Water Sports Highs and lows on the Seine

This was the view from our breakfast table this morning—a bunch of Dutch students preparing for their first lesson in kayaking on the canal that flows in front of the house here in Haarlem. We recently completed our own debut into a water sport. We took a luxury river cruise down the Seine and back. Here’s how we rated the experience.

Food ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Imagine eating at a lavish wedding reception with fine French cuisine ten nights in a row. That’s how Geoff summed up the evening meals. Magnificent and over the top, especially as we had already eaten too much during the day. A simple sandwich began to have great appeal.

No, this isn’t the dining room on the boat but it gives you the idea of our evening meals. This was in the Benedictine Palace in Fècamp. Spot me if you can.

Excursions ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The small-group excursions to the French countryside were superb and gave us a sense of place from the depths of war to the heights of great art. As the commentary was piped through personal earphones, we could dawdle as much as we liked and as far as we liked from the inevitable flag of the guide.

On the first excursion, a hike to Richard the Lionheart’s Château Gaillard, we dawdled. By the time we went to Monet’s Garden, we were on electric bikes. I won’t tell you that just before this photo was taken I slipped over gently in some mud and Geoff then tumbled into me. No damage! A few days after seeing the garden, we queued to see Monet’s panoramic works in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

Service ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The staff, mainly from Eastern Europe, worked hard and cheerfully and we hardly did anything for ourselves. Geoff’s porridge was custom-made each morning and when he expressed a wish for hard cheese instead of the various French varieties, platefuls arrived at his table.

Staff even found time to turn our towels into artworks. And here we are trying to be French.

Weather ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The super-organised German cruise director began each of his talks with wishing us a ‘lovely and charming’ afternoon/morning/evening. We were indeed charmed by the weather, as we had been for the last two months. The autumn chill arrived, complete with colour, but we never got wet.

The moon on a clear night (upside down for the Aussies) and the arrival of autumn.

Companionship ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Our friends Howard and Joan, who had suggested the cruise, were with us and were great company. So when getting to know 130 or so others was a bit much to absorb, we had the cocoon of our friendship to relax in.

Us four found a five-star friendship in a crowd where interactions ranged from fleeting to engrossing.

Entertainment ⭐️⭐️

We failed miserably with much of the late-night entertainment, though we did go to the variety show put on by the long-suffering staff. (Think youth camp.) Usually we chose bed, complete with chocolates waiting on the pillows. Some of our fellow passengers (about 80 Aussies and the rest British, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans) looked decidedly worse for wear piling on to buses in the mornings.

As we don’t have photos of the on-board entertainment as we were rarely there, here are some photos of Rouen Cathedral instead. Those stairs lead to the library. Richard’s lionheart is reputed to be in the tomb there.

The boat ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The boat (sorry, ‘spaceship’) was new and gleaming. It glided along quietly and smoothly and had been built to negotiate the harbour at Honfleur. Having scored a couple of upgrades, we had a balcony. In my naivety, I had expected to spend hours sitting on it with binoculars watching the river scenery and birds drift by. We were far too busy for that though we did find occasional opportunities to set off on our own.

Honfleur, at the mouth of the Seine, avoided damage in World War 2 because it was not a strategic port like Le Havre. When the boat was moored at a quiet village, we opted out of the organised excursion and found our way to a local marshland where this robin posed for us.

The journey ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Geoff visited the captain on the bridge and learnt a little about the logistics of the journey. The river used to experience dramatic tidal surges but locks and barrages now control this. We enjoyed watching these engineering wonders raise and lower the boat on its way.

Geoff was intrigued to find a traditional carpenter’s level among this technology. The captain said it was the most reliable tool for levelling the boat.

The surprise ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Undoubtedly the unexpected highlight—a sobering one—for me was to ‘meet’ my grandmother’s brother. Early in the cruise, the boat moored at Rouen. I had recently discovered that this great-uncle, a casualty of World War 1, is buried in the cemetery there. A quick taxi ride and the four of us stood at the foot of his grave. Howard and Joan are a clergy couple and helped us to mark the moment in prayer. To my knowledge, it was the first time family had visited in the 98 years since he died.

The rose given to me as I boarded the boat found a higher purpose here.

A bit more online research and I worked out where my great-uncle was wounded. A few days later, Geoff and I joined the bus excursion to the World War 1 battlefields and found ourselves just a few kilometres from the very spot, Hangard Wood, just outside Villeurs-Bretonneux. This small village was liberated by Australian troops about a fortnight after my great-uncle fell with abdominal injuries and a perforated spine. Our guide explained how and where he would have been taken from a medical camp, down the road from where we stood, to various hospital posts before arriving in a Rouen hospital.

The Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux overlooks the Somme battlefields, now so peaceful. The Victoria School in the village, funded by the schoolchildren of Victoria, was closed the day we visited. A rare disappointment on our excursions.
A visit to the Normandy beaches reminded us that France suffered under two world wars. This is a remnant of the artificial harbour constructed and hauled to Arromanches soon after D-Day.

The score

So to sum up. The combination of living it up and walking in the footsteps of those who suffered so much in world wars meant that our time on the Seine evoked a complex mixture of emotions, highs and lows. We have never been so pampered and indulged as we were on the cruise. We expect it will be a once-off treat. The journey to the war fields brought home to us that holiday travel is far removed from the travel taken by millions to wage war or to flee from it. That will be lasting memory and impression that takes root.

This street art on a corner of Arromanches says it all.

After we got off the boat, we brought Howard and Joan to the Netherlands with its watery landscape to share a housesitting holiday. (More about that in our next epistle.) There we got news of the arrival of our new great-niece, Ruth Abigail Butterfield. The circle of life continues.

May you know and enjoy peace,

Chris and Geoff

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