Leaving central Paris and heading along France’s main river artery, we make our first stop at La Roche-Guyon, a village of 473 on a sleepy section of the Seine halfway between Paris and Rouen. .
Here, in the middle of colorful houses with shutters and half-timbering, the medieval tower of the castle dominates a bend in the river. Clinging to the chalk face below is a more elegant 18th century chateau; its opulent rooms have painted wooden ceilings and parquet floors copied from Versailles. Three nearby chapels are built into the rock.
After climbing the steep staircase carved into the cliff that connects the castle and the tower, we can appreciate the strategic importance of this place, with its commanding view of the geometrically shaped gardens and the Seine and beyond. It’s no surprise to learn that German Field Marshal Rommel had his headquarters here to protect the Atlantic Wall (a network of coastal defences) during World War II, ordering his troops to build bunkers in the cliffs and add a thick concrete barrier for more protection.
Somewhat oddly, he used to hold meetings in a room adorned with huge tapestries depicting the story of Esther, the biblical Jewish heroine who risked her life to save her fellow Jews from a pogrom in the fourth century before our era. “Imagine the irony of that,” says our guide Ariane, showing us a photograph of Rommel standing in front of the woven artwork.
Impressionists came to La Roche-Guyon in droves, and the area was painted by Pissarro, Renoir and Cézanne. But it was Claude Monet who really put this corner of France on the map when he settled near Giverny in 1883. He lived there for 43 years, immortalizing the water lilies in his garden on canvas. Upon learning that Monet was in residence there, other artists took the train from Paris to Giverny to spend their weekends at the Ancien Hôtel Baudy.
The railway line they took is now a cycle path, and it is by this route that we ride from the quay of the ships in Vernon to Giverny. We pass in front of the Hotel des Artistes, unfortunately closed during our pre-season visit, just like Monet’s house and gardens.
You can still appreciate his remarkable works at the Museums of Impressionism and visit his tomb, adorned with hyacinths, at the Sainte-Radegonde church in Giverny.
A nearby tomb belongs to Gerald Van der Kemp, the man responsible for restoring Monet’s home and Versailles as well.
The bike ride wasn’t exactly strenuous, but we felt justified in savoring macaroons and local cider on the half-timbered remains of Vernon’s medieval bridge.
These provide an amuse-bouche before the culinary delights that await us aboard Viking Radgrid. Delicious local specialties are offered throughout the cruise, from goat soufflé to Châteaubriand and crème brûlée. As for the bread (from the ship’s ovens), it seems that it could only have been baked by a bakery en route: the bakers and pastry chefs were well chosen.
Three-course meals with complimentary drinks ensure no one will go hungry. These are followed by cognac and cheese tastings in the evening, while a good night’s treat – a selection of tantalizing local specialties – awaits guests in their Scandi-style cabins.
Each day I resolve to forego breakfast to make up for the indulgences of the previous day, but each morning I find myself sitting down to try the egg of the day on the Aquavit sundeck at the rounded bow of the boat. This sunny area (with indoor and outdoor seating) is also a great place to spend time between meals chatting with fellow passengers as we gently cruise along the river.
Sitting on rocking chairs on the terrace, watching the ocean liners pass by and admiring the houses at the water’s edge, life does indeed slip into the slow lane. Then, before realizing it, it’s time for a new incursion on land, where it is sometimes difficult to choose between the various excursions offered.
On occasion, the choice is literally excruciating.
In Le Pecq you will have the opportunity to explore Saint-Germain-en-Laye, with its ornate castle and the mausoleum of James II of England. This is where Louis XIV, the man of Versailles, was born.
But if you want to see Saint Germain, you miss the trip to Versailles itself, with its chance to see the lavish gilded interiors and exteriors and ceilings dripping with chandeliers in lavishly furnished apartments.
I opt for Versailles, and I’m not disappointed. In this palace of mirrors and marble, where even the ornate chests have legs in the shape of high-heeled shoes, the ceilings also display the greatest and the best – in the Hercules room we contemplate one of the greatest paintings oil of the world, the Apotheosis of Hercules, by François Lemoyne.
If that sounds ostentatious, it’s nothing compared to the Hall of Mirrors. “At that time, each mirror was worth the equivalent of three Mona Lisas,” our guide tells us. As she lets that sink in, she adds, “There are 357 mirrors.”
The visit to Versailles (or Saint Germain for that matter) would be a fitting finale to the trip. But this river cruise has great pleasure in store for you. Once at anchor in Paris and after enjoying our last dinner, we board a small tender to cross the heart of the city at night. Glasses of champagne in hand, we toast the skyline and a scaled-down version of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the Americans in 1889 to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
And there, just above us, is the Eiffel Tower. Now it is even higher in the sky, having gained a new antenna earlier this month which added a further six meters to its height of 124 metres.
As the tower shimmers under a calm night sky, the hope is that there are surely better days ahead.
The writer was a guest of Viking Cruises.
viking radgrid has 84 cabins, accommodating 168 guests. These include 22 standard cabins, 18 French balcony cabins, 35 veranda cabins, seven veranda suites and two Explorer suites.
Routes Radgrid, along with her sister ships, will sail the eight-day Paris & the heart of Normandy and the new eight-day Christmas on the Seine (both Paris-Rouen-Paris), as well as the 15-day Best of France Seine component (Paris to Avignon).
Rates Paris & the Heart of Normandy is offered from $3,495 per person in a standard stateroom, up to $7,695 per person for an Explorer Suite. Price includes savings of up to $1,000 per couple and $1,000 flight credit per couple if booked by May 31. Note that the final “Paris by night” cruise experience will feature on itineraries from 2023.