Cruising the charming villages of Normandy

Discovering picturesque Normandy from a floating hotel.

Nikki Macdonald Supplied Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Nikki Macdonald Supplied Supplied

A passenger watches the Norman countryside slide slowly by from the Tapestry II's open sky deck.

Avalon Waterway's new Seine cruising ship Tapestry II accommodates 128 passengers

The impressive Brotonne suspension bridge, next to riverside settlement Caudebec-en-Caux.

Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys, the former stronghold of Richard the Lionheart, then Duke of Normandy.

The castle's elevated site made it perfect for defending Normandy against French invasion.

A cycle group pose in front of the palace of justice in Rouen.

Picture-postcard thatched cottages dot the Norman countryside.

Typical Norman thatched cottage, now favoured as summer houses for Parisians.

With dark, small rooms, half-timbered thatched houses are only beautiful until you live in them, our guide warns us.

Thatch used to be a mark of poverty but it's now so expensive to maintain it's the preserve of the wealthy.

The small ship's galley is a hive of activity as they prepare dinner for 100 or more passengers.

The ship's staterooms look out to the river, meaning you can lie in bed and watch the world go by.

The bar, in one of the ship's several lounge areas.

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When I went to bed the lights of Paris were dimming into the distance, the architecturally outfitted houseboats becoming progressively shabbier.

But when I throw open the curtains it's as if Doctor Who's tardis has been wildly working during the night.

As I was sleeping we have been transported into an entirely different landscape.

Poppy fields are a common summer sight across the Normandy countryside.
Nikki Macdonald

Poppy fields are a common summer sight across the Normandy countryside.

The little town of Vernon that greets us over breakfast is typical of the picturesque settlements that stud our cruise up the Seine river, through the Norman countryside.

Its streets are quiet in their Sunday slumber but that's no barrier to admiring its half-timbered houses on precarious leans.

Cameras whirr, but by the end of a week of whitewashed stone, criss-crossed with timber beams their charm becomes strangely routine.

Chef Olivier making crepes for an afternoon snack. The Tapestry II was an endless festival of feasting.
Nikki Macdonald

Chef Olivier making crepes for an afternoon snack. The Tapestry II was an endless festival of feasting.

The northern province of Normandy is often forgotten in the rush to France's warm south.

But it has plenty to offer - the landscapes shot with gold and blue that captivated Impressionist artists Monet and Van Gogh; its rustic food washed down with cider and apple brandy; its dramatic history from its Viking past to its blood-steeped World War II landing beaches.

And then there's the odd Breton crepe or galette that has escaped border control from its western neighbour, Brittany.

The Eiffel Tower twinkles every hour on the hour.
Nikki Macdonald

The Eiffel Tower twinkles every hour on the hour.

And what better way to discover it than by coursing up its main artery - the Seine.

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I'll be honest, cruising has never been on my bucket list. Days of indolence on a featureless sea isn't exactly my scene.

But river cruising is an altogether different beast, as our welcome document noted.

Les Andelys locals scale the steep hillsides that make the town such a strategic position.
Nikki Macdonald

Les Andelys locals scale the steep hillsides that make the town such a strategic position.

"River cruising is less about the speed and the glamorous on-board Broadway style productions," it explains, obviously targeting ocean cruise veterans who expect the same blockbuster experience of a ship that accommodates just 128 passengers.

At 110m long and 11.4m wide, Avalon Waterways' new Tapestry II barely squeezes through the eight 12m wide locks that have to be negotiated between Paris and Caudebec.

Near Paris, the bridges cut so close to the river that the boat's rhythm must be governed by the tide.

The view of Les Andelys from the ruins of Richard the Lionheart's castle.
Nikki Macdonald

The view of Les Andelys from the ruins of Richard the Lionheart's castle.

The open upper deck has to be closed, its railings dismantled and the wheelhouse hydraulically lowered, so that sometimes Captain Rudy is sitting on the floor to steer.

But the biggest difference between ocean and river cruising must be the feeling of being part of the landscape as it glides gently by. The magic of waking to an entirely new view.

And, for this backpacker, the joy of unpacking your suitcase for a whole week, while not being tied to one restrictive base.

But don't let anyone tell you this is a beach resort, cocktails and literary catch-up type holiday.

After a morning side visit to Monet's gorgeous gardens at nearby Giverny, we're on the move again to the picture postcard village of Les Andelys.

Past the clifftop castle ruins and the chalky cliffs, we moor up on the river bank, beside the baying local band set up in a marquee for the national festival of music.

