A History of Human Conflict: On the River from Normandy to Paris

Our group drove across the windy landscape from Rouen along the bleak waterfront. "It always rains in Normandy," say the superior people in the south, in Provence. Suddenly, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up Anilore Banon's masterpiece as if it were on stage.

Photography by Authors

The cruise industry believes more is better. It keeps building bigger ships, some so large they won’t pass through the Panama Canal. Small-ship cruise lines are sailing the other way - along Europe’s rivers and probably giving their passengers a more intimate and authentic experience of a foreign country.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, for example, now owns nine boats in Europe including the one we took on the river Seine from Paris to the northern coast of France. Many Americans were onboard the River Baroness to acknowledge what their fathers and grandfathers had done on D-Day and to see Les Braves, the tribute the French government had erected in 2005 on Omaha Beach to the Allied forces who liberated France.

Our group drove across the windy landscape from Rouen along the bleak waterfront. It had rained for several days — (“It always rains in Normandy,” say the superior people in the south, in Provence). Suddenly the sun broke through the clouds and lit up Anilore Banon’s masterpiece as if it were on stage. It was most moving. Indeed when the sculpture was erected the artist, overwhelmed, said to the spectators, “These men were more than soldiers, they were our brothers.”

Above the bluff where so many died on Omaha Beach, signs mark the entrance to the American cemetery in Colleville. It’s another devastating experience but, as we heard a father say to his children, “You must never forget.”

The Uniworld cruise surely gave us memories of the villages and new museums around the D-Day beaches and of the medieval museum of the Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry was created in 1066 to celebrate the Norman invasion of Britain, the only time England has been successfully invaded. In a strange twist to a millennium of history, Bayeux was the first town liberated in 1944.

The embroidery portrays the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings even to the arrow through the eye that famously killed the English King. It runs 20 inches high for 230 feet, took ten years to create and, paradoxically, this famous French masterpiece was embroidered in England either in Winchester or Canterbury!

Uniworld offers daily complimentary guided tours as well as additional excursions but one of the advantages of river-boating is that where the boat is tied down has been the center of the town for centuries. Everything is an easy walk. After our daily trips we wandered all over whichever medieval villages or town we were in that day.

So we explored Les Andelys and Chateau-Gaillard, Richard-the-Lionheart’s ruined 12th century castle where the king was killed by an enemy arrow. We wandered all over Honfleur, a major port in the 17th century and a town that figures in many of the historical novels about the Napoleonic Wars.

It has been painted many times by artists like Claude Monet but none were out and about the rainy day we visited in March. We had detailed guided visits to both Versailles and next day Paris but nothing was as appealing as an afternoon to ourselves after the guide showed us Rouen.

We walked around Rouen, a city with a population of half a million. It was magnificent: medieval, historic and fascinating. Joan of Arc, France’s patron saint, was burned at the stake here in 1431 at the age of 19. Her crime was probably temporal lobe epilepsy: she heard voices telling her to lead the French army in battle against the English enemies. Her statue stands outside a beautiful modern church in the square where she was executed.

A simple but informative museum sits across the street, just beyond the celebrated town clock -- and nearby, in the cathedral, lies the heart of Richard-the-Lionheart. The interesting part of Rouen is the inner city. As the saying goes: “Paris embraces the Seine, Rouen ignores it.”

The cruise ended in Paris but the pleasure for us was not only the “City of Light” but the way the crew of our Uniworld River Baroness took pains with its talks and educational evenings for us to understand what we were seeing -- and to help us get the most from our adventure in France.