Review: Spring cruise along the Seine with Viking
By Cruise International | 12 May 2022
What could be better than a springtime sailing along the Seine from Paris to Normandy? Frances Marcellin reports on her recent cruise with Viking.
As 10 white doves took flight, an awed silence filled the air at Port de Grenelle in Paris, save for some faint “oohs” from the crowd, watching as the birds’ fluttering wings powered them into distant specks high above the River Seine.
Moments before, Karine Hagen, executive vice-president of Viking Cruises, had announced that on the christening of eight new longships (four in Paris, and four by a live link to Amsterdam), the company was releasing “some peace and hope into our skies”.
After two years of pandemic problems, the celebration of a new beginning at this long-awaited event was overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and, out of respect, festivities were pared back. Doves soared overhead instead of fireworks, and a gala dinner at the beautiful Hotel Evreux on Place Vendôme was an intimate affair that focused on sharing hope for the future.
One of the new longships, Viking Radgrid, named after a horse-riding spirit who served Odin, father of the Gods, would be my home for the next few nights. Captained by François Bertin, the 125m vessel is designed – like sister ships Kari, Skaga and Fjorgyn – specifically to navigate the Seine.
My stateroom exudes elegance and even has a view of the Eiffel Tower from the balcony. In the morning we’re whisked off to the Louvre where our guide, film producer turned art historian Frédéric Huette, is a treasure trove of facts.
After admiring the towering Arc de Triomphe de Carousel and the iconic pyramid of the Louvre, created by Chinese architect IM Pei, we explore the original 12th-century sandstone walls inside, still covered in hearts that were etched by stonemasons in medieval times.
We take in the Greek marble beauty Venus de Milo, presented to Louis XVIII after being found on the Aegean island of Milos, and the golden-domed Apollo Gallery that displays the French crown jewels.
We then debate whether the Mona Lisa was modelled on Leonardo da Vinci’s apprentice, Salaì – it was believed they were romantically involved and her name is even an anagram of ‘Mon Salaì’.
We pay a quick visit to the Petit Palais art museum on the way back, but I only get as far as the exquisite courtyard garden. Its bright pink cherry blossom and verdant palm trees are a perfect spot for coffee, and outside I admire Jean Cardot’s impressive bronze sculpture of Winston Churchill.
At sunset, under amber and purple skies, we float silently out of Le Pecq thanks to the ship’s hybrid diesel-electric engines. Green energy abounds as there are also solar panels on the top deck, the option to use shoreside power where available, and an organic herb garden.
The next morning, I wake to blue skies and bright sunshine in La Roche-Guyon, part of the Val d’Oise. The serene country mooring is akin to a quiet motorboat berth and a world away from Paris. I’m enraptured by the village, and the atmosphere here is cleverly evoked by Claude Monet in his 1881 impressionist painting Le Château de la Roche Guyon.
Instead of taking the walking tour to the château, I trail-run up the limestone hills to investigate the keep at the top. It’s well worth it: the view of the Seine snakes towards Normandy and I pause to soak in the magic of that moment.
At our next stop, Vernon, I discover that during the German occupation a strong underground resistance formed called ‘Le Reseau’ – their resilience won out because when that network was destroyed, they formed another called ‘Vengeance’. From here you can bike or bus it to the Museum of Impressionism in Giverny, a stone’s throw from Monet’s old house and garden. The local Sainte-Radegonde church is where Monet was buried with his family.
Less than 24 hours later, we’re eating melt-in-your mouth croissants for breakfast in the Palace of Versailles. Once the closest forest to Paris, this opulent residence started as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII, which is hard to believe when you’re being dazzled by light and chandeliers in the famous Hall of Mirrors.
Visiting Versailles brings history to life, and the artworks are exquisite. In the 18th century, white hair was high fashion and our guide explains how the upper classes, including Marie Antoinette, powdered their hair with flour, which didn’t go down well with the masses who were starving because of a bread shortage. Her reputation plummeted, giving rise to the notorious pronouncement: “Let them eat cake”.
As a mother, an oil painting of Marie Antoinette from 1787 with her young children twanged my heart strings, showing a closeness to them that was unusual for nobility at this time.
After the monarchy was abolished in 1792, she was tragically separated from her family, including husband Louis XVI, and they were executed a year later. Only her eldest daughter, Marie Thérèse, survived into adulthood.
Outside, the immaculate grounds cover roughly 2,000 acres, seeming to reach almost as far as the horizon. You could spend hours here exploring such monumental gardens.
I didn’t think topping the Versailles experience was possible, but back in Paris, Viking succeeded with a moonlit riverboat tour to the twinkling Eiffel Tower, a new excursion set to be added on Seine sailings in 2023. Chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne flowed, and we marvelled at Gustave Eiffel’s 986ft masterpiece.
As I took in the moment with old and new friends, the sound of a distant horn cast my mind back to the christening. When the bottle of aquavit – the Norwegian national spirit that is Viking’s preferred stand-in for champagne – broke over the bow of the eighth new ship, the fleet’s horns blasted out in celebration as the crowd clapped and cheered.
“That Parisian traffic!” joked Alastair Miller – the master of ceremonies and Viking’s resident photographer – his quip making everyone laugh. That melange of elegance, experience and conviviality makes this voyage so special and, in this case, added a sprinkling of je ne sais quoi.
Viking’s Paris & the Heart of Normandy cruise: how to book
Viking Cruises’ eight-day Paris & the Heart of Normandy trip starts from £1,945 per person for sailings in 2023, when booked by June 30. Includes flights from UK airports, all onboard meals with wine, beer or soft drinks at lunch and dinner, six guided tours, Wi-Fi, gratuities and evening entertainment.
A new three-day culinary extension is also available, including a lesson in baking croissants at a Parisian cooking school and a wine and cheese evening hosted by a sommelier in a private cellar.
To book, visit vikingcruises.co.uk.
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Nicholas Dalton reviews a Scenic river cruise along the Seine from Paris to Normandy in 2018.
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.
For more information visit scenic.co.uk.