Viking River Cruise: Paris & the Heart of Normandy
We have taken ocean cruises previously, but we did not know what to expect from a Viking River Cruise. But we thought it might be fun to compare, and so we purchased the trip to Normandy, France for ourselves and my in-laws as a Christmas gift. Buying our tickets early we were able to pick up the two for one deal! So you can feel free to view this BLOG post as also a river cruise review!
You may want to start by reading the cruise description from Viking River Cruises, go here
Knowing that the Normandy weather could be volatile we packed expecting rain, cold, and alternating warmer/sunny days.
Everyone who has ever flown across the Atlantic, knows that jet lag is an issue that must be prepared for and expected. Taking an over the counter "sleep aide" on the flight over the Ocean can help you get some sleep on the plane. Taking a 2 hour nap (but no longer) once you have arrived, can also help. When we arrived our room was ready, which was unexpected as it was possible that they wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 pm. We were thrilled! We got our brief nap, showered, unpacked and started our hike down the Quai de Grenelle to the Eiffel Tower park.
The weather at that time, was a bit drizzly, but since we had all brought our rain jackets and Viking thoughtfully provided umbrellas (the bright red ones!).
You may have asked yourself "where were they walking to" in that image above? We were on our way to Rue Cler, one of the neatest pedestrian streets near the Eiffel Tower.
We had lunch at Le Petite Cler, a small sidewalk cafe, on the Rue Cler. They had their rain canopy out, such that we could have our lunch and stay dry! The food was good and people watching, even greater.
Rue Cler, in the 7th arrondissement is one of the best market streets in Paris. You will find a wonderful selection of specialty food stores, pastry shops, butchers, delicatessens, cheese specialists, fishmongers, greengrocers, chocolate shops and cafés. Most of the street is a pedestrian area and still has its original cobblestones. This authentic market street is where the locals go to buy their favorite foods or sit on one of the many café terraces with friends and family and watch the world go by.The above image is from WikiMedia and is the property of Besopha
The hike from Quai de Grenelle to Rue Cler allowed us to walk near the Eiffel Tower, which is always a beautiful sight!
The Eiffel Tower is only perhaps a half mile from where the Viking Spirit was moored, and our first glimpse of the tower, was through the trees in the park that surrounds the tower.
We didn't go up the Tower due to the long lines, but you can easily avoid the lines by purchasing your tickets online well in advance of your trip. We took some pictures of the Tour Eiffel and then continued on-wards to the Rue Cler area of Paris, in the seventh arrondissement. This is a very nice area, pedestrian (or scooter) only.
As expected, the Viking Spirit was waiting for us at it's mooring spot on the Quai de Grenelle. It might not be apparent, but the ship was facing eastward, and I now began to wonder how the ship's captain was going to be able to turn the ship around, and head off into the westward direction necessary for our trip destinations. This was because we were in a relatively narrower part of the Seine River, with a bridge support island immediately to our port side.
We noticed that the sun deck and just about everything else on this level of the ship, was "too high" for the bridges close by. As an example, the picture above shows the Pont Grenelle bridge, and you can see how low it is in relation to the Viking Spirit.
So I began to now wonder how they were going to get that large ship underneath those low bridges, with all of those things on the deck that are obviously "too high".
There is a very clever solution, ie; all of the sundeck apparatus (railings, tables, chairs, etc) is folded down, and the ship's wheelhouse (yes, that lowers down too!) is lowered via a set of "stilts" that allows it to be raised or lowered. Once everything is folded down or lowered, there is approximately 4 to 5 feet of additional clearance.
On the port side of the Viking Spirit and behind the boat is the L'île aux Cygnes hosting a small Statue of Liberty.Celeste and I hiked over there, to take a look. And we discovered that the statue was given to Paris by the American Community of Paris in 1889.
Looking down the River Seine to the west, it became clearer to me, that although many brochures talk about how many bridges across the Seine there are in Paris, until you are there and see how frequent they are, it doesn't really register with you. There are a total of 37 bridges across the Seine, many of which are extremely low.
Our first day ended with a great dinner onboard the Viking Spirit, accompanied by some excellent wine. We were tired enough (and had enough wine) to be able to sleep the night through.
The picture to the left displays what the ship's sundeck looks like with everything lowered, including the wheelhouse. Once the bridge or lock has been passed, everything is raised again.
