Discovering art & history along the Seine
Diary of a convert: how sailing from Paris to Normandy changed pre-conceptions of river cruising
Le Port de Honfleur, Rene de Saint-Delis, Musee de Bodin
'I’m going on a River Cruise’. Not an outlandish statement, to be sure, but one that I didn’t think I’d say, at least for another twenty years. But I’d been invited on one by AMA Waterways and I was intrigued. In my mind, they were something you resorted to when you were no longer mobile, taken by people who were more interested in eating and drinking than discovering what was on offer along the riverbank.
How wrong can a person be! After seven days cruising from Paris to Normandy, I am now a total convert. And here is a diary of how the transformation took place.
Day 1. Paris
Running late from my flight, I boarded the AmaLyria at 6.28pm, and the week's briefing was due to start in two minutes. Kind hands grabbed my luggage and whisked me to my cabin, before I was shown back to a packed lounge, all waiting to hear about the week ahead. I found the only spare seat left and was handed a glass of champagne. An excellent start to the evening. After the briefing and a tasty three course dinner spent with other new shipmates, we went on deck to watch the lights of Paris pass by.
Day 2. Paris to Vernon
The lake in Monet's garden with water lilies. All images copyright: F. Richards unless otherwise stated
Morning number one started well with a stretching class on deck with Selina, the on-board fitness specialist, at 8am. One of the reasons I had chosen this cruise was because of its wellness programme and activities, and every morning at 8am there were activities with Selina. So despite the late evening the night before, watching the lights of Paris pass by, I started as I meant to go on. And I’m so glad that I did, as exercising on deck, on a cloudless morning as the ship glided down the Seine has given me a wonderful memory to cherish. And there was more to come - after we docked in Vernon, Selina led a group on an ‘active walk’ to a nearby look-out point which gave fabulous views of the river and the surrounding countryside. All in all, a great first morning.
Our first excursion that afternoon was to Monet’s garden at Giverny, which had long been on my places-to-visit list, and so it was with great anticipation that I set off, although expectations were tempered a little by the fact that 200 others were coming too. But I need not have worried. This was my first experience of how slick the organisation is by AMA – we were allocated colours, and then each colour to a bus and guide. It had been at least twenty years since I had guided a group, and we had no high-fangled technology in those days – just a loud voice to make yourself heard. But nowadays it is all wireless technology which means you can hear your guide without staying close by. So it gives you a wonderful freedom to do the odd bit of straying from the group but still hearing their worthwhile commentary (I was impressed by the standards of the guides on all our visits). On other tours I am always missing bits of vital information because I keep wandering off.
Even though it was the height of summer, and the gardens had many visitors, they are big enough to absorb the numbers so you can still enjoy them. And there was nothing more delightful than emerging from an underpass into the garden, rounding a corner and there you are: the lake with water lilies in abundance and the Japanese bridge. Apparently Monet had seen photographs of water gardens in Java, and wanted to create his own – and according to his friend Cémenceau, he would spend hours here in contemplation: ‘Monet’s garden was one of his works, a realisation of the charms of adapting nature to the work of the painter of light’.
The house is not so easy at absorbing the large number of visitors – but it is important to see the interior as it gives a sense of the painter and his family. Monet moved to Giverny in 1883, and apparently it was love at first sight. The house had been a former pressoir and extended by a barn – Monet’s first studio - and the grazing land surrounding it had been walled around. In 1899 he converted the studio into a salon and hung his favourite paintings on the wall, saying ‘They matter to me, I like to have them around me. I have kept a painting from every stage of my life…’.
There is also a modern museum of Impressionism in the village of Giverny, which displays works by artists from around the world which is well worth a visit, as well as some cafés serving tasty Tarte Tatin. We were given a choice of times to return to the ship, which was really helpful - if you’d had enough you could return on an earlier bus, while the enthusiasts could stay as long as possible before return was necessary in order not to miss the next sailing. What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
Day 3. Vernon to Caudebec-en-Caux
Restaurant sign in Honfleur
Overnight we had sailed onto Caudebec-en-Caux, arriving at 7am, and this morning I joined Selina on the deck for her ‘introduction to yoga’ class, another stimulating start to the day. Our excursion today was to Honfleur, which was an unexpected delight. Lying on the mouth of the Seine, opposite the modern port of Le Havre, the old harbour town area is filled with little alleyways and pastel coloured houses. Honfleur was a fortified stronghold in the Middle Ages, and then a base for expeditions to the Americas (making it one of the five principal ports for the slave trade in France), and it benefited from the boom in maritime trade for over 300 years, until the end of the 18th century.
