Author: Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Penn Professor of Art History
Paris in June! Does it get any better? Only if you are cruising down the Seine River aboard the immaculate Avalon Creativity with a snifter of Calvados in hand en route to beautiful and historic Normandy for five days before returning to the City of Lights once more.
Despite having taken over a dozen ocean cruises, including hosting a Penn Alumni Travel cruise to the Lesser Antilles aboard the elegant Silversea Silver Whisper in 2011, I had never taken a river cruise before embarking on our Paris to Normandy trip from June 11-18, 2013. I now know that river cruising is a more relaxed and quieter relative of ocean cruising. It is definitely in the same family of travel, where you visit many places but only unpack once, but without the dreaded seasickness or the constant lure of the casino and other onboard activities that can play havoc with your travel budget.
With river cruising, the real star is the countryside through which you are traveling. And boy was Normandy a stunner! From its World War II landing beaches; marvelous medieval cathedrals and castles; rich cheeses, such as camembert, livarot, and pont l’eveque; and tasty cidre, pommeau, and calvados brandy, it is one of the most historic and palate-pleasing regions in France. I found the itinerary to be both delightful and educational!
Our trip began with a stop in Giverny and a visit to the home of the great impressionist painter Claude Monet. The gardens that Monet designed and developed during his forty-three years of living and painting in this tiny hamlet just outside of the town of Vernon are absolutely breath-taking. As our group strolled the path around the water lily pond made famous by the artist one could hear the buzzing of bees flying from flower to flower and chirping of birds resting in the trees overhead. Most striking for me (as an art historian) was the interior of Monet’s house, which is filled with his original collection of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, many of them featuring images of westerners as seen through the eyes of Japanese artists. Both the prints and the gardens provided an interesting window onto the visual influences of one of the last century’s greatest modern artists. I was also pleased to see that one of Penn’s most altruistic alums, Walter H. Annenberg, had financed the building of the subterranean passage that takes viewers from one part of the garden to the other.
The following day we began a two-night stay in Rouen, the gateway to Normandy proper and a bustling city of about 100,000 people. During the week of our visit, Rouen was hosting the Armada, a huge nautical festival held there every three years that brings dozens of tall ships to the city’s port area. It was exciting to see the young sailors, many of them students in the process of learning the disappearing art of sailing such magnificent vessels, walking the streets in their picturesque uniforms. I was pleasantly surprised one afternoon by a maritime marching band making its way through city. Its music was infectious and I followed it for several blocks through town, all the way to the Church of St. Joan of Arc, built on the site where the saint was burned at the stake in 1431.
The second day in Rouen the majority of our travelers went to the D-Day landing beaches at Normandy. Because the Avalon Creativity attracts British and Canadian travelers in almost equal numbers as it does Americans, two itineraries were offered allowing people to choose to visit the beaches that suited their particular interests. The visit to the landing beaches was incredibly powerful and moving for those who went, and although there were no WWII veterans aboard the Creativity, talk of relatives who served in the war and the childhood impressions of those who were too young to do so filled the dining room that night.
In spring of 2014, to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Penn Alumni Travel is offering a very special trip, “Celtic Lands,” that will be hosted by former School of Arts and Sciences Dean, Professor of English Rebecca Bushnell, and David Eisenhower, grandson of the great general and American President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Professor and Public Policy Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communication and the School of Arts and Sciences. If you have been considering visiting the landing beaches in Normandy, this upcoming trip will undoubtedly be a great way to do so!
On our way back up the Seine toward Paris, we stopped at Petit Andelys, a quaint village that is dominated by the Chateau Gaillard, a 12th-century keep built by the British King Richard the Lionheart to defend his continental lands. On our way up the massive hill to the strategically located fortress we passed a delightful medieval garden and listened to the story of how Richard thwarted his enemies with tactical knowledge and architectural devices borrowed from the Islamic lands he encountered during the Crusades. It was sad to hear how his less adept brother John lost the fort by adding vulnerable windows to the chateau’s chapel that ultimately allowed invaders to enter the otherwise impregnable edifice.
The next morning we docked in Conflans, where early risers were treated to a lovely river-front market just a few steps from the gangway. I especially enjoyed perusing the vegetables, beautiful fishes, and the trussed meats that were offered for sale, lamenting the fact that I had no way to cook or eat any of it! Not that I was the least bit hungry — the food onboard the ship was both plentiful and tasty. But it was all so beautiful! The French really know how to eat!
That same morning in Conflans, given the choice between touring Chateau Malmaison, the home of the Empress Josephine, and visiting Auvers-sur-Oise, where the artist Vincent Van Gogh spent his final days, I chose the un-art historian thing and went for the opulence of Josephine’s pleasure palace and its now-slightly-disheveled rose gardens. The Chateau, acquired by Josephine without her husband Napoleon’s approval (a marital dispute that ultimately caused him to outlaw such unsanctioned spousal purchases in the Napoleonic Code), was gorgeous. Filled to the rafters with gold-plated-everything and mementos of the (in)famous couple’s life together, it is truly a glimpse into one of the most opulent and tumultuous eras in European history.
(Gold-plated-everything in Chateau Malmaison, the home of Empress Josephine)
Later that day the ship docked in Paris, where those who had not done any pre-cruise excursions were treated to tours of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum. The second night in Paris, and our last night on the trip, the truly adventurous among us went to the Moulin Rouge, where we were treated to dinner and their famous show “Faerie.” I had seen the show before, back in 2008, but it seemed just as fresh and featured a few new numbers and costumes. However, nothing beats the part where the almost-naked girl swims with the giant snakes in the glass-walled aquarium that rises up from the floor. (Sorry, no pictures allowed.) Does it get any better, or more, uh, educational, than that? Ah, Paris in June!
[Penn Alumni Travel will be heading back to France in 2014 with Director of the Arthur Ross Gallery Lynn Marsden-Atlass. Click here for more information. Or, if you’re interested in traveling with Art History Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw—author of this blog—check out this Spanish coast itinerary. Professor Shaw will be hosting this tour in October 2014.]