Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.
Approaching my 65th birthday, I announced to my husband, “I’ve always wanted to take a river cruise.”
“Are you sure we’re cruise people?” he replied tentatively. To appease him, I searched for an excursion that wasn’t too demanding.
Luckily, I found CroisiEurope, a French company that offered an affordable program between Normandy and Paris. Just the ticket! Even if we weren’t “cruise people,” it was only four nights on the Seine, with visits to Honfleur, Deauville, Rouen, and Versailles, all places we’d never been. I eagerly booked a cruise for late summer 2020.
In early 2020, Covid-19 gripped the world and international travel imploded. As the global crisis lingered (and I turned 66), we twice postponed the trip. Would I ever cruise the Seine?
More than a year into the pandemic, our flight to Charles De Gaulle airport was virtually empty. “We love it,” the masked flight attendant said. Though France was enjoying a respite from pandemic lockdowns, tourists in Paris were rare; the Hôtel du Sentier’s owner divulged her dismay at running a business with so few guests. Still, the second arrondissement glowed in the golden light of late August.
Our train from Paris to the Normandy coast had barely any riders. Once in Le Havre, we ventured into MuMA. The waterfront museum showcased paintings by Eugène Boudin, mentor to the young Claude Monet. To our delight as dedicated art lovers, the life and work of the celebrated Impressionist would become a recurring motif of our adventure.
Aboard the MS Renoir, we were the only Americans among the French, Belgian, and Swiss passengers. Most appeared to be pushing 70 and solidly bourgeois. Océane, a young English-speaking tour manager, kindly looked after us. The elegant riverboat was about two-thirds full.
Well, this long-awaited cruise was a dream! Our shipshape cabin had a picture window overlooking the Seine, and we felt utterly pampered. Impressive gourmet meals (and gratis wine) were served daily; I treated myself to endless baguettes with butter. One evening featured live entertainment by a Normandy folk-dance troupe.
As the MS Renoir glided downriver, we lazed on the deck and regarded the lush scenery, passing limestone cliffs and tidy villages that looked familiar from paintings by Renoir, Pissarro, Van Gogh, and especially Monet, who created iconic Seine images from a special boat that he fitted out as a floating art studio.
The weather was dry and clear. We piled onto coaches for shore excursions. Flower-filled Honfleur was enchanting, and sun-drenched Deauville looked like a movie set. In Rouen, our group roamed the majestic cathedral, then gazed up at the façade that Monet painted more than 30 times. The crowning glory, however, was Versailles. Just as we entered the sumptuous gardens—as if on cue—the fountains danced to life. We then joined throngs of excited French teenagers packed inside the château. Because of Covid, “the French are discovering their own country,” our guide remarked.
All too soon the MS Renoir cruised into Paris, where we bid her a reluctant adieu. We transferred to a holiday apartment on the Île St-Louis, which offered a broad view of the Pont Louis Philippe and river traffic on the sparkling Seine. At a pharmacy on the island, we paid €50 for required Covid tests and received negative results in 15 minutes.
We continued our Monet studies at the Musée d’Orsay, admiring a series of Rouen Cathedral façades that we’d just seen in person. Our art tutorial then took a dramatic turn on a day-trip to his famous house and gardens in Giverny. Usually, our affable guide would have escorted eight customers in her tour van, but due to Covid we were alone.
Monet’s sun-dappled property was breathtaking. “It’s a work of art in itself,” my husband observed. After admiring beds brimming with sunflowers, clematis, geraniums, nasturtiums, marigolds, roses, and more, we strolled through the cavernous gift shop, located in the former studio where the artist spent decades creating his magnum opus Nymphéas, or water-lily series.
On our last day in Paris, we capped off our tribute to Monet at two distinctive museums. Among dozens of his works, the Musée Marmottan Monet houses Impression, Sunrise, the seminal 1872 painting that inspired the art movement’s name. Later, in the baking sun, we found the strength to trudge to the Musée de l’Orangerie, where we regarded his remarkable late water-lily panels in hushed silence.
Our heads swimming with watery reflections, we rested our achy legs. Despite the Covid setbacks, CroisiEurope (and Monsieur Monet) had given me a birthday gift worth waiting for.
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Kathleen Paton is a retired editor and copywriter based in New York City. For more than 30 years she has travelled throughout France—most recently to Paris and Antibes—and has invariably found the French to be polite, helpful, and welcoming.
Lead photo credit : The Seine at night from the Île St-Louis © Kathleen Paton
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