Being so picturesque, the harbour was a magnet for many Impressionist painters and it was also home to one of their own, Eugène Boudin. While it is easy to be seduced by the numerous charming cafés and shops in the Vieux Bassin (old port) and along the Quai Sainte-Catherine (with the very narrow and tall slate-covered houses from the 17th and 18th centuries – built like that because land was very expensive and only originally distributed in small plots), if you venture away you will be rewarded with the oldest wooden church in France, Sainte Catherine, with its free-standing clock tower, and also the wonderful Musee Eugène Boudin. The latter is tucked away up the hill on the Rue de l'Homme de Bois, and is dedicated to Boudin, who was a life-long friend of Monet. Monet and Boudin, along with Gustave Courbet and Johan Jongkind, formed the École de Honfleur (Honfleur School), that was part of the Impressionist movement, and you can find examples of their work in the museum.
This was the only day that I wished we could have spent more time on an excursion. There is so much to see and enjoy in Honfleur (including an ethnographic museum and another dedicated to Éric Satie, a composer and pianist who was born here, and many delightful shops), that you could spend a whole day gainfully employed.
I must just mention an unusual sight on the way to Honfleur. As we drove through the countryside, we saw many traditional Normandy houses, which are similar to English ones with timber frames and thatched roofs. But here they grow plants, mainly Iris, in the top of their roofs to keep the rats away from the thatch - a very picturesque sight!
There is entertainment on board every evening, and you can literally dance your night away. But first this evening we were entertained by a singer who told the story of Edith Piaf through her songs. She really was excellent and what a luxury to have such first-class entertainment in your living room!
Day 4: Caudebec-en-Caux
Interior of the Seine Museum at Caudebec
We stayed overnight in Caudebec and I awoke to hear the rain lashing the windows of my cabin. I snuggled down further in my very comfortable bed and listened to the announcements as everyone left for the day's excursions to the Normandy beaches or for a visit to a Calvados distillery at the Chateau du Breuil. As they were both long excursions I had decided not to go and to have a day to myself and relax instead. As it continued raining all morning, I didn’t feel too bad about staying in bed and watching a film.
At lunchtime I ventured out to find a handful of fellow passengers (just six of us) had stayed behind too, and as the sun suddenly came out and transformed the day, three of us teamed up and took a short taxi ride to Villequier where there is a Victor Hugo museum. The house which is now the museum belonged to friends of Hugo, the Vacqueries, and Hugo's daughter Leopoldine married their son, Charles Vacqueries. However, on 4 September 1843, they both drowned in the river nearby and Hugo only found out about it by reading an account in the newspaper. The museum is furnished as a bourgeois home from the second half of the 19th century, and has rooms dedicated to Auguste Vacqueire, who was a journalist and writer friend of Victor Hugo, Juliette Drouet, who was Hugo's mistress from 1833-1883, Leopodline Hugo and Charles Vacquerie and even Victor Hugo's funeral in 1885. It is one of those small quirky places that are always worth exploring, and my favourite discovery were little cards that Hugo used to give to his grandchildren at the end of each day, which he had drawn funny faces on, and that either said they'd been bad or good that day!
After spending time at the museum, we walked up to the church in the pretty village where Leopoldine and Charles are buried, along with Hugo's wife, Adele and another daughter (also Adele) are also buried. On our return I visited the Seine Museum which was right by where the ship was moored. It only opened in 2016 and I really enjoyed its displays on the history of the river – which included some archaeological finds and a full sized boat to explore.
Day 5: Caudebec-en-Caux to Rouen
Medieval clock and timber houses in Rouen
I was discovering the advantages of River Cruising – and it wasn’t just the wonderful meals and plentiful wine. On the fifth day I awoke to find that we had arrived in the historic town of Rouen, and were just five minutes from the heart of the city.
