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River Cruising in France

| April 26, 2007

Uniworld's River Baroness overcomes scheduling difficulties for a memorable Paris-to-Normandy cruise on the Seine.

I often tell people a European river cruise is the third cruise one should take in Europe, after the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. But my recent cruise on Uniworld's River Baroness down the Seine, roundtrip from Paris to Normandy, made me realize that a river cruise is not just for cruisers: It's a great way for anyone to see Europe -- even (or especially) people who tend to get seasick and would never take a cruise on the open sea.

The biggest difference between river cruises and sea voyages is that you are on a boat, not a ship. They also tend to feature more local cuisine; they involve a lot more sightseeing, since you are always in view of land and constantly changing scenery; and most shore excursions are included in the price. Meals and most transportation, often including airfare, are also included.

For related articles on the advantages of river cruising, go to: European River Cruising

Photo Gallery - see all the pictures related to this article here.

The River Baroness Our cruise in France was my first with Uniworld Grand River Voyages, though I have taken several European river trips on other lines. Most European river offerings (other companies include Viking River, Deilmann Cruises and Avalon Waterways) are similar in concept; the differences are in the small details that vary not only line by line, but boat by boat.

This boat is slated to sail up the Seine River, northerly, toward the beaches of Normandy, and back to Paris. The brochure indicates it starts in Paris with a full morning of sightseeing, with Versailles or the Louvre available as a separate tour in the afternoon. It then says the boat travels north, with stops, all the way to Le Havre, which is actually on the Norman coast beyond the Seine estuary. Excursions involve impressionist painters, D-Day beaches, Rouen, capital of Normandy and historic city and coastal towns Honfleur and Le Havre.

The River Baroness is a smaller riverboat, with a passenger capacity of 140. There are two inside decks, with passenger cabins and public rooms on both. The entire front of the vessel is public rooms -- a comfortable open lounge with bar on the top deck, as well as a small library with 24-hour coffee and espresso available from a machine, and the reception area. The lower deck has the dining room, gift shop, workout room, laundry (not self-service) and a massage room (by appointment). The top deck is for daytime viewing only. Part is glass-enclosed; the rest is open-air.

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River Baroness   Reception Area   Coffee Nook
   
The Bridge   Glassed in top deck   Open air area top deck

Getting the few negatives out of the way; Staterooms come in three categories, but there seems to be little difference among them. None of the stateroom windows are made to open for fresh air. And according to other passengers who knew, the layouts of upper and lower cabins were virtually identical, so upgrading for $400 doesn't seem to offer much benefit. The bathrooms are so small even the most intimate of couples cannot occupy one at the same time unless one person is in the shower. Another drawback was very limited drawer space, though there are ample shelves, so much of what you unpack will be in open view.

For Internet users, there's another drawback: The vessel has just one computer with Internet access (for about 75 cents a minute), and no wireless or other access for your laptop. For working professionals who need anything other than web-based email, this means your Internet access will be confined to the few spare minutes you have to find an Internet cafe in port.

Small disappointments aside, we found one of the friendliest and most professional staffs we ever encountered. The small passenger load makes for very personalized service. By the end of the cruise almost everyone onboard, passengers and staff alike, were known by their first names, and conversation came easily with almost anyone.

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Food & Bev. Manager   Pascale - Cruise Manager   Spiral Staircase
   
Bartender   Captain, Pascale, Lou Ann, Hotel Manager Sebastien   View into the Dining Room

Another highlight was the excellent cuisine. Dinner comes with a different fixed menu each night; the only choices are among meat, fish or vegetarian entrees, plus a few selections of cheeses served buffet-style, and a choice of desserts. The chef embodies perfection, but the coup de grace was the boat's saucier, whose delicately spiced toppings put the perfect note on almost every dish.

Paris to Normandy and Back This itinerary had many highlights not only for Paris and World War II buffs like myself, but also for art aficionados, since much of it was dedicated to the lives of impressionist painters, notably Monet and Van Gogh.

