The Gems of the Seine River aboard the AmaLyra
Seeing France through a Mother’s Eyes
by Ilona Kauremszky
Losing a loved-one is always difficult. We lost Dad five years ago. He never saw Paris and only saw the waterfront of Le Havre as he made his flight to Canada in 1957, leaving behind his war-ravaged homeland of Hungary that was pitted in fresh bullets from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
My mum had never seen Paris either.
But I have been blessed with many visits to the City of Light. For me, each trip has been filled with magical discoveries. Now it was time to kick-start Mum’s Paris journey and to explore France through her eyes.
This past spring we embarked on a river cruise that took us from the Haussmann-built Paris streets north to the Gothic shrines of Normandy. I researched a variety of river cruises but kept circling back to AmaLyra’s itinerary, amenities and included excursions provided by a top river cruise line company, AmaWaterways.
Known for its unforgettable river cruise experiences, the award-winning cruise line has made spring-time river cruising a special occasion for all its guests. We know. We were among them. Mornings began with cappuccinos, our favourite coffee always promptly provided by the attentive restaurant staff. Daily tours were led by knowledgeable guides and the evenings turned into festive events thanks to the talented pianist Mike who tickled the ivories, playing a dueling harmonica and guitar simultaneously even singing pop songs.
I confess as a birthday girl whose bonne fete happened during our trip my sweet tooth was deeply satisfied with two birthday cakes presented in fine cruise fashion on separate occasions. One night during supper at The Chef’s Table specialty restaurant I shared my cake with other dinner guests. Another evening around our circle of dining friends, the plumpest chocolate mousse cake made its grand entrance ushered in by a singing cast of crew.
As avid gardeners and lovers of joie de vivre (Mum and I anticipate each dining affair with eager eyes and empty tummies), we reserved the all-inclusive tours best suited to our interests. On board the AmaLyra our affable cruise manager Melissa assisted guest inquiries. I pre-booked our excursions and was pleased to have done this. On boarding day, there was more free time to settle into our cabin and spend quality girl time aboard the ship as we later bee-lined to the lounge for afternoon coffee and cakes.
At the outset I hoped the trip would help Mum and I deal with the 5 year hump in our loss. Dad was her Fred Astaire. “I’ll never dance again,” she once remarked soon after his death. She also leaned on him for everything.
But in this remarkable cruise I feel those sentiments have changed. I saw a gal in her golden years blossom. We laughed together, sang songs together, and even left our lounge seats to dance the night away. The first ones to arrive to the lounge and yes, on one evening, among the last to leave. That was the night our unstoppable group won the “Name That Tune” contest.
On our cruise, we saw guests who arrived as strangers leaving as friends. A couple from California befriended Mum soon after we boarded. On our first excursion in Les Andelys, a cruise guest took her arm on the snaky hilltop path by the Chateau Gaillard, a 12th century castle built by Richard the Lion-Heart. She soldiered on atop the hill’s spine confident with each stride. These thoughtful moments from cruise passengers recurred throughout our sail.
In Le Havre, we awoke to a misty morning, hallmarks of a bristle-speckled canvas only Monet could master. The Impressionist artist whose childhood was spent in Le Havre was renowned for his paintings of the region including Rouen’s Cathedral of Notre Dame and Honfleur. His most renowned paintings are of the idyllic water lilies in Giverny. We eagerly awaited for our excursions to all these extraordinary places.
Our ship sailed into Vernon, the port of call on day six on a sun dappled mid-morning. We hopped inside a spacious motor coach to explore countrysides of spire-like columnar trees and bucolic vistas dotted with cows in meadows worthy of Impressionist art.
In Giverny, we were overjoyed to finally explore Monet’s world. Beneath an overpass we passed a bumbling brook to stroll along a footpath that announced, “Monet’s House and Garden.” With our green thumbs itching we plunged into the “Garden of Gardens” immersed in a bouquet of springtime perennials. The darling buds of late March popped their fragrant heads atop Monet’s apple trees. Rows upon rows of other green shoots sprouted by the footpaths.
“Smell this – look at these, how beautiful,” said Mum in no particular order at each turn. The eternal natural beauty left by Monet has been lovingly preserved by a crew of gardeners, all of whom were busy on scene.
Uninterrupted we skimmed our hands over the Japanese footbridge at the water lily pond immortalized by Monet. We posed for photos. We smiled and hugged some more.
The historic estate, which was Monet’s home for 43 years is open for tours and is a must-see. Mum and I headed inside without the crowds to discover rooms that appeared as if the great painter had just stepped outside to inspect his garden. Early spring is a fine time to immerse in the world of Monet – no shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.
In Vernon we toured the Chateau de Bizy, a French chateau, saw rare furniture pieces from dining table chairs to accent chairs ironically familiar to us. “We have these styles at home,” relayed Mum, noting her own exquisite taste in fine furniture.
In Rouen we took our foodie senses on a culinary walking tour and scoured the medieval streets in search of chocolate making, Norman cheeses and cider which are among the region’s gastronomic specialties. The area is renowned for creamy cheeses and apple orchards.
Back on board, during our entire week, husband and wife Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo of Messina Hof Winery led various wine seminars. We poked our noses inside glasses, smelled the fruity aromas and rich bouquets of his winery’s award-winners and toasted some more. The couple happily encouraged us to enjoy the pairings with assorted cheeses and dark chocolates. We did.
In Paris, the City of Light strengthened our soul. By day we were off to the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral. The scope of this Christian landmark captivated us. Its ancient doors were open to everyone as the masses poured into this sanctuary. Mum gasped in sheer wonder over her. We both kneeled and said a prayer for Dad. Sadly, we are among the last visitors who were fortunate to see the heart of Paris,a UNESCO World Heritage site, before the devastating inferno wiped out the cultural symbol.
By night, Paris invigorated our senses even more. After our farewell dinner and evening entertainment, our captain announced a surprise best viewed on the sun deck. We sailed up the River Seine as an indigo sky splashed soft colours over the city. By the Grenelle Bridge on the Île aux Cygnes, the AmaLyra stood still like a musical conductor anticipating the next orchestral note. Suddenly on cue, the Eiffel Tower instantly transformed into a glittering golden jewel box of gems.
Seeing the shimmering sight of Paris’ beloved tower like so many other moments during our cruise left us breathless. Mum was mesmerized in the City of Light. “This Paris…is so beautiful,” she softly murmured watching the dazzling display.
The AmaLyra had worked her magic.
AmaWaterways features 7-night Paris-Normandy river cruises including optional wine cruises onboard the AmaLyra.