Day Two in Paris
We are on the day trip bus for our day tour of Paris, should be exciting for my wife's parents, as this is their first trip to Paris.
I would imagine that most of the Viking Buffet tables look like the above! They serve breakfast in the dining room or you can get pastries and coffee by the lounge area. The dining room serves; omelettes made to order, ham, fruit, fresh croissants, etc. Frequently in the lounge, you could also find machine-dispensing coffee, tea, pastries, orange juice, croissants, etc.
The first full day began with an optional bus tour of Paris. The tour included a visit to Notre Dame, and a drive by of various Paris landmarks, including the Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Ile de la cite, the Louvre, etc. On the way back to the ship, the bus stopped in the Eiffel Tower parking area, for a "photo opportunity" and then proceeded back to the ship.
This might have been the "least useful" portion of the trip, as the bus tour was only 3 hours in length, it was during rush hour and there really wasn't sufficient narration/description of what people were being shown. We were able to go inside Notre Dame, but nowhere else, and as anyone who has been in Paris before knows, there are other landmarks that should have been visited, and perhaps a more thorough description given to those first-timers on the tour. However, Paris really wasn't the total focus of this River cruise, and perhaps we should have planned better and visited other Paris landmarks via Metro to get a better introduction to Paris and be able to walk around some of the less crowded neighborhoods. Ah well, hind sight is always 20/20 isn't it?
The ship's departure from Paris was scheduled for 7:30PM (yes, European later dining), right at dinner time, so after the bus tour returned to the ship, all of us hung out on either the sun deck, or the lounge, until departure time.
During dinner, I got my chance to see how the ship managed the low bridges, as well as how they were able to reverse the ship's direction to begin our westward journey; The sun deck rails, chairs, pilot house, cranes and all other topside equipment that could possibly bump into any of the low bridges, was lowered flush with the sun deck. The pilot house is lowered on elevator struts, so that it will clear and no passengers are allowed on the sun deck until the ship leaves the Paris area.
The ship was turned around, by backing up the River Seine until it was past the small island on the port side, and then the ship was spun about, so that it faced westward. Because the ship is equipped with "side thrusters" and "twin propellers", such a maneuver was easily done, and off we went in the westward direction. For those of you with single rudder boat operation experience, and who have never operated a twin rudder/twin propeller boat, you cannot imagine how simply a boat the length of the Viking Spirit can be spun around!
The first day of ship's travel plan, was for the ship to steam all night, and arrive in Vernon, France the next morning - where our visit to Giverny and Monet's garden would take place. As an ex-Navy man, and someone who has done a certain amount of open-Ocean cruising, I expected to be able to feel not only the ship's movement, but perhaps also some ship rolling, as it proceeded to Vernon. However, I felt nothing, as the ship is extremely stable, even the diesel engines are nothing but a distant muffled background sound that is hardly discernible.I must say that floating down the river Seine in the evening was thoroughly enjoyable.
Now begins a portion of the trip that neither Celeste or myself had prior knowledge of - the River Seine has six locks, all built for flood control purposes. These locks were started in the 1950's and extensive dredging on the river was performed in the 1960's. All of this effort was due to occasional flooding that Paris has endured since 1910, sometimes producing a severely flooded area along the Seine. Now for the interesting part - the level difference of the River Seine between Paris and Rouen, is 85 feet ! Now, we knew that tidal heights on the English Channel were dramatic, but we had not known that the River had such a height difference! Each lock we went through, would lower the ship some 12 to 20 feet.
The tidal variation in Rouen, where the ship is close to the English Channel (Le Havre is 90Km from Rouen for example), would be 19 to 22 feet! We would go to bed at night, and our cabin window would be level with the dock, but the next morning, our window would be 15 feet below the dock!
Day Three in Vernon, France
The Viking Spirit arrived in Vernon at 6AM, and we docked such that the shore excursion to Giverny, could begin at 8:45AM.
We had a delicious breakfast, and everyone proceeded to the tour bus. Viking does a great job of allocating passengers to each tour bus, so as you turn in your cabin key (so they know you are off the ship), they give you a receipt for the keys and also provide you with a "bus number" key, which identifies which tour bus you are assigned to.
The drive from Vernon to Giverny was brief (5.6Km) and once we arrived, there was a short stroll through the village of Giverny to Monet's Garden.