Rouen was the ancient capital of the Duchy of Normandy (chosen by Viking leader Rollo in 911) and was founded on a Roman settlement, Rotomagus. In the Middle Ages it was one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe due to its wool industry – hence the emblem of Rouen is a sheep. It was also France’s first river harbour port, and prosperity came with exporting grain to Africa (it is still one of the largest ports in France today, and can accommodate even the largest of ships). It is also the city where Joan of Arc was held prisoner and sentenced to be burned at the stake in May 1431. During the second world war about 45 percent of the city was destroyed, but over the last 60 years it has been lavishly restored. It has been the capital of the reunified Normandy since 2016.
As always, there were a number of ways of exploring Rouen on offer – by bike, a hike up the hill of St. Catherine to see a panorama of the city or by a guided walking tour. I opted for the latter and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of hours being shown this wonderful city.
Rouen is well known for its antiques and art, and its streets and cathedral were captured by many Impressionist painters, including Monet. He actually painted the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, built between the 12th-16th centuries, over 28 times. He used to paint the cathedral from inside a shop opposite – of ladies underwear – and was keen to capture it at different times of the day. One of the towers of the cathedral is known as the butter tower as it was apparently paid for by those who ate sweets and butter during Lent, and had to pay a ‘tax’ for doing so. There were four churches on this site, and remains of the first church, built by William the Conqueror, can be seen on the left hand side.
At the Place du Vieux-Marché, there is a church dedicated to Joan of Arc, as well as a memorial to her: a cross on the spot where she was burnt in 1431. The church was built in the 1970s, but the stained windows date to 1550 – they were saved from the chancel in the church of Saint Vincent which was destroyed in bombings in 1944. They had been taken to farms in the countryside to preserve them.
The church dedicated to Joan of Arch with the 16th century stained windows
The town has a beautifully restored medieval quarter complete with half-timbered houses. Take the time to find the Aître Saint-Maclou, one of Europe’s last surviving medieval charnel houses, hidden down a little alleyway. Originally a cemetery, when it became full in 1525 due to an outbreak of the plague, three galleries were built around it and the bodies dug up and put in the attics which were used as an ossuary. Note the decoration on the timber frames which is all about death, with skeletons, skulls, pickaxes, spades and crossbones.
After our tour I joined my new friends sitting in the sunshine at a local café, having a drink whilst enjoying watching the hustle and bustle of the city go by. Afterwards we split up, and some of us went off to explore Rouen’s Musée de Beaux Arts, which has some lovely paintings by Veronese, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Ribera, Rubens, Poussin and Ingres and its collection of Impressionists is the largest outside of Paris.
A chocolate and cheese tasting was organised in the afternoon and I can personally vouch for both the high standard of artisan chocolates (try the rum & raisin or coconut chocolates at l'Atelier du Chocolate) and the tasty Normandy Camembert cheeses. After an entire day spent away from the ship, it was back for a drink before dinner to swap stories about our day in Rouen. This evening was special as it was the Captain’s gala dinner followed by a really fantastic concert in the lounge with a very talented classical trio called La Strada (to see them in action CLICK HERE). And the day was not over yet! After the concert, at 10.30pm, we walked back to the cathedral for a brilliant sound and light show. Afterwards we all wandered back to the ship for a nightcap under the stars. Could a day be more perfect?
Day 6: Rouen to Les Andelys
Chateau Gaillard with the town of Les Andelys behind. (Image: Sylvain Verlaine, CC BY-SA 3.0)
I must admit to missing Selina’s class this morning, but our exercise came with a fabulous morning’s excursion to Chateau Gaillard, which rises majestically above the picturesque town of Les Andelys. I have mentioned earlier about the standard of the guides used by AMA, but our guide this morning was superb. She really brought the ruined castle back to life, and made me realise for the first time what it meant to be the Duke of Normandy (i.e. they owned half of France whereas the King of France, Philip II, had a much smaller territory when he started his reign).