It's a steep walk up to the Chateau Gaillard, once the stronghold of Richard The Lionheart and a key piece in Norman history.

Then King of England and Duke of Normandy, Richard built the fortress in 1196 to protect the Seine and the city of Rouen from falling into the hands of Philip Augustus, the King of France.

Richard died in 1199 and the French King's troops besieged the fortress in 1203. The fortress fell to the French and so did Normandy.

And the villagers, caught between the warring parties, died of cold and starvation.

But there is nothing but celebration in the streets today. It's a picture of village life - an elderly couple walk hand in hand, canines from terrier to bear-like Bernese mountain dog are taking their owners for a trot.

Those fleeing the cheesy riverside pop are treated instead to synthesiser salsa outside the local pub.

There's no Spanish hip-swaying but the oldest and youngest listeners have got their groove on.

Dinner on board carries us to Caudebec-en-Caux, which means Cold River in the northern language of its Viking settlers.

Our guide Stephanie wasn't joking when she said it was very quiet. It's charming but bizarrely un-lived-in, rather like the streets of thatched cottages to which it is a gateway.

If there's anything that defines the Norman countryside it's the local breed of cow - with its brown sunglasses and creamy milk - and the cottages with their thatched roofs anchored by a ridge of deep-rooted irises. Beloved of Parisians as trendy summer houses, they're beautiful until you live in them, Stephanie warns.

She should know, she grew up in one. The rooms are dark and small. They're often so narrow there's no room for corridors - everyone had to traipse through her room to go to bed.

A thatched roof used to be the mark of a pauper. Now, it's so expensive to maintain, even with government subsidies, it's become an emblem of wealth. 

Normandy's quaint villages among the brilliant yellow rape seed are commuter country.

In Monet's Giverny, just 80km from Paris, you can buy a large contemporary house for €312,000 (NZ$516,000). An old mill will set you back €795,000 or you can buy a chateau for €1.9m.

But it's not all bucolic bliss. The road from Caudebec to the delightful fishing port of Honfleur passes the Exxon Mobil oil refinery.

Like some surreal photoshopping of a Monet masterpiece, the painter's beloved haystacks sit in the foreground, the oil waste stacks flaming in the background like giant industrial candles.

As the riverside landscape again turns to heavy industry, on the outskirts of Joan of Arc's Rouen, the focus shifts indoors.

As you would expect, most cruisers are retired couples wanting to explore the world in comfort and ease. They're a sociable bunch and the dining room set-up encourages mingling.

The crew, though, are a diverse mix. Hotel manager Roman is Austrian but lives in Majorca. Chef Olivier is Flemish Belgian but lives in Morocco.

Captain Rudy, who is just 29, is from Rouen. His parents captained cargo ships so boats have been a life-long habit.

The trick to cruising, I discovered, is to embrace the cheese - the old-time crooners belting out Les Champs Elysees, the politically-incorrect crew show, the Hi-de-Hi! style collective Macarena.

There's even dancing. That's if you can still move after a five course dinner with bottomless French wine. (The ship ploughs through 500-600 eggs and 1200 bottles of wine a week.)

There is gym equipment for the really conscientious. Or you could run 5km worth of laps of the sky deck like one crazy cruiser, whose lycra-clad bod would periodically loom across the view from my sun lounger.

While Kiwis often favour longer river cruises, a week provided a good flavour of both the region and the cruising experience itself.

As chef Olivier promised, he has sent me off with a bellyful of memories that will take months of exercise to fade.

My only regret is that there was too much eating and drinking and sight-seeing to leave time for even one day of delicious indolence.

FACT FILE

Getting there The cruise starts and finishes in Paris. Fly from Auckland via Hong Kong to Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, with Cathay Pacific. See cathaypacific.

Cruising there Avalon Waterways' 8-day Paris to Normandy's landing beaches cruise on the Tapestry II visits the towns of Vernon, Les Andelys, Caudebec, Rouen, Conflans and, of course, Paris. The itinerary is packed with included and optional excursions, including a free full-day tour - either to Normandy's landing beaches or to sample a taste of the region. All food is included and is available at almost any time of day.

Being there The Tapestry II was launched this year and carries up to 128 passengers. It boasts a large lounge and bar, separate dining deck, open sky deck and a smaller back lounge. At 18.6sqm, the suites are surprisingly roomy and have full panoramic windows which open onto the river. For more information see avalonwaterways.com/river-cruise/paris-to-normandys-landing-beaches

The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways and Cathay Pacific.

 - Stuff

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