The picture above, shows one of the famous Monet's Garden bridges, and in fact, of the 1,189 Monet paintings, either this bridge or the "Japanese Bridge" in the garden, were painted quite a few times.
You can also discern how the water reflects the plants that surround the water, Monet was fascinated by this, and painted the garden in various light levels throughout the day.
After our tour of Monet's garden, we had time to stroll about Giverny, and visited Monet's grave, prior to re-boarding the bus back to the ship.
The house kitchen still contains the original components, including a wood burning stove! All of the furniture, including beds, chairs, etc, were either original or antiques donated to the organization that maintains the premises.
After lunch, we discovered that Viking had provided us with a number of interesting things to do, including; A walking tour of Vernon, a painting class, and a presentation of French painters, etc.
After another delicious dinner, there was a French cheeses presentation in the lounge, which allowed all of us to learn about regional variations of cheeses, and a tasting thereof.
Day Four on the river to Rouen
As you can see in the above image, this day's weather was fantastic, not a cloud in the sky, nice temperature, and the view from the ship, as it cruised along the River Seine, was stunning.
On the way to Rouen, we were passed by the Viking Neptune, on it's way back to Paris. Both ships blew their whistles at each other, as passengers waved.
Viking currently (in 2014) operates 3 ships on the River Seine, the Viking Spirit, Viking Neptune and the Viking Pride. These are "sister ships" as they were all launched in 2001 and have identical dimensions.
Due to the excellent weather, and the incredibly scenic ride on the river, this was a very pleasant day, and we spent the majority of it on the sun deck.
The Viking Spirit arrived in Rouen at 1PM, and since this represented the farthest west of the ship's travel, it proceeded west past our dock to a "turning basin", where it reversed course and then docked. This maneuver, leaves the ship pointed eastward, which is the direction we will be going when we depart for Paris.
Day Four in Rouen
One of the things that Rouen is perhaps most famous for, is being the city in which Joan of Arc was executed in. For those of you not familiar with Joan's demise, she was captured by a French unit loyal to the English Army, and sold to the English. The English brought Joan to trial as a heretic, as she claimed to speak to God and she wore pants (considered by the Catholic church to be heretical).
Although Joan initially confessed, and was sentenced to life imprisonment, she recanted her confession three days later, and the English then promptly had her burned at the stake. Did I neglect to mention that Normandy belonged to the English at this time in history?
The site shown in the picture above, is the actual site (the sign marks the spot) where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. In fact, the entire area is a memorial to Joan, who is now considered a saint.
It was odd to think that such a thing could have been done to a true French patriot, as well as a woman. But the English were eager to remove Joan from the war with the French, and the French King was convinced that he should not ransom Joan, so her doom was concluded at this very spot.
If you are interested in the Joan of Arc story, click here for the short version in Wiki.
Here we are walking up one of the many scenic streets in Rouen, you can also easily discern that this is a "pedestrian only" street, and it is equipped with a number of sidewalk cafes.
Rouen is a very walkable city, and on a nice day (like we had) we easily covered the entire downtown pedestrian area in a matter of hours.
Even though this Rouen cathedral had some exterior work being performed, you can still see how beautiful
Similar architecture to Notre Dame in Paris, and in fact, a similar interior layout as well.
This picture gives you a wee bit of an idea how large the Rouen Cathedral interior was, and how similar it is to Notre Dame de Paris.
This Rouen cathedral is substantially newer than Notre Dame, as it was opened in 1876. In comparison, Notre Dame de Paris construction was started in 1176 and it opened in 1345.
Dinner in Rouen
Celeste and I decided that for our last night in Rouen, that we had to go ashore and find ourselves a sidewalk restaurant that served mussels, french fries & beer.
We found Le Rocher on Yelp, and when the concierge on the Viking Spirit confirmed that she knew of it as well, we decided to hike over there and give it a try.
To say that it was good does not really do it justice, it was excellent, we had a great sidewalk table, it was a beautiful evening and we enjoyed having a romantic dinner together!
Day Five - Tour of the Invasion Beaches
After yet another delicious breakfast, we piled onto tour buses and departed for the invasion beaches at 8:00AM. First stop was to be "Gold Beach sector", the British invasion point, which lies between Le Hamel and Ver sur mer, France.