The castle itself was constructed in just a year – 1197-1198, a feat accomplished by 6,000 workers and craftsmen. It was built by Richard I of England (otherwise known as Richard the Lionheart) the Duke of Normandy, to prevent King Philip of France from invading this area, but the castle was captured in 1204 by Philip, after a lengthy siege. During the Hundred Years’ war the castle changed hands back and forth between the English and French kings until it was captured by the French in 1449, and thereafter remained in French ownership. Henry IV ordered the castle to be demolished in 1599, as it was felt to be a threat to the security of the local population.
We set sail this afternoon to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and I had the most wonderful relaxing afternoon starting with a short nap after lunch and then followed by a couple of hours writing in my cabin. My balcony door was wide open, the breeze making the curtains flutter occasionally as the sun glistened on the water as we glided down the river.
This evening, I joined some of my new friends for a special evening at The Chef’s Table. In a small dining room at the back of the ship, and you can watch the sun sets as you enjoy the seven course tasting menu. This is open to all guests - all you have to do is book in advance, and I would urge you to book as early as possible. I found the food and wine on this whole cruise to be of a very high standard, and it was so hard to say ‘I’ll be good, I won’t have desert tonight or I will only have two courses tonight’ as it was all so delicious. There are also different wines on offer each evening with dinner, and they were also very difficult to resist.
Day 7: Les Andelys to Conflans-Sainte Honorine
The pretty village of Auvers-sur-Oise/ (Image: © Pack-shot/ Shutterstock)
This was our last opportunity to join Selina on the deck for our morning stretches and I would miss this start to the day. I would also going to miss life on board this ship, but we had one last excursion to enjoy. But it was difficult to choose which excursion to join. There was a visit to the 18th century Palace of Malmaison, owned by Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon or a trip to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent van Gogh had lived and died.
I was finding it hard to decide, but as I had spent a lot of time following the footprint of Van Gogh in the Netherlands recently, I felt that I should see where he had lived and worked for the last 70 days of his life, and where he was buried with his brother Theo.
Auvers-sur-Oise is a very pretty village and a main attraction here is the restored auberge where Vincent lived. You can also literally walk in his footsteps as there are circles on the footpath throughout the village to lead you to his painting spots. There are 22 in all, and there is a reproduction of his painting, next to most sites. He painted 80 works here in 70 days – in fact he created an astonishing 2,100 works in 10 years. Van Gogh came here because his doctor, Paul Gachet, lived here, and he could continue his treatment. Vincent painted two portraits of Gachet, one selling for £48 million in 1990.
The Auberge Ravoux has been restored, but there is no furniture in the tiny room where Van Gogh spent his last days. And it is tiny. The room was so small there was nowhere to store all the paintings Van Gogh was producing, so he used to send them to Theo to look after. Today these paintings are identifiable by the paint on the back of them, as they were stacked so close together before he sent them on to Amsterdam. I had a wonderful discussion with a fellow traveller that afternoon as we sailed back to Paris, debating whether Van Gogh did actually commit suicide in Auvers. To us, the story just didn't add up.
And so we returned to Paris. I can, without doubt, pronounce this week’s sailing down the Seine as one of the most enjoyable trips I have done. I know that I was a River cruise novice, but I also know exceptional service when it is on offer. The crew on board the ship were entirely outstanding. They are obviously seasoned hands at looking after large groups of people, but it appeared effortlessly and nothing was too much trouble.
But it wasn't just the service, catering or fitness opportunities that made it special. It was the fact that I had met such interesting and diverse people who had made the cruise so enjoyable, that I had seen and learnt much along the way, and been left with so many wonderful memories. There was the riot of colourful flowers in Monet’s gardens at Giverny, the delightful harbour town of Honfleur, the chocolate tasting in Rouen, sitting outside cafés enjoying the sunshine and drinks with my new friends, dancing the night away, yoga classes on deck in the early morning with the world sailing by, late night discussions sitting under the stars or ancient castles brought alive by fantastic guides. One of my favourite memories, however, is the afternoon that I spent writing in my cabin, my balcony door open, the sun glinting on the water and life on the riverbank sliding by. This is an experience I won't forget in a hurry.
Matilda travelled courtesy of AMAWaterways on the AmaLyra from Paris to Normandy
For more information on AMAWaterways, CLICK HERE
For more information about the Paris to Normandy cruise, CLICK HERE