Wednesday, August 27, 2014
My wife, Margaret, and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary with a Seine River cruise in France earlier this month. We booked it a year ago and it proved to be one of the best vacations of our years together.
The weather in France was great – highs in the low 70’s, lows in the 50’s. We had heavy rains on our visit to Giverny to visit impressionist painter Claude Monet’s house and colorful gardens and it poured briefly during our visit to the American Cemetery at Normandy. The food on our ship – the MS River Venture – was excellent. Margaret asked for and the chef provided his recipes. Three meals were included onboard each day and wine – vin rouge for me – was provided at dinner. Tour guides accompanied us when we left the ship to tour the towns and sights of interest. My favorite guide was Lexie, a spirited former California hippie who has lived in France for 40 years but still maintains her home in Palm Springs. She brought history to life with her stories.
There were 132 passengers and a crew of 60 onboard our one-year-old ship. Although we knew no one on the trip, by the end of our 10-day cruise we had new friends from throughout the U.S. Our ship moved at a leisurely pace and made stops at Vernon, Rouen, Caudebec-en-Caux, Le Havre, Honfleur, Les Andelys and Paris.
We learned a lot about France’s history – from the Parisi tribe that settled on the banks of the Seine to the life of William the Conqueror, the former Duke of Normandy who became King of England after defeating Anglo-Saxon King Harold, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. We visited the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, toured the Cathedral of Notre Dame and numerous other churches and cathedrals (I learned that a church is called a cathedral only when there is a bishop in residence.) We stopped for photo ops in front of the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, and the Invalides (which King Louis XIV had built to treat soldiers injured in battle).
Twelve of us visited the private home of Patricia Rynski d’Argence near Giverny. She is an artist and her husband is an antiques dealer in Paris. She gave us a tour of her historic compound and served us homemade apple tarts, chocolate cakes and apple cidre. She is a former member of her town’s governing council and shared with us her frustrations over France’s high taxes.
Our most moving experience was the full day excursion to the Normandy beaches. It was windy and raining when we visited the American Cemetery, looking solemnly over more than 9,000 crosses marking the graves of American soldiers. As vast as this cemetery appears, it holds less than one-third of the Americans who died in the Battle of Normandy. A wreath-laying ceremony was conducted and a French guide expressed the everlasting gratitude France has for the sacrifices Americans made to preserve their liberty. Leaving the cemetery we climbed down onto Omaha Beach where the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions stormed ashore on D-Day June 6, 1944 against stubborn, entrenched German resistance. By day’s end, the water and the beaches were covered in blood and bodies. It is estimated 85 percent of those in the first wave to hit the beach were killed. Still through sheer numbers and unmatched courage Americans held fragile control of Omaha Beach by day’s end.
I learned that most of the French take the month of August off to go on holiday. Many shops in the towns we visited were closed. For that I was grateful, but Margaret still managed to do some shopping. Vive La France!