Experiencing Paris on a river cruise

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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River cruise tips Getting there: We booked our own nonstop American Airlines flight from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport using frequent-flier miles. The cruise line also offers flights, which are included in the cost of the cruise. Booking: Book cruises well in advance for huge discounts. The cruise-only price of our trip was about $2,200 each, about half the regular price. Early booking of airfare by the cruise line also is discounted. The discounted cost is about $1,500 each to Europe. Attire: Mostly casual. Slightly more formal clothes are recommended for the captain’s welcome dinner and the farewell dinner. Pack lightly. Inexpensive laundry service is offered. Tipping: As on ocean cruises, generous tips are recommended for the program director and the other ship employees. It’s voluntary. Food and drink: Wine and soft drinks are included with lunch and dinner. Drinks at other times are added to your bill. Gourmet meals are offered at lunch and dinner. There’s only one dinner seating, and you can pick where you want to sit. Passengers can order breakfast or serve themselves at a breakfast buffet. Coffee, tea, fruit and snacks are available in the lounge throughout the day. Wi-Fi: Free Wi-Fi is offered. Also, laptops may be checked out at the concierge desk without charge. Tours: Several tours were included in the price of the cruise, including a Paris tour; Monet home and garden; and Normandy beaches. If you want to take optional tours, plan to spend extra. The Louvre tour costs about $80. Cost of transportation and tickets to Versailles is about $100. Viking River Cruises 1-877-668-4546; www.vikingrivercruises.com/

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A romantic boat trip down the Seine is almost a given for anyone wanting to experience the magic of this City of Light.

My wife and I had it even better, cruising the storied river throughout most of our adventure in Paris and downriver to the D-Day beaches of Normandy.

There were many highlights: Docked in Paris, we watched the late-night twinkling of lights on the Eiffel Tower. We toured Claude Monet’s home and marveled at his water gardens, which inspired many of his impressionistic paintings. We climbed to the ruins of a hillside castle built for Richard the Lionheart. In the medieval city of Rouen, we visited a church marking the spot Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Most enjoyable of all was the ongoing tranquility of the cruise itself as we smoothly sailed along for seven days, gazing at ancient castles, white cliffs and French chateaux.

Prior to our cruise, we spent two extra days in a Paris hotel, and two more nights in the city aboard our Viking Pride river cruise ship before sailing toward Normandy. Since we had never been to Paris together, the river cruise combined with a short hotel stay offered a great way to see one of the world’s most fascinating places. Then it was on to other parts of France that were equally fascinating.

For this, our first river cruise, and we chose the Viking cruise line, one of the largest, with 20 different river cruises in Europe and sojourns in Russian and China. We were always in sight of land and docked near the center of ancient cities. It gave us freedom to explore on our own or join in several guided tours, included in the price of the cruise.

River cruises, particularly in Europe, have seen sharp increases in recent years, according to travel authorities. Christine Duffy, chief executive officer of the Cruise Line International Association, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that river cruises have had a yearly passenger increase of 10 percent in the past five years compared with 7 percent for the entire cruise industry.

Travel agents in Dallas-Fort Worth are getting more requests for river cruise options, said Doug Shupe, Irving-based senior public affairs specialist for AAA Texas.

“River cruising is a phenomenal way of seeing a country and appreciating the people, the history, the heritage and culture of the interior of the country as opposed to just the edges,” Shupe said. “Ocean cruises are still popular, but for those looking for something new, something different, the river cruises are an attractive option. ... European cruises on the Danube and Rhine are garnering the most interest, but itineraries sailing the rivers of France and Southeast Asia are gaining in popularity, as well.”

Adventures begin on land

While docked in Paris before sailing, Viking treated us to a Paris highlights bus tour, which included a guided tour of Notre Dame Cathedral; stops at the Eiffel Tower; and glimpses of historic landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe, with its tomb of France’s unknown soldier; Napoleon’s tomb, and the Place de Concorde, the site of the beheadings of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

We elected to take an optional guided tour of the Louvre, since it would mean avoiding long lines to enter the famous museum. It was worth it. Our guide, Sylvie, gave us details about the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory and other art treasures we would have missed on our own. A bonus was seeing ruins of a drawbridge, walls and other excavated parts of the Louvre when it was a medieval fortress.

