The second phase of Seine River cruise was sailing downstream from Paris. Along the way we stopped in Conflans and Auvers, Vernon and Giverny, Les Andelys, and Rouen. Our final port on the M-S Bizet was at Honfleur near the mouth of the Seine at the English Channel.
Conflans and Auvers
A short bus ride from Conflans took us to the village of Auvers, where Vincent Van Gogh spent the last two years of his life, producing around 200 new paintings. Our guide for the walking tour showed us Vincent’s rooming house and many of the locations and subjects of his paintings. The town has erected plaques at many of those locations displaying copies of the relevant artwork. We paid our respects to Vincent and his brother and patron Theo at their side-by-side gravesites. One interesting anecdote from our guide was the offer in the 1960s by Theo’s nephew to establish a Van Gogh museum in Auvers, with hundreds of Vincent’s paintings still owned by the family. When the Auvers town council declined the offer, the Van Gogh Museum was built in Amsterdam, where it is now one of the city’s busiest and most famous attractions.
Back in Conflans for the afternoon we enjoyed a walking tour of the village before setting sail for Vernon.
Vernon and Giverny
From Vernon we rode a bus to Giverny, where Claude Monet lived and painted for 43 years. We visited his house and the expansive gardens which Monet treated as a work of art in itself, as well as featuring them in many of his most famous paintings. The walls of his studio are completely covered with masterpieces by Monet and several of his contemporaries. The gardens are in two sections. The 2.5 acre Walled Normandy Gardens feature thousands of flowers of all colors with varieties blooming from April through October. The separate Water Garden was inspired by Japanese prints Monet had seen and feature curved bridges, water lilies and bamboo groves among many other plants and trees.
After lunch back on the ship we toured the small village of Vernon and participated in a treasure hunt concocted by our trip leaders to encourage us to interact with the locals. One of the tasks assigned to our small team was to find an “éclaire de pomme,” which we soon learned did not exist. A pastry shop owner told us (in French) that those trip leaders were “mad as a boat.” So we made our own éclaire de pomme by adding apple slices to a raspberry éclaire.
Les Andelys and Château Gaillard
Château Gaillard was a 12th century castle built by Richard the Lionheart when he was both King of England and Duke of Normandy. The ruins sit on a steep hill above the small villages of Les Andelys. After Richard’s death in 1199 the defense of Normandy was neglected by his brother King John. Château Gaillard was captured by Prince Philip II of France in 1204 after a six-month siege during which hundreds of civilians perished when they were evicted from the castle to save resources. Normandy was soon conquered by France.
On our way to Rouen we passed through one of several locks along the Seine, where we got to witness our captain steering the ship from a small console next to the side rail. The locks leave only about a foot of space on either side of the ship, so keeping it dead center is critical. We arrived in Rouen on a rainy afternoon and took a short walk around the city.
The next morning we were bused in small groups of six or seven to home-hosted visits where we could learn more about life in France. In addition to Our hosts Marie and François told us about their lives as a doctor and pharmacist. They also served us the Normandy specialties of apple cider, local cheeses and pastries.
In the afternoon we were led on a walking tour by a local guide who provided interesting historical information. Our stops included such diverse locations as the magnificent Rouen Cathedral of Notre Dame, the oldest inn in France founded in 1345, and the site of Joan of Arc’s execution and the nearby Joan of Arc church.
Our ship sailed overnight to Honfleur, passing under the 1.3-mile long Normandy bridge before dawn.