One tour to the town of Auvers sur Oise covered the last 70 days in Van Gogh's life, during which he did some 78 paintings. Little has changed in this small town in the last 130 years. And even for someone (like myself) who cannot draw a stick man, it is fascinating to stand in the spot where Van Gogh stood to paint some works you have known your entire life, and to compare what he painted with what he saw. As the tour guide noted, Van Gogh died penniless, having only sold one painting professionally in his entire life. There was but one small gift shop here selling his prints, and it was empty but for us.

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Hotel with Van Gogh Representation   Welcome to Auvers sur Oise   Tombs of Vincent et Theo
 
Guide explaining Van Gogh Painting   Actual scene he painted

In stark contrast was a visit to the home of Claude Monet, who did achieve fame in his lifetime, and wealth that is still on display at his home, now a museum dedicated to his work. The home includes a flower garden where he found subjects for some of his most famous paintings, including "Lilies." Not only was his home a stark contrast to Van Gogh's rented room, but the gift shop swarmed with people buying up anything remotely connected to the artist, even kitchen utensils in the same color as his.

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Japanese Garden of Monet   Actual Flower in Garden
 
Kitchen of Monet   Monet Gift shop Mob Scene

The third day included a tour of Rouen, a northern French city famous for half-timbered buildings, a towering cathedral also called Notre Dame, an astronomical clock called the Gros Horloge, and the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Rouen is compact, amazingly well preserved and interesting for its architecture and quaint, authentic French ambience.

The Notre Dame cathedral contains a tomb for the heart of Richard the Lionheart, and an added spire made it the world's tallest building from 1876 to 1880. But the modern (1970s) church dedicated to the memory of Joan of Arc is breathtaking. It has walls of stained glass murals and a ceiling built to resemble the hull of wooden ship. Outside is a simple flower garden over the spot of the actual burning at the stake.

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Rouen Notre Dame   Docked in Rouen   Astronomic Clock
   
Joan of Arc Church   Statue of Joan of Arc   Her final resting place

The fourth day was spent in the seaside town of Honfleur, changed little since the 13th century. It is a picturesque city with old buildings, a beautiful waterfront, plenty of tourist shopping and precious little time to do it. The tour wrapped up at 11:15 a.m. and the shops start to close at noon. Then we took our 15 euro lunch bonus and headed to a typical bistro for a slow lunch. Forget the reputations of Parisians for hard-heartedness: A couple from Paris sitting next to us with their American sister were so friendly they even shared their lunch of locally-caught mussels with us. I don't normally like mussels, but simmered in a pot of Normandie cream and butter they are ambrosial.

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Honfleur Waterfront   Local Cheese   Friendly French Souls

The D-Day beaches of Normandy were an unexpected highlight. I knew it would be interesting, but I had no idea how much history has been preserved, and how effectively the new attractions would explain what had happened there. It begins with the D-Day museum near the beaches stormed by the English and Canadians. One sees films, slide-shows, life-size dioramas and scaled-down displays of the temporary docks and how they were deployed for the invasion.

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Omaha Beach German Bunkers   American Cemetary   French Schoolchildren explore German bunkers

Next we drove to the "American Cemetery" with its resplendent statuary, tombs and rows of crosses and stars for each soldier buried there. Finally, we ended up at Omaha Beach, where a small force of U.S. rangers scaled a sheer cliff held by Germans in massive concrete bunkers that still exist, with 150-mm guns at the time. The bunkers, barbed wire and barracks dot a sea of bomb craters resulting from the air strikes launched to keep the Germans at bay while the Rangers advanced. One can only get a sense of what happened that night by being there, as it is hard to conceive the scale of the setting by looking at pictures.

An unscheduled stop on the way up-river was at Chateau Gaillard, the remains of a castle built for Richard the Lionhearted, the legendary crusader and King of England. It was the strongest castle of its age, guarding the Seine valley approach to Normandy. It is now little more than a few massive walls crowning a steep limestone cliff, but in the early morning light with fog steaming off the river below, it was a highlight of our trip. There was one building still intact that would open later in the day for tours, but its main entrance was closed by a massive iron gate.

