fortress built in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart. From high above, we take in the sprawling vistas of the Seine River, the tapestry of yellow canola fields, and the green meadows dotted with grazing cows.
Honfleur is a popular seaside resort with waterfront restaurants, a busy marina, and ancient cobblestone alleys. The narrow, winding streets are home to art galleries, sweets and chocolate shops, and stores dedicated to Normandy’s staple products: Calvados (apple brandy), caramel, and honey.
In the center of town, a large cross indicates the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. She was later canonized and is now the patron saint of France. The medieval city streets are lined with centuries-old half-timber houses now home to trendy shops and boutiques.
We stop at the ornate Cathedral of Ruen, the subject of a series of Claude Monet’s paintings that captured the lights and shades on the façade. Our guide points to the actual window where the artist painted his masterpieces. Inside the cathedral we pass by the marble grave where the heart of Richard the Lionheart is entombed.
The cruise ends in Paris, with a complimentary shore excursion of the city’s highlights. We travel along the large avenues and stop at the Trocadero terraces for photos of the Eiffel Tower, pass by Place de la Bastille, the Arc de Triomphe, the Opera, and other landmarks. Optional excursions to the Louvre and the Versailles Palace are also offered for a fee.
The city of lights is as exhilarating as ever, pulsating with life and excitement. The large boulevards and cafes are teeming with people, and the museums and tourist sites bustle with visitors from around the globe.
A visit to the Dorsey Museum is the perfect way to further understand and appreciate the sites explored during the cruise. The cavernous museum is home to many impressionists’ works including Monet’s paintings created at Giverny and Ruen, and Van Gogh’s canvases painted during his final months in Auvers sur Oise.
Don’t miss the L’Orangerie museum and view Monet’s large water lilies canvases.
Also visit the observatory on the 59th floor of Montparnasse Tower for panoramic views of the city.
For a change of pace, take a relaxing sightseeing cruise on the Bateau Parisiens and get a different perspective of Paris’ majestic sites.
After dark head to the Moulin Rouge, the famous nightclub immortalized in Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings. It offers a spectacular variety show, gorgeous dancers, amazing acrobats, and world class circus acts.
You could explore Normandy via several day trips from Paris, but it is more enjoyable to take a leisurely, all inclusive river cruise. www.avalonwaterways.com. ∆