Exploring France's finest by river 

In the wake of the heinous terrorism episodes on France last year, I vowed to show my solidarity.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY KARIN LEPERI - American Normandy Cemetery & Memorial
  • Photo by Karin Leperi
  • American Normandy Cemetery & Memorial
     
 

I would travel to France in the aftermath, to be part of a resistance movement that won't let the freedom-to-travel be chained. So it was, with that in mind, that I booked a Viking cruise of "France's Finest." For 15 glorious days, I sampled the best of both northern and southern France, from Paris and the heart of Normandy to Lyon and Provence: It proved to be an unbeatable combination – a tour de force.

The joys of river cruising

There is something to be said about not packing and repacking when on travel. No need to worry about the logistics of transportation between towns. The delight in having complimentary Wi-Fi and with all meals provided for during the cruise appealed to my sense of value. The inclusion of complimentary bottled wine, beer and soft drinks with onboard lunch and dinner appealed to my culinary senses.

I was left to totally immerse myself in charming French cities, towns, villages, and bucolic countryside while learning about Paris's sophistication, remembering the Second World War beaches of Normandy, savouring Lyon's culinary heritage, drinking Burgundian and Beaujolais wines, sampling French cheeses, celebrating Provencal cooking and lifestyle, walking the cobble-stone streets of medieval towns, and connecting with famous impressionistic and post-impressionistic artists from Claude Monet to Vincent van Gogh.

During my cruise, there were 13 guided tours that were included (no additional fee) along with an audio headset to ensure I didn't miss a word. One of the most soul-stirring was a trip to the beaches of Normandy — in particular, our stop at the Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial. It was dedicated in 1956, with 9,387 burials and 1,557 MIA's honoured on the grounds. Over one million visitors come annually to pay respect to those Americans who gave their lives during the Second World War Normandy invasion and European operations.

A Yellow Rose for 2LT Walter H. Baker

Thank you Viking River tours for thoughtfully providing passengers with roses to pay our respect, and for giving me the opportunity to honour our distinguished but fallen soldiers. I laid to rest a yellow rose to honour the memory of 2nd Lt. William Baker from California, who gave his life on June 9, 1944 during the Second World War Normandy invasion. (I made a connection because I grew up in California and because Baker was my previous surname from marriage). Nearby, a single peach rose adorned an unknown grave marked simply with the words: "Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms known but to God."

Our time roaming the cemetery grounds was followed by a special scheduled ceremony in the courtyard of the memorial. I wanted to be there. During the brief dedication, taps and salutes were rendered to those who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. The blue skies overhead were punctuated by several fleecy white clouds. As the music played, a single tear gently rolled down my cheek as I contemplated the magnitude of those sacrifices.

Then, something quite unexpected happened. The moderator asked for all those who were serving and who had served in the American uniformed services to step forward for a moment of gratitude — to thank soldiers and sailors for their service. As a retired naval officer, I knew I should claim a spot, and marched forward to an area not far from the central bronze statue. I was joined by a majority of men and a few other women.

France's most beautiful medieval town

I visited Perouges as an optional Viking tour, because I couldn't resist exploring the most beautiful French medieval town. Built high on a hill with the French Alps as a backdrop, this medieval village built of stone is one of the best preserved in France. With towering walls that enclose the town along with cobblestone streets, it doesn't get any more authentic than this.

There are several restaurants, gift stores, as well as places to stay, but our guide mentioned the lack of nightlife within the walls. But we were here for the afternoon only. After negotiating uneven streets and alleys, our guide treated us to the local "Galette de Perouges" at one of the restaurants. (This is a local specialty best described as a sugar pizza.)

Sampling of Provence

From an ancient Roman Amphitheatre (Les Arenes) in Arles that once featured chariot races to Avignon Less Halles where you can taste Provencal products to your heart's delight, Provence is a place where the unusual is a part of everyday life.

One of the more unusual was my optional excursion to the Camargue. The Camargue river delta in southern France is a place where French cowboys, white Camargue horses, and black bulls run unfettered along the coastlines and marshy wetlands. The Provencal cowboys are called "gardians" and have traditionally taken the Camargue horses as their mount to herd black bulls for their famous bull festivals (they do not kill the bulls).

After a demonstration of triage, our group is treated to a delicious meal of "daube" — a Provencal beef stew cooked and seasoned with herbs de Provence along with a local side dish of ratatouille. Later, we stop at Aigues Mortes — which translates as "dead waters" due to the surrounding marshes. It is a well-preserved walled medieval town once a port in the days of Saint Louis (Louis IX). Nowadays, the actual town is several kilometres inