REVIEW: VIKING RIVER CRUISE ‘PARIS TO THE HEART OF NORMANDY’ HAD ME AT HELLO!

As Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman on that airport runway in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris” …

… so an invitation to board one of Viking’s Longships in the City Of Light had me at ‘hello’

VIKING PRACTICALLY INVENTED RIVER CRUISING

It seems impossible to believe that Viking sailed its first river cruises just 27 years ago. It’s true! In 1997, chartering 4 Russian river cruise ships. In no time at all, Viking invented its ‘Longships’ and began cruising the Rhine, the Danube, the Douro, the Rhone and the Seine. This writer had sailed on 7 itineraries before boarding Viking Radgrid for 8 glorious days from “Paris to the Heart of Normandy”. Never mind me, two of our fellow passengers were on their 13th Viking cruise with another one booked in December.

WHAT MAKES VIKING SO APPEALING?

From the moment I saw Viking’s Longships on Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey, I was hooked. The gleaming white ship seen floating by spectacular scenery was irresistible. And apparently, I was not alone. Viking introduced Americans to river cruising with innovative ship designs, featuring spacious staterooms with balconies, upscale amenities like heated bathroom floors and supremely comfortable hotel beds all in keeping with its Scandinavian modern décor. Their longships incorporated eco-friendly technologies like hybrid engines and solar panels. Viking’s received all kinds of awards and accolades for everything from its exceptional service and its immersive cultural experiences. And virtually everything from excursions to airport transfers to reduced or even free airfares are included. And of course, there is wine and beer with lunch and dinner (and breakfast if you must start your day with a mimosa).

                                                       EIFFEL SQUARE

WHAT MAKES VIKING’S ‘PARIS AND THE HEART OF NORMANDY’ ONE OF OUR FAVORITES EVER?

Our flight from New York landed us in Paris at midday. There, Viking’s ground crew whisked us to our waiting transportation, a big, comfortable minivan. Paris, in the throes of pre-Olympic preparations, isn’t easy to navigate. However, our driver pulled up next to Viking Radgrid in time for a late lunch and immediate access to our Veranda stateroom on Deck 2. The perfect start to a perfect adventure.

VIKING RADGRID LIVES UP TO HER NAME

Like all Viking River Longships, Viking Radgrid is named for a legendary Norse figure. Radgrid, a handmaiden of Oden, the father of the Gods, was a long-haired beautiful woman. She descended from the skies into Norse battles where she determined which soldiers lived and died. Her great power was to determine the fate of mere mortals. Fortunately, the fate of the passengers aboard our Paris to Normandy cruise was to enjoy every minute aboard this glorious Longship.

WHAT’S ON OFFER ABOARD VIKING LONGSHIPS

Once settled into their supremely comfortable staterooms and suites, guests will find themselves in the light-filled public spaces. The comfortable furnishings and floor-to-ceiling windows make both the Lounge and the Dining Room perfect venues to enjoy drinks and meals and group get-togethers. At the bow of the ship, Viking’s signature Aquavit Terrace is a wonderful glass-covered dining area. In good weather dining extends onto the open deck – not a daily feature in late March in northern France. When the sun did come out, Aquavit came to life. For 360 degree views of the scenery, the entire top deck is also a mini-recreation center with a putting green and a walking track.

                                                      BALCONY STATEROOM, credit Viking

FELLOW TRAVELERS

One of the highlights of a Viking cruise is the opportunity to connect with fellow travelers. On our “Paris to The Heart of Normandy” voyage, almost every single passenger had  shared personal ties to the United States Armed Forces. In a show of hands about 70 percent of us had a parent who had served in World War 2. I was a passenger both of whose parents served in the Canadian Armed Forces. For me and dozens of others, our trip to Normandy on this the 80th Anniversary of D-Day, was a pilgrimage in their honor no matter where they had served. This common ground facilitated easy conversation, amplified by the exceptional introductory skills of Radgrid’s Program Director, Mia Andrews Drihem. Through these interactions, friendships blossomed, enriching every minute of the trip.

AND HOW WAS THE FOOD?

Ask anyone who has spent any time in France, food is not just part of French culture—it is the cornerstone of French identity. And it’s all wrapped up in the country’s history and its diversity. Meals In France are not just about sustenance. They’re seen as opportunities for enjoyment, socializing and savoring the finer things in life. Food aboard Viking Radgrid had much to live up to and did. French cooking has deep roots in each region of France. In the case of Normandy, that cultural heritage is rich indeed. While Viking creates menus to appeal to American palates every single meal and every single day, the Chef brings France to the table. From blissful croissants to decadent desserts, French food is celebrated at every meal. The “piece de resistance” was a dinner given over to the Food of Normandy. Normandy’s culinary heritage is rich indeed! Influenced by its coastal location and agricultural heritage, Viking Radgrid’s Chef prepared seafood, rich veal stew, pork roast with local apples, a dish called “Poulet Vallée d’Auge” made with chicken, cream, mushrooms and local cider and presented local sausages, cheeses, and patés. And of course there was a dessert selection to rival anything in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