Our extra days in Paris gave us a closer look at the populace, as well. Our room on the sixth floor of the Crowne Plaza Paris-Republique (www.Crowneplaza.com/Paris) had old-fashioned large windows that opened onto a small landing. We climbed out the window and watched the crowds down below on the Place de Republique, a newly redone plaza with a soaring statue emblazoned with the words “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,” the motto of the French Revolution.

Children played games and musicians entertained. Many relaxed on benches and tourists took photos. We returned from touring and found multiple demonstrations going on. One was about the abuse of human rights in Tunisia. The demonstrations were nonviolent, but police were called in at one point to lecture a group.

A Viking representative at our hotel, Arnaud, was almost like a personal concierge. He gave us directions to nearby restaurants and tips on which Metro trains to catch. He told us we could save money by buying a carnet of 10 tickets.

Despite the extra help, we took some wrong turns, leading us to long walks and some interesting sidetracks. While searching for a shop on Rue Bonaparte on the Left Bank of the Seine, we passed famous fashion houses. After finding the shop and buying gifts, Leopold, a clerk at the shop, informed us we were near an ancient church featured in Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code.

We walked two blocks to the arcaded, neoclassical St. Sulpice Church, which in the novel is the place where a nun was murdered. Astrological brass markings at the front of the church and leading to an obelisk in the back were described in The Da Vinci Code as part of the mysterious “rose line” leading to the Holy Grail. A sign in English and French in the church says references to the rose line are fictional.

On an excursion to Notre Dame Cathedral, we joined others gazing at the famous Crown of Thorns relic brought to Paris in 1239. As we walked across a bridge over the Seine, down below Parisians were sunbathing and playing volleyball on artificial sand beaches set up by the city during the summer.

One hazard of visiting Paris in August is that it is filled with vacationers from all over Europe. They stuffed the Metro, and long lines of people waited half a day go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

I wanted to climb the tower at Notre Dame Cathedral to see the gargoyles and the huge bells that Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, had rung. I could almost see Charles Laughton, who depicted Quasimodo in one of my favorite movies, up there among the giant bells. But long lines prohibited the climb.

One experience in Paris I could have lived without was having my pockets picked. We had been amply warned, and I never thought it would happen to me. It must have happened on the Metro or in the crowded Sainte-Chapelle Church while pointing my camera upward at stunning stained glass depicting more than 1,000 scenes from the Bible.

The mishap didn’t spoil one of the best vacations ever. Luckily, only a few Euros were in my wallet and a kind desk clerk helped cancel my credit cards. (We had another credit card to pay for the rest of the trip.)

Setting sail on the Seine

Our pre-cruise experience was thrilling, but it was something of a relief to get away from the crowds and board the Viking Pride, a gleaming white cruise ship, docked not far from the Eiffel Tower.

A big advantage of the smaller river cruises is that there are fewer passengers — 146 on our trip — and it means each passenger gets extra attention.

Cruise ship personnel from Eastern Europe, Portugal and other locations greeted us with smiles, drinks and snacks as we came aboard. Our traditional life preserver drill was laid back, being held in the glass-fronted lounge since it was raining outside.

Our first dinner was a treat. Special entrees were served each night, but the menu always included a Texas-style steak. After surviving the pick-pocket experience, I rewarded myself with the steak.

Wine chosen from different parts of France flowed during all of our lunches and dinners, courtesy of the cruise company. Conversation flowed freely, too, and we met some delightful people and exchanged emails at the end of the cruise.

Shortly after boarding, the cruise director told us we could walk a half-mile to a bridge and get a closer look at the nightly lighting of the Eiffel Tower. We took photos as the tower was illuminated at twilight. A searchlight at the top sweeps over the surrounding area. The climax comes at 10 p.m. as glittering orange lights move up and down the famous tower.

