Now it’s over, I don’t mind telling you. That was my first time.
I’ve travelled on rivers by kayak, canoe, white water raft and once, in an hour of madness, on an inflated tyre tube, but that was my maiden voyage on a cruise ship.
You see, when I travel I like to be active, to challenge myself, to meet adventurous people and learn new things about the world. I thought cruises were for lazy sods who lounged in deckchairs sipping cocktails. I was wrong.
On Viking’s Paris and the Heart of Normandy trip, body and mind were kept constantly busy.
It was like taking short Sorbonne University courses in art and history, with extra-curricular classes from crew and fellow passengers on camembert, qi gong exercise, river locks, cha-cha, American politics and how to impart spin to a ten-pin bowling ball.
Packed into eight days on the Seine were the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa, Notre Dame, the Palace of Versailles, Monet’s garden at Giverny, Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionheart, the Bayeux Tapestry and the D-Day beaches, as well as numerous churches, castles and attractive French villages.
Whenever on shore, we walked brisk kilometres following people holding up lollipops, trying to keep up with the group and our tour guides’ lectures, while still taking time to examine altarpieces, poppy fields, river barges, half-timbered houses, craft stalls and pyramids of macaroons in patisserie windows. Some of us took notes; all of us took photos.
My fellow passengers came from America, Britain, Canada and Australia. ‘We all have two things in common,’ drawled the lady from Florida, ‘the English language and grey hair.’
Yes, most of us were the wrong side of sixty, appreciating the comfortable cabins and stylish dining, but what had attracted us to this particular cruise was the intensive hit of French culture and history.
The deckchair/cocktail option was available to those who needed some down time, but when the appetising dishes keep coming, it’s hard to say you’re full. There were sometimes hard choices to make from the smorgasbord of travel experiences on offer. Should we opt for Omaha Beach or the Bayeux tapestry? Would we prefer the grandeur of the Palace of Versailles to the village charm of Conflans?
At each town we docked at – Paris, Vernon, Rouen and Conflans – we were met by local guides who knew their stuff, and knew how to tell it. Patricia’s lecture on Impressionism, straight after our visit to Monet’s garden, was a standout. So too was Anne-Marie’s clear and moving explanation of Hitler’s rise to power and her family’s situation during the occupation of France, delivered as a bus carried us toward the Normandy beaches.
And there’s no substitute for learning history in the place where it happened. In Rouen we stood in the square where the unfortunate Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and found Richard the Lionheart and his Viking ancestor Rollo lying in the cathedral. ‘Normandy’- ‘Land of the Norsemen’; the connection had never occurred to me before.
At the American memorial near Omaha Beach we held a short ceremony; then we each laid a rose on a young man’s grave.
For some of our number, this was a pilgrimage to the place where family members had fallen in 1944. For me, the D-Day events which I knew principally from action movies became real, a tragic sacrifice of lives, not just of soldiers, but of people with names, families and descendants. There was little chatter as the bus brought us back to the boat.
Sailing on the Viking Spirit was relatively relaxed and intimate, according to the experienced cruisers among my shipmates. 144 passengers seemed rather a lot of people to get intimate with, but in the course of a week I struck up friendships, at least temporary and some I hope will be longer lasting. Four ladies who met on a Viking cruise in 2006 have travelled together every year since. You get to know people better on a small river boat than on an ocean liner, they told me.
There’s no getting round the fact that this is group travel, which can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time. While some of us had been to France before, others were on their first and possibly last tour to Europe, so naturally we had to ‘do’ the highlights.
‘Don’t be rude, but be French,’ our guide advised as we elbowed our way through the Louvre crowds to glimpse Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. There was little time to explore the less popular rooms hung with less famous, though hardly less fabulous, works. To do that, we’d have to go back at a later date.
While every day was full, when the boat was moving simply watching the countryside slip past the cabin window was entertainment enough. The Seine is relatively narrow, so we passed very close to villages and houses. Rouen is a mere 90 minutes from Paris by motorway, but the river takes the scenic route, meandering through the Normandy landscape, pausing at locks. The journey took us two days in each direction.
For those who wanted more than pretty scenery, there were further lectures on board, interspersed with Peter’s skilfully unobtrusive work at the piano, Stefano’s flamboyant accordion-playing, a concert from the Spirit of Paris operatic group, Annika’s morning Chinese stretches and a petanque competition on deck.
My new friend Gil from Winnepeg and I tried our hands at Patricia’s watercolour painting class, with modest success. Gil signed his masterpiece ‘C.Monet’, but few were fooled.
As evening fell on our last day, we glided back into Paris, pausing for a final photo op of the Eiffel Tower silhouetted behind the Statue of Liberty. No, I hadn’t suffered a brain overload; there is a replica of the lady with the lamp on the Ile Aux Cygnes.
Our thanks to our onboard staff were sincere. Led by French Captain David, German hotel manager Dirk and British program director Sharon they too had been excellent travel companions. They’d worked very hard, but their energy, humour and care for their guests and for each other had been most impressive. If they hadn’t been enjoying it, they’d faked it very well.
It was, all in all, a very full week. I met interesting people, saw new sights, learned new things about the world and had my preconceptions challenged. I’ve done a cruise.
Now I’m home, ready to lounge in a deckchair with a cocktail.
Viking River Cruises eight-day Paris and the Heart of Normandy trip operates from March to December and costs from $2745. See: vikingrivercruises.com.au or phone (toll free) 1800 829 138.
The writer was the guest of Viking River Cruises.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney