Author: Bob W.
Date of Trip: June 2009
Lightning reached out from every part of the pitch-black thunderclouds that delayed our departure from Newark. Bright sunlight greeted us at Charles De Gaulle airport and throughout most of our stay in France. Our travels would take us by bus to Honfleur, Normandy where we would board the M/S Bizet, owned by Grand Circle Travel. We would visit the D-Day invasion sites and American Cemetery in Normandy, then sail the Seine River to Paris.
The day of our arrival in France, we traveled no farther than the Holiday Inn Roissy near the airport. We enjoyed lunch in an attractive Irish pub across the street where the food and service were excellent. Our waitress was a tourism intern from Turkey. So, our first impression of France consisted of an American hotel, an Irish pub and a Turkish waitress!
In the evening, we were briefed by three Grand Circle program directors who would guide all 120 passengers throughout the cruise. Our group’s program director, Marie Pierre Vouriot, was a delight throughout the trip, always going the extra mile to be helpful. We arose at 6 a.m. the next morning for our bus trip to Honfleur a small, historic port situated near the mouth of the Seine River and near the Normandy beaches. Our drive took us down quiet country roads winding through picturesque towns and past wheat fields, cattle farms, orchards and rows of poplars. Ultimately, we connected with the national highway system a modern toll road. En route, Marie Pierre circulated copies of local newssheets and the U.S. military publication Stars and Stripes, all dated June 7, 1944, the day after the D-Day invasion. Stars and Stripes included General Eisenhower’s message to allied troops on the day of the invasion.
Three and a half hours into the drive, we stopped at the Peace Memorial Museum in Caen (a city virtually destroyed during post-invasion battles). The modern city of Caen lies about 30 miles from Omaha Beach where American troops landed on D-Day. The museum’s impressive exhibits cover the war years and events leading up to World War II. On a movie screen, we viewed side-by-side German and American military film footage shot at Omaha Beach during the Allied landing on D-Day. Nothing could better convey the chaos and painful events of the landings!
We arrived at the M/S Bizet and the beautiful, compact town of Honfleur in the late afternoon. We boarded the ship, met members of the crew, unpacked and enjoyed a get-acquainted reception and Captain’s dinner. Afterwards, my wife and I took our first stroll along the harbor. My wife pulled a muscle in her foot about a week before we left for France. So, we made our first of many trips to pharmacies to find bandaging to wrap her foot and ease the pain of all the walking we were about to do.
The center of Honfleur and its picturesque old harbor lay within four blocks of our ship. The harbor is an historic gem, once a busy port in the days when shipping depended on wind and canvas sails. The advent of modern ships led to the growth of Le Havre and the eclipse of Honfleur. As a result, Honfleur’s old buildings and harbor remain well-preserved relics of times past. Aside from the immediate area of the harbor, the city is situated on hillsides sloping towards the harbor. Streets near the old harbor are narrow, some no more than alleys lined with shops, restaurants, art galleries and residences. On one side of the entrance to the old harbor lies the former Governor’s mansion, the oldest part of which dates from the 16th century. On the other side is a colorful carousel whose lights and music add to the festive atmosphere of the harbor. The harbor itself is no more than nine square blocks in area. Sailboats were docked, two or three abreast, on three sides of the harbor. One side is lined with restaurants, cafes, art galleries and small shops, many in half-timbered houses dating back centuries. On the opposite side an old wooden church now serves as a museum of the city’s history. At night the harbor is a charming place to wine and dine. Umbrella-sheltered tables fill most of the area between the water and buildings. We saw many vacationing couples and families dining on board their anchored boats. The street-side lights and fading light of dusk provided an ideal setting for photographs.
We spent three nights in Honfleur. On our first full day, Marie Pierre led an orientation walk through the town, pointing out historic buildings. A few blocks from the harbor is St. Catherine’s Church, an unusual all-wooden church with two side-by-side peaked roofs. Originally, the church had a single peaked roof and single altar. When the parish grew too large for the original structure, an addition identical to the original was added, complete with its own peaked roof and altar. Across the street, also built of wood, is a steeple-shaped museum that displays historic relics dating to the early years of the original church. We returned to the ship for lunch before again setting out to explore. Our walk took us through streets near the old harbor, passing by art galleries, shops and charming little restaurants. We stopped to visit the Eugene Boudin museum that exhibits a fine collection of pre-impressionist and contemporary paintings by Norman artists, including Boudin, Dubourg, Monet, Dufy, Friesz, Gernez and others.
Taking advantage of our convenient anchorage, I made a number of trips to explore and photograph the town during the next two days. Two blocks from our ship, sitting atop a steep incline, is St. Leonard’s stone church accessed by flower-lined pathways. Water gently flows down the hill in a sluiceway made more beautiful by a rose covered trellis that arches over the water.
The Normandy Beaches
On our second day docked at Honfleur, we arose at 6 a.m. for our visit to the Normandy D-Day beaches, the American cemetery at Colleville Sur-Mer, the remains of the artificial harbor constructed by the allies at Arromanches, and to Pointe Du Hoc where American rangers scaled the cliffs on invasion day to destroy German artillery.
Having seen, in Caen, American and German war footage of the D-Day invasion, it was pleasant to enjoy the tranquility of the Normandy beaches today. There is an undeniable beauty to the high bluffs and long stretches of sand of Omaha beach. Reminding us of the grim reality of those same features on June 6, 1944, were many reinforced concrete bunkers, some with large German naval guns still in place. At Arromanches, to the north, where British and Canadian troops landed, many segments remain of the structures used by the allies as parts of an artificial harbor used to bring in supplies and troops. At Pointe Du Hoc, we were impressed with the steep cliffs American rangers had scaled to attack German artillery poaitions. We continued on to the American cemetery at Colleville Sur-Mer where are buried the remains of nearly 10,000 Americans who lost their lives in the invasion. Most of us have seen pictures of the rows and rows of gravesites that seem to stretch forever on the beautifully tended grounds. No matter how many times you may have seen those pictures, being there among those gravesites tugs at the heart. So many young Americans never came home, including a great many whose mangled remains lie buried as unknown soldiers.
En route from Honfleur to Rouen, we stopped for an afternoon in the small town of Caudebec. We first wandered along a small stream in a concrete channel lined from end to end with flower boxes in full bloom and vibrant colors. The walk along the stream led us to a large stone church with its flying buttresses, gargoyles and beautiful stained glass windows. Across the narrow lane by the church were half-timbered houses dating from the 15th century. Nearby was the small shopping district. Most shops in the old town were lined up along a semi-circular roadway or on an opposite street. Also of note is the old town hall, possibly the oldest building in town, a twin-peaked stone building that now serves as the town museum. It was closed on the day of our visit. We enjoyed the new town hall, situated by the river a beautiful and ornate red and white brick building surrounded by gardens and a small park. Caudebec is compact, charming and worth a visit.
Late afternoon, we cruised towards the sizable commercial city of Rouen that dates to Roman times. We passed many riverside houses, most topped with slate or tile roofs. Only a few homes featured thick thatched roofs an attractive feature but costing an estimated 80,000 Euros (roughly $120,000) to replace! As we approached Rouen, we passed by eight miles of (surprisingly neatly organized) commercial storage areas, grain silos, cargo containers, warehouses, cranes, piles of scrap iron, freighters and related industries. As we neared the center of Rouen, we passed under a multitude of bridges crossing the Seine. The Seine is a tidal waterway to Rouen. An incoming tide had cut our cruising time. In the early evening, we docked in the center of the city, near a major bridge and within view of the steeples of Rouen’s gothic Notre Dame Cathedral. Claude Monet painted the façade of the cathedral 30 times to capture it in various light and weather conditions. The concrete walkway stretching along side our ship was filled with people walking, jogging, or on bikes or roller blades this warm summer evening.
Although our group had a walking tour of the city scheduled for the next morning, following dinner I decided to enjoy the last bit of extended daylight by walking to Notre Dame cathedral. My wife stayed behind, still bothered by an ailing foot. Because it was getting dark, I left my camera behind only to discover the cathedral brightly flood lit, perfect for night photography.
Entering the massive cathedral, with its many towers and spires, I discovered a concert in progress. A woman playing a grand piano was accompanying a young man playing what appeared to be a saxophone and whose sound was as sweet as a flute. The mellow and beautiful performance demonstrated the cathedral’s incredible acoustics! After I sat through two or three numbers, the concert concluded.
Except for streetlights, it was pitch black outside as I headed back to the ship. I saw a flight of stone steps that led down to a street that appeared to give access to our ship. As I descended the stairs in the darkness, I either caught my heel on a step or missed the last step and found myself flying through the air towards the road. Catching myself with both hands and then my knees, then rolling to one side as I landed, I survived the fall with only one badly bruised hand, two slightly bloodied knees (yet, no tear in my slacks!) and a slight muscle pull. Luckily, although sore for the next few days, I was able to continue planned activities.
The next morning we joined a local guide for a tour of the old city. We passed by many buildings dating to the 14th century old houses tightly packed. Most were half-timbered of painted wood and stucco. Some of the buildings appeared to lean to one side, showing their age. There was no visible evidence of air conditioning in any building. Perhaps window units would have run afoul of historic preservation codes. Many streets in the old city are of cobblestone and lined with bakeries, delis, bistros, restaurants and shops in tasteful decor.
We toured the Rouen cathedral, this time sunlit and tinted inside with the color of the many tall stain-glass windows. The structure is mammoth. Afterwards, we passed under the colorful clock tower arch on our way to the site of the memorial (church, gardens and tall, modern cross) that marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
In the afternoon, I walked to the Rouen fine arts museum, a block or two beyond the cathedral. Sort of tucked away in a corner on the second floor of the museum were about 60 impressionist paintings, including those of Monet, Sisley and Renoir. One of Monet’s 30 paintings of the Rouen cathedral is displayed. The balance of the museum held many impressive paintings and sculptures by French artists.