From an historical perspective, this was just an amazing tour, to see and stand and walk on the same beaches, that the invasion forces landed upon, it felt like we were walking inside a history book! Several interesting points were made that I was not aware of, ie;
- The overall invasion area was approximately 45 miles in width. The idea was that by hitting France in such a wide range of locations, the Germans would not be able to centrally attack the invasion forces. Obviously, this approach worked very well.
- German strong points (aka; pill boxes & larger artillery) were scattered out on the bluffs overlooking the beaches, and were comprised of long range cannon (155mm) and shorter range cannon (100mm) designed to hit either the beaches, or the invasion force ships. All of these "strong points" were also heavily defended by German troops with machine guns and anti-armor weapons.
- The temporary harbors constructed by the Allies (aka; mullberry units) consisted of two locations, one in the Gold Beach British sector, and the other at the Omaha Beach American sector. The Omaha Beach temporary harbor, was destroyed in a storm shortly after D-Day, and the caissons that were not destroyed, were towed to Gold Beach, and re-used to re-build that temporary harbor.
- Many of the mulberry caissons are still sitting in the water off Gold Beach, a credit to the people that built them, for lasting over 70 years now.
- There are 9,387 soldiers buried in Colleville-sur-mer cemetery. This is a beautiful site, overlooking Omaha Beach, and the people buried there are the true heroes of WWII. There are a total of 24 American cemeteries in France, and a quick Google search will show you how well they are maintained.
- Omaha Beach was approximately 7,500 yards in width, with sheer cliffs that arise shortly after the sandy beach. Where there were not "sheer cliffs", there were 100 foot tall bluffs that were covered in heavy vegetation.
- It is entirely possible, that if the German Army main focus had not been on Russia, that the invasion would have failed. The Russian Front was eating up German soldiers and armor, at an incredible pace, and Hitler would not release to the German Commanding General (Erwin Rommel) the armored units that Rommel needed to repulse the invasion.
- There was a point in time, where the American Invasion Commander, briefly considered telling Eisenhower that he was going to remove the American invasion force and retreat. This was caused by the enormous loss of American lives during those first few hours, but he eventually was convinced to put ashore the second wave of the invasion forces, and the rest is history.
This picture gives you an example of the tidal variations that occur at Gold Beach. I am standing on the sea wall with Ron and Elaine, and Celeste took this picture from the beach below.
This was morning low tide, and the water was approximately 200 yards out from the sea wall (Celeste hiked out to the water, just to be able to say she stood in the English Channel). The height of the sea wall is because not only does the tide rise considerably, but a storm will bring the water blasting against it !
This picture should give you an idea of how beautiful the grounds are at this Colleville-sur-mer cemetery., beautifully maintained in a stunning location. The cemetery is on top of the bluffs that front Omaha Beach, and from an overlook, one can see Gold Beach off in the distance to the north.
This picture shows you a small portion of the 9,387 grave sites in Colleville-sur-mer cemetery. Jewish graves have a star on them, all others have the standard cross. The name of the deceased and the date of their death, and birth location, is recorded on each cross.
Day Five - on the way to Les Andelys
The ship departed Rouen at 6:30AM, so we were able to have breakfast and watch the ship depart
Our destination today, was Les Andelys, where Richard I of England, feudal Duke of Normandy, better known as Richard the Lionheart, constructed Chateau Gaillard to block the French King and Army from coming up the River Seine to attack Normandy. Richard constructed ithigh on a hill overlooking Les Andelys.
Richard started construction of this castle in 1196, and it was completed in two years. This was remarkable construction speed, considering that the Castle sits high on a hill, and everything had to be hauled up to the site.
The Castle was attacked (and seized) by Phillip II in 1204, which meant that the Castle did not have much of a useful life for the English King. Small reward for King Richard, who thought that Normandy could remain an English possession, as long as Chateau Gaillard blocked the French from marching up the River Seine valley.
As you can see in this picture, the Castle is now in ruins, as it was destroyed a number of times by the French Army.
This picture also gives you a better idea of how steep the trail was to get up there !
This picture (taken from the ramparts of the Castle), gives you a better idea of the commanding view of the River Seine from the Castle. This picture was also taken, because it shows the Viking Spirit moored at Les Andelys.
This view is also utilized by various Viking brochures, so it might be familiar to any of you who have any of them.
After we hiked back down the Castle trail, we strolled about Les Andelys village, as it was a neat example of a French village.
Before I forget to mention, this is a picture of some very nice people (Bernie and Joanne) who we met onboard the ship.
