A Scenic river cruise along the Seine from Paris to Normandy is one of the best ways to explore this glorious region of France
The Eiffel Tower erupts into its flashing on-the-hour light show as we stand on deck and gaze at the dazzling display of colours. Scenic Gem, one of the most luxurious ships on the Seine, is moored a 10-minute stroll from the tower and stands guard over us during our day in Paris. Shortly after it has returned to its usual status as an illuminated beacon with lofty searchlight beams we are moving, mesmerised by the lights until they disappear as we make a bend in the river.
Earlier I’d wandered along the waterfront, visiting the tower with its views of the river stretching away into the distance in both directions. Cruising the Seine is very special, heading from the arty city centre all the way to the sea, deep in Normandy, where the Norman architecture still dots the countryside.
Scenic Gem does the trip in understated style – sleek and elegant. In my Royal Panorama suite I have a picture window over the back of the ship so I can see Paris (and everywhere else) receding. And to the side I have a balcony that’s cut off from the room only by a folding glass wall. Through this, as well as from the sun deck and on a string of included excursions, I can see French history at every turn.
We’re barely out of the suburbs when arrive in Poissy, where we dock by the ruins of the 13th-century stone bridge, finally brought down by Allied bombing in 1944. Here we take an excursion to Château de Chantilly, once home to Henri d’Orléans, son of King Louis-Philippe. It’s an ornate château-like affair, set among park-like grounds with gardens, fountains and lake. A tour shows us endless treasures, not least Raphael’s Three Graces, a Botticelli and works by a number of French artists including Delacroix.
Back on board for a lovely lunch and by dinner time we’re in La Roche-Guyon, where 14th-century Château de La Roche-Guyon sits against a chalk cliff. As one of Scenic’s Enrich cultural encounters, we’re treated to drinks in the cavernous stone stables before heading into a charming room, all painted ceiling and stone floor, for a recital by a classical quartet, a European greatest hits – a touch of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Mozart’s A Little Night Music, Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
Scenic Gem, launched in 2014, was built for the Seine – 110 metres long and carrying only 128 guests, it’s discreet and very stylish, one of Scenic’s Space-Ships. Onboard life centres on the huge lounge with bar, sofas, dancefloor and casual daytime dining in the River Café; evenings involve a mix of live music and recorded favourites.
Dining in the main restaurant is smart but everyone also gets the chance to experience tiny L’Amour, five tables for 22 people, at the front of the ship. A special chef’s menu is served, paired with wines (Scenic is all inclusive) and food often takes on the flavour of the region, then we’re heading into Normandy. Here I dine on duck breast marinated in cider, served with pea purée and fried potato cubes.
Next morning we’re at Vernon, with its wooded hills rising up on the northern side, splitting to reveal the limestone ridge that forms them. The setting is pretty, particularly as the year wears on and the colours change. The other bank is lined by neatly clipped trees. A couple of miles away is one of the river’s most famous sights, the house and garden of Impressionist painter Claude Monet at Giverny. The Japanese-themed garden, with
house-high bamboo and a stream emptying into the Seine, has as its centrepoint a lake with a charming green-painted bridge and a wealth of water lilies that he painted again and again.
We wander around Monet’s house (included on one of Scenic’s Freechoice excursions) then down the traffic-free street to the modern Museum of Impressionism, where one of Monet’s water lily paintings is the star attraction.
After Vernon, the river follows a curving ridge. Sitting at the top is Château Gaillard, Richard the Lionheart’s stronghold built in the final years of the 12th century to protect the nearby city of Rouen from attack. The château is really a castle; only one of the five towers survives but it’s still an awe-inspiring sight. Some Scenic cruises stop at the village of Les Andelys with the chance of a hike up to Gaillard, but this time we sail serenely by.
The river snakes onwards, the ridge only disappearing as the city of Rouen arrives. Rouen Cathedral is one of the great sights of the Seine – Gothic towers, the middle one topped with a 19th-century cast iron spire (which meant that, for several years, it was the world’s tallest building). Monet painted the cathedral a number of times. Our walking tour takes us in (Richard the Lionheart’s tomb is here) but there’s far more to the city than this – the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake is marked with a modernist church that is a delightful contrast to the cathedral, and there’s a fascinating Joan of Arc museum, too.
We’re docked just along from the cathedral and I take a stroll away from the cobbled streets across one of the bridges, along the opposite bank for splendid views.
Leaving Rouen, the city seems very different: this side is a working port for ocean ships and you can sometimes even see smaller ocean cruise ships here. But the landscape is quickly back to forest and hills, the architecture a mix of white-painted Normandy cottages and grand-looking châteaux set back among the trees.
The river might be wider but it still weaves through the lush countryside and, under the soaring modern suspension bridge, Pont de Brotonne, as we reach Caudebec-en-Caux. The lovely little town has a waterfront walk and I pop into a picturesque shop and buy cider vinegar and the local tipple, calvados. The MuséoSeine, a history of the river in Normandy in a modern boathouse setting, is a pleasing diversion, real boats among the many exhibits.
The Seine comes to an end as it widens into a vast estuary on the edge of the North Sea. At Honfleur we dock on the main river and walk into the medieval port with its Vieux-Bassin (old harbour) down a little canal. Market stalls selling calvados and packets of freshly-harvested sea salt line the quayside while seafood restaurants fill the timbered buildings behind them. St Catherine’s Catholic Church is quite astonishing, a vaulted wooden structure created in the 15th century by shipbuilders.
It’s the perfect place to end a cruise – and yet the journey for most continues all the way back to Paris, with more exceptional meals, the chance to sip calvados for free and to see yet more sights, standing on deck to catch the first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.
The 11-day Normandy & Gems of the Seine cruise, a round trip from Paris, departs regularly from April to October. Ports of call include Les Andelys, Rouen, Honfleur and Vernon. Fares start from £2,745pp, including flights or Eurostar, meals on board, complimentary beverages, personalised butler service, onboard entertainment, complimentary wifi and all gratuities (0808 256 5967; scenic.co.uk).