Cruising the Seine, from Normandy to Paris

By Helen Harper
This article appears on page 20 of the January 2018 issue.
Our Grand Circle ship, the Bizet, docked in Paris.

In March 2016, my two traveling companions, Mary and Elaine, and I flew from San Francisco to Paris to embark on a Grand Circle Travel (GCT) river cruise from Normandy to Paris. This was my sixth trip with Grand Circle (Boston, MA; 800/221-2610, — the third river cruise — and all have been excellent and reasonably priced. 

I’ve discovered that people develop great loyalty to this travel company. For two travelers in our group this time, it was their 32nd and 52nd trips with them!

A pleasant beginning

Our first pleasant surprise of the tour was Roissy-en-France, where we spent our first night. Who knew that this small, charming village could be found just across the highway from the busy Charles de Gaulle Airport and was accessible by public bus? 

We roamed the town, admiring small shops; colorful flowers in pots, window boxes and parks; the cemetery, and Église Saint-Éloi (where I was treated to an organ practice performance to accompany the birdsong). Next time I travel through CDG, I’ll try to find a B&B in this delightful town. 

The first site visited on the tour, the Caen Memorial, was a highlight, though our half-day visit did not allow time to explore all of the excellent exhibits. Prints of WWI works by German painter and printmaker Otto Dix, French illustrator Georges Scott, English artist Christopher Nevinson and Belgian graphic artist Frans Masereel lined the wall at the beginning of the exhibits, the focus of which continued on through the Cold War. 

The videos of the D-Day landings were excellent. (Check the video schedule on arrival.) I, of course, knew about the beach landing on D-Day, but I had little knowledge of the onerous and devastatingly slow progress of the Allies across Normandy. 

People we met there thanked us, as Americans, for coming to save their country, even all these years later.

That afternoon we enjoyed a bus ride through the countryside while learning about Normandy from our informed and entertaining directors. The cows, which produce the milk for the area’s famous cheese, inspired our guide to share a new (to us) French phrase, “Oh la vache!” which is uttered in response to a surprise, favorable or otherwise, rather like “Holy cow!” 

Our bus trip ended in Honfleur, where we settled into our cabins on the Bizet, our home for the next 10 nights. 

Touring Honfleur

Still docked in Honfleur the following morning, we took a tour of the picturesque town. At the Église Ste. Catherine, a 15th-century wooden church constructed by shipbuilders to resemble an overturned ship, a woman gave us greens (not palms) in honor of Palm Sunday. 

Along the way, we shared a crisp-crusted, warm baguette, purchased for us by our tour director, and sampled apple wine, brandy and milk jam (dulce de leche). For those who had missed breakfast, the remainder of the tour was viewed through a Calvados haze.

In the afternoon, some of the passengers enjoyed the optional tour to Bayeux. Their raves inspired me to add it to my plans for future travel. 

I opted to remain in Honfleur, a town I had long wished to visit. Although the main museum was closed for remodeling, I spent $5 to visit the Maisons Satie (67, boulevard Charles V), enjoying the music of this French composer and pianist on my audio guide as I wandered through rooms with odd angles. 

Cutouts of furniture hung from the ceiling, and piles of clothes, newspapers and umbrellas illustrated Satie’s hoarding tendencies. A player piano, a peddled merry-go-round and a film of dancers in avant-garde costumes added to the bizarre atmosphere — all enjoyable in an odd way.

Wartime remembrances

View of half-timbered houses of Rouen.

On Monday, a somewhat blustery day, we toured the beaches at Normandy. Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, full of bomb craters, gun installations and concrete bunkers now overgrown with grass and overlooking the beautiful turquoise sea, with Cherbourg visible in the distance. 

At Omaha Beach, we admired the old brown memorial, representing a large ship’s bow, and despaired over the new, garish silvery one. At Arro­manches, we marveled at the remains of the concrete portable harbors that had been towed over from the Dover area during the war to fabricate a temporary port for the delivery of supplies — an impressively monumental feat.

The most moving stop of the day was at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a lovely, serene resting place for the fallen, who were so young. At a short ceremony of thanks honoring the dozen or so veterans in our tour group, we became teary-eyed as the trumpet played the national anthem and “Taps.”

Our British guide, William, who now lives in France, was fabulous. His ability to imitate Churchill and Monty (senior British Army officer Bernard Montgomery) while reading their radio broadcasts provided a delightful addition to his presentation, as did his British humor. GCT seems to specialize in excellent guides.

Our tour director, Anne-Claire, often thanked us for continuing to travel and for visiting her country, considering the effect that recent terrorism attacks have had on tourism. Our ship, which could accommodate 120 passengers, had just under 100 occupants. (While we were touring France, there was another terrorist attack, this one a coordinated attack in Belgium on March 22nd at both the Brussels airport and metro station.) 

Quintessentially French

The ability to walk through the towns in which we dock is one of the great joys of taking a river cruise. In Caudebec-au-Caux, I spent the day exploring. The Flamboyant Gothic church there contained stunning stained-glass windows. 

We all loved Rouen, which we visited the following day. The Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame is impressively high, long and light. I especially enjoyed the old statues of saints that once adorned the facade, now inside the cathedral, allowing visitors to commune with them nose to nose. 

Seven hundred half-timbered houses from the 15th to 18th centuries grace the city streets. De rigueur, we paid homage to St. Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. 