WHAT YOU’LL SEE ALONG THE WAY…

One of the great draws of this itinerary is of course Paris itself. No matter how many times we visit, Paris never disappoints. In the throes of preparation for this summer’s Olympics, the city is a bit torn up. But out of the way of the construction zones, it’s still Paris. Viking Radgrid is your ship as a hotel for a day at the beginning of the trip and a day at the end. Viking offers “Panoramic Paris” to all passengers. Like virtually all Viking excursions, these use luxury buses to ferry passengers on their tours. We hopped aboard “Panoramic Paris” and left the group halfway through for some personal exploration. Optional excursions take guests to The Palace of Versailles, to Montmartre and the one we chose, “Flavors of Paris”. A food tour, this was a wonderful way for foodies, like us, to enjoy a dive into French food, wine and culture. Limited to groups of 10, we immediately found ourselves in delightful company.

PARIS BEHIND US, WE HEAD UPSTREAM TO ENJOY THE PLEASURES OF NORMANDY

First stop, La Roche-Guyon with its impressive 12th Century Chateau. If you wish, on offer is a tour offering a glimpse of French Chateau life. We chose to wander through the delightfully restored gardens filled with white blossoming trees and masses of white daffodils. Aboard ship this day is given over to Painters. A Painting Class produced passengers’ masterpieces for a minor fee. A lecture about Painters along the Seine, a covered the Impressionists who lived and painted there—Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and, at the end of his life, Vincent Van Gogh. That afternoon, we sailed a short distance to Auvers-sur-Oise, made famous as the final and tragically brief home of Van Gogh. During his 70 days there, he painted 74 paintings. He is buried next to the fields he so imaginatively painted. Day three brought us to Rouen. This wonderful small city, the “Capital of Normandy, is a treat! It’s glorious Cathedral of Notre Dame may look familiar. Claude Monet painted it no less than 30 times. More recently, Rouen had a hand in Julia Child’s famous career. At a restaurant called “La Courrone” Julie ate her first meal in France! This meal her love of French food from the very first bite. Located in the Place Du Vieux Marche, –the town square where Joan of Arc met her grim end– Viking’s included walking tour ends directly in front of La Couronne. If you wish you can re-enact Julia’s life-changing lunch for 65 Euros.

THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE TRIP FOR MANY, THE NORMANDY BEACHES COME NEXT

Viking goes out of its way to salute the heroes of June 6th. There are two excursions here. One is to Omaha Beach, site of the American Armed Forces landing on D-Day. A Memorial Service presided over by passengers from America’s military is a moving tribute. The  second excursion is offered to the British and Canadian landing beaches. An All Things Cruise tip: Because this writer had a personal connection to the Canadian forces, we opted to take the latter excursion. We were fewer in number for sure. But our excursion includes an extraordinary extra that’s not part of the American experience. We visited Bayeux, a magnificent little town home to the Bayeux Tapestry, a UNESCO “Memory of the World”. I would be hard-pressed to choose which tour to take. Amazingly, at this writing, there was still space available in July aboard the four longships that ply the Seine.

PEACEFUL PLEASURES ROUND OUT VIKING’S RETURN TO PARIS

After yesterday’s emotional visit to Normandy’s beaches, we’re docked at everyone’s picture-perfect idea of a village in France, Les Ondelys. Dominated by the Fortification that secured Normandy for Richard the Lionhearted, last minute souvenirs and gifts here got high marks from many fellow passengers. Our final full day on Viking Radgrid, we dock in Le Pecq. An hour from Le Petit Palais, the drop off point for today’s all-day shuttle buses to central Paris, Le Pecq gave us a chance to visit Chateau Malmaison, the home of Empress Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon. Years of French history are peeled back as you wander through rooms filled with the couple’s personal belongings. The tales about each of them are simply astonishing. Example: Josephine, whose name was changed from Rose by Napoleon, never smiled in a single portrait. She had bad teeth.

That night, those of us who can never see enough of the City of Light, boarded another vessel. Proceeded by a farewell Cocktail Party and an early dinner, we travelled into Paris, boarded a river cruiser and passed the Eiffel Tower during one of its hourly evening “light shows”. Somehow it was the perfect ending to Viking’s perfectly wonderful “Paris and the Heart of Normandy”

Photos credit Monte Mathews except as noted

Cover photo: Château de Malmaison, near the left bank of the Seine,  west of the centre of Paris, in the commune of Rueil-Malmaison


For Information about Viking Radgrid cruises, see Viking Radgrid (cruisecompete.com)

For all Viking’s River Cruises see Viking River Cruises (cruisecompete.com)

 

 

 

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