We had no trouble sleeping that night. Since we booked late, only smaller rooms were available. We found our room charming, though we bumped into each other a little. One plus for the smaller rooms is that they are about $1,000 cheaper than larger staterooms.

All staterooms have showers and television. We seldom had time for watching TV, but we could watch CNN, BBC and many stations in French. The larger rooms have windows that open to the river. Our room had a smaller window that couldn’t be opened but still had a good view of the passing landscape.

We donned our dressiest garments — coats and ties were not required — to attend the captain’s dinner just before leaving Paris.

Giverny, Rouen and Normandy

Our first stop along the Seine was at Giverny, where we got a complimentary tour of Monet’s home and water gardens and an impressionist museum. The garden is like walking into a Monet painting, with waterlilies and an arched bridge that was the subject of many of his masterworks.

A half-mile walk to a church brought us to the gravesite of Monet and his family. Next to Monet’s grave is a marker for a Royal Air Force pilot shot down in the French town during World War II. A blade of a propeller has been placed there as a memorial.

Our cruise director gave us group French lessons. Also, before each offshore excursion, there were lectures about the history of our destination. We heard a detailed history of Joan of Arc, for example, before docking in the medieval city of Rouen, where the French saint was burned at the stake.

A walking tour of Rouen took us by many half-timbered buildings, including one that was a charnel house, where bones of the deceased were kept during the Middle Ages. I came back later and climbed a long hill to photograph a remaining part of a castle where Joan of Arc was imprisoned before her execution.

I expected a more medieval look to memorialize the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Instead, a church built in her honor is modernistic with sharply sloping roof angles meant to suggest flames. A tall, thin cross and a plaque mark where she was executed.

Reminders of Joan also were in a chapel in her honor at the soaring Rouen Cathedral. After dinner, several of us walked from the ship to the cathedral, painted many times by Monet, to witness a spectacular light show we had heard about.

It was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The lights played on the façade of the old cathedral and showed much of France’s history. The opening flaming scene symbolized the execution of Joan.

The tour of the Normandy beaches was meaningful to me, since my brother, Jack, drove a DUKW (amphibious truck known as a Duck) during D-Day and, thankfully, survived. We walked into bunkers placed by the Germans and saw the remains of artificial harbors, called Mulberries, on the beaches. I was deeply impressed by a ceremony in which taps was played, honoring the dead buried in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach.

On our return trip up the Seine to Paris, many of us took an optional visit to the palace of Versailles, where the treaty ending World War I was signed. We waited in long lines just to get in. So many tourists were elbowing their way through the crowds that it was hard to take a photo of the famous Hall of Mirrors.

A chat with the captain

While returning to Paris, I sat down to breakfast with the ship’s captain and asked why river cruising has become so popular.

“The river cruises really took off after 9-11,” perhaps because people were looking for a safer way to travel, said Capt. Mario Weber, a Belgium native who grew up working on a cargo barge owned by his father. (His mother and father still operate a cargo barge. “We sometimes pass each other on the river,” he said.)

“I think many people like the smaller ships, the intimacy,” he said. “A lot of travelers who have been on big ocean cruises want to try something different.”

Weber said the ship we were on, Viking Pride, has been operating for 12 years and is about to be replaced by a newer ship. He credits good marketing strategies for Viking’s success. Many new river cruise ships have been put into service in recent years.

Although it might not be a plus for some, we liked the peacefulness of not having as many onboard activities as the ocean cruises. One reason for that is that we docked often and our activities were ashore. No Las Vegas-style shows or casino rooms. Each night there was music and dancing in the lounge.

Our final night on board, docked in Paris, was one of the best. Through the windows of the lounge we could see the Eiffel Tower twinkling with lights in the distance as we were treated to champagne. We were entertained with a “Spirit of France” concert of classical and folk music sung and played by French musicians. “It can’t get much better than this,” my wife, Carol, said.

We liked the cruise so much that we‘ve scheduled another one for next year — sailing down the Rhine and Danube from Amsterdam to Budapest, Hungary.

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