Exploring in the afternoon, I visited the cloister of Aître St. Maclou and found the pockmarked back of the Palais de Justice, a reminder of WWII reminiscent of the walls of the V&A museum in London. 

I nearly got lost the next day enjoying the half-timbered houses and the soaring Flamboyant Gothic naves and stained glass in the churches of Les Andelys. I knew I could wander downhill to the river, but when I did, I found myself in the next valley. A bit of backtracking took me to the ship.

Special surprises

We were not scheduled to visit Giverny because it usually isn’t open until April 1st. Luckily for us, it opened early that year, and we were the first visitors of the season on Good Friday, March 25th. The gardens were colorful and delightful, although they are undoubtedly more impressive at the height of the season. 

The famous bridge over the lily pond was a prime spot for photos; the colorful chickens near the house made for another. 

Inside Monet’s home, the walls were covered with copies of his favorite paintings. It was interesting to see what had inspired him. The Japanese prints were my favorites. 

Our home-hosted event (something offered on all GCT trips) was in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse to which our host, Carol, and her family had moved from Paris seven months before. It was her first GCT party, and she was a bit nervous as she presented us with her delicious tarte tatin and hard cider, but we all were charmed by her, her home, her garden and her cooking. 

That evening, Mrs. Francine Nelson provided the after-dinner presentation, telling us about her life in Paris during WWII, her marriage to an American serviceman after liberation and her subsequent life in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

After her husband died at the young age of 41, she returned to reside in France. Speaking her mind and enjoying life at 90, she inspired us all.

More memorable sights

Our home-visit hostess, Carol, in front of her 200-year-old house in Vernon.

From Conflans, at the convergence of the Seine and Oise rivers, we departed for Auvers-sur-Oise, famous as van Gogh’s final home, where he produced more than 70 paintings during his 10 weeks there. Reproductions of his famous artworks were posted at the sites that inspired them.

It was necessary to leave Conflans early to arrive in Paris by midnight because the locks would not be in operation on the next day, which was Easter. 

The morning tour of Paris was a rare disappointment, focusing on the Square du Temple, the site of a former Templar fortress that is now a pretty park, when there was such a choice of sights. 

The candles and signs still in place in the Place de la République from the January and November 2015 terrorist attacks remained moving.

The three of us spent the afternoon in the Musée d’Orsay. Anne-Claire had kindly purchased tickets for us in advance ($15 each), which allowed us to join the shorter line at the entrance. 

This museum has long been a favorite of mine, but viewing the Impressionists’ paintings of the places we had earlier visited made it a special treat. I did not remember the marvelous Art Nouveau section from previous visits, though I might have just missed it (and I would have missed it this time if a couple had not pointed me toward it). 

Our only problem on this visit was that we could not rest in either of the on-site cafés. One was closed due to “technical difficulties” and the other was overflowing with people. When our backs and knees finally protested after so much standing, we splurged on a taxi back to the ship.

That evening we enjoyed the Captain’s Farewell Dinner — not that every night had not been filled with delicious food and plentiful drinks. This one, however, was a bit more festive, as our trip was winding down. 

For our final night, the captain sailed us up to the Eiffel Tower and “Statue of Liberty” lit for the evening — a brilliant farewell to our fabulous French adventure.

After a happily uneventful flight home, we returned to our friends, animals and gardens (in full spring bloom), a bit heavier, thanks to the delicious and plentiful food, and filled with memories of another wonderful river cruise with GCT. It is always a pleasure to travel and always a pleasure to return home.

The details

I paid about $4,000 for this trip, $2,000 of which was the cost of the cruise. We had opted to stay in less-expensive, lower cabins (which are always fine), reserved early to obtain the 10% discount and had some credits from previous trips. We also chose to travel early, when the weather was cool (or cold). The low temperatures were from 36° to 47°F and the highs, 42° to 58°F. 

The American Cemetery in Colleville.

The round-trip United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Paris cost $1,350, and tips for the tour director and crew added $200. Basic travel insurance for two through Travel Guard cost $300, and incidentals such as museum fees, taxis and other tips brought the total to $4,000.

As if the scenery floating by would not be enough, there were daytime cooking demonstrations, cheese tastings, art classes, language classes and more. Evening entertainment included music, dancing and visiting speakers. The small library stocked some books, and movies were shown each day on the cabin TVs. 

There were some optional tours on this trip that I skipped because I preferred to investigate the towns along the river on my own. 

The meals were, of course, a special form of entertainment. The only problem with the food was that it was too tempting. A varied breakfast buffet offered hot and cold and sweet and savory delights, even omelets made to order. 

The lunch menu included soup, a choice of two entrées, a buffet of salad makings, sandwiches, a pasta bar and desserts, which, to my delight, often included ice cream. 

At dinner, they served an appetizer, soup, salad, a choice of three entrées (meat, fish and vegetarian) and dessert. The post-dessert cheese tastings were a popular event at our table. We shamelessly made a beeline for the selection when it appeared, even though we were not the slightest bit hungry. Wine, beer and nonalcoholic drinks were included at lunch and dinner.

We have thoroughly enjoyed all of our GCT trips and made new friends on each one, hoping to travel with them again. I highly recommend GCT as a company and the cruises as a relaxing mode of travel.