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Docked for Chateau Gaillard   Castle of Richard the Lionheart
 
Inside castle walls back to front   entrance to main building

Naturally, Paris is also a highlight. Unfortunately, with our Easter-induced itinerary change we had to make a day-tour choice between Versailles and the Louvre. This should not be a problem for future cruises. However, even on a regular schedule you are limited to a half-day at Versailles, a half-day at the Louvre, and a half-day of seeing the rest of Paris. Anyone could easily spend two or more days seeing any of these attractions, so I suggest arriving in Paris a few days early and getting a hotel.

Photo Gallery - see all the pictures related to this article here.

Issues with this Itinerary We were on the boat's second voyage on this itinerary, and there is something to be said for traveling well-established routes with plenty of information available. We were told the first night the itinerary as advertised was not the one we would take, for a few reasons. The first was that the French ministry in charge of locks was giving the lock managers a day off for Easter. This meant we had to move our itinerary a day forward to make sure our boat could traverse the locks on our return to Paris.

The other reasons are still affecting this boat and will continue to do so. First, riverboats of this size will no longer be allowed to sail on the Seine in Paris at night. While this nighttime sightseeing features prominently in the brochure, it will henceforth be on a different boat chartered for Uniworld passengers. This decision seems sensible, as the river gets unbelievably crowded at night. On our cruise, Uniworld paid for each passenger to take one of the popular Seine sightseeing boats, which depart every half hour daily until about 10:30 p.m. from the Eiffel Tower.

A larger, yet-to-be-resolved conflict is a ruling by the French government that the River Baroness is not structurally qualified to sail on the Seine past the inland city of Rouen to Le Havre, which is more on the English Channel than the river. The government is apparently concerned about the boat's ability to deal with the fluctuating tides of the English Channel, which affect the river's flow all the way to Rouen. Uniworld had this boat previously certified by the Dutch for this type of sailing, but the French decided they need their own findings. This is still in the process of being settled.

As a result, our boat was limited in travel (and will be until it is re-certified) as follows: docking one night in Vernon, then docking the next night in Rouen where it remains for three days. Sailing to Le Havre and back, as the brochure states, is not being done. The tours scheduled for those three days were conducted by bus. This meant as much as five hours on the bus for two of those days.

Still, I have to give Uniworld credit for striving to keep passengers happy despite the unexpected challenges. Not only did we see everything as promised, but they made up for the shortcomings out of their own pocket, including:

  • Giving each passenger 15 euros to buy lunch in Honfleur, since it could not be provided on the boat.
  • Paying the fare for each passenger on the River Seine "Paris by Night" cruise.
  • Issuing each passenger a $500 voucher good on a future cruise.
In the end, no one complained about the changes and we even saw a few people planning their future use of that $500 credit. Many passengers on our cruise had been on Uniworld before and said they would take them again.

What's Included Uniworld's prices for this cruise usually include airfare to France, an outside stateroom with window, all meals, seven shore excursions, and transfers between the airport and boat (see our cruise line review for more details). The brochure (ParisNormandy.pdf) somewhat mysteriously depicts this as a nine-day vacation. It is a seven-day cruise where you arrive and depart on a Sunday. We arrived on Sunday morning (which they call "Day 2") after flying all night. I was able to walk around Paris for a few hours, but my wife was compelled to go straight to bed.

I admit that with the confusing brochure (somewhat common to riverboat companies) and all the changes in our itinerary, I was unsure how to plan anything personal during this vacation. Our Monday schedule was moved to the following Saturday, and everything else was moved up a day except Versailles, which was squeezed into Paris sightseeing on Saturday because it's closed on Monday - got that? In truth, the scheduling of meals, excursions, talks and transportation on this cruise (also common to riverboat companies) is jam-packed, and you have little free time for anything else, including shopping. Most passengers just went along with what they were told, and seemed happy to do so.

Bottom line: Some pre-cruise planning to arrive a few days early for extra sightseeing, and to avoid any airline mix-ups at this busy time of year, is probably a good idea. This cruise has stark contrasts with something for everyone, from the D-day beaches to the flower garden of Monet, but one could say there is precious little in between, including personal time.

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