In an extreme example of "weird coincidence", when I told Bernie that I used to hang out in Philadelphia when I was in the Navy, he asked me where, and when I told him the location, it turned out that Bernie grew up not two blocks away! In fact, he attended the same church that my good friend's family attended - just an amazing coincidence !
Day Six at Versailles, France
The ship arrived in Conflans at 11:30PM, so when we woke up, we were already moored. The tour today was the Palace at Versailles, which departed at 8AM.
Facts & some History:
- The site of the Palace was first occupied by a small village and church, surrounded by forests filled with abundant game. It was owned by the Gondi family and the priory of Saint Julian. King Henry IV went hunting there in 1589, and returned in 1604 and 1609, staying in the village inn. His son, the future Louis XIII, came on his own hunting trip there in 1607.
- After he became King in 1610, Louis XIII returned to the village, bought some land, and in 1623-24 built a modest two-story hunting lodge on the site of the current marble courtyard.
- The palace was largely completed by the death of Louis XIV in 1715.
- The eastern facing palace has a U-shaped layout, with the corps de logis and symmetrical advancing secondary wings terminating with the Dufour Pavilion on the south and the Gabriel Pavilion to the north, creating an expansive cour d'honneur known as the Royal Court (Cour Royale).
- Flanking the Royal Court are two enormous asymmetrical wings that result in a facade of 402 metres (1,319 ft) in length.
- Encompassing 67,000 square metres (721,182 sq ft) the palace has 700 rooms, more than 2,000 windows, 1,250 fireplaces and 67 staircases.
- Versailles covers 2,014 acres, including 230 acres of gardens.
- The palace is a Monument historique and UNESCO World Heritage site.
- In 2017 the Palace of Versailles received 7,700,000 visitors, making it the second-most visited monument in the Île-de-France region, just behind the Louvre and ahead of the Eiffel Tower.
The picture above, is of the rear right side of the residence building, looking at the start of the garden area.
We removed ourselves from the tour bus group, as they were moving very slowly through the residence building, and it was very crowded. And we then sauntered around the palace and the gardens. We don't recommend the little train that goes to the queen's playhouse (Trianon) as it's slow and very bumpy. If you are pressed for time it's a better idea to walk the gardens, as they are beautiful!
This picture was taken from the front area of the Palace, and the residence of the Royal Family was on the right and the staff lived in the building on the left.
The cobble stoned area was where arriving coaches were allowed to enter and wait for their passengers.
This view of the Palace from the rear really gives you a good idea of how large it is. This is the world's largest royal domain and it took 36,000 workers to construct the buildings and gardens - and - the Palace could accomodate up to 5,000 people at a time.
Back in Paris
The tour buses returned us to the Viking Spirit (a short 30 minute ride), and we headed back down the River Seine to Paris, arriving just before 7:00 pm. We then decided to head out on the town and took the metro to the Champs Elysees for a bit of walking and some dinner.
The Paris Metro System is gigantic, and it is far, far simpler to ride the Metro than it would be to drive anywhere! A taxi is also a good choice for those that don’t want to venture onto the metro.
Many, many famous high end clothing companies have locations on the boulevard. As we walked about, we kept noticing dozens of world famous companies.
For our last evening aboard the Viking Spirit, we told Ron and Elaine about the Eiffel Tower "light show" and told them that we had to remain awake until at least 11PM, when the light show would start.
The lights are cycled off and on (computer controlled), and the colors shift as the light show proceeds.
On our last morning aboard the Viking Spirit, everything was once again well organized, and Viking had grouped passengers into smaller groups that had adjacent airport departure times. We were scheduled for the 10:30AM airport bus, and promptly at that time, we jumped onto the bus and headed off to the airport.
Viking staff led us to where we could check in for our flights, and we then proceeded to our departure gate, and the return trip via Air France and Delta is perhaps another story altogether.
Pros and Cons of a River Cruise .vs. Ocean Cruises
Please click here to read our perspective on Viking River Cruises.
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This was our first Viking River Cruise, and we really enjoyed it. The food was fantastic, the wine they offered with dinner was consistently top-notch, and the breakfast omelets (made to order) were some of the best we've ever had. People always ask "what didn't you like about it" and there really was no negatives about this trip! The River Seine is wide, placid and pretty all the way from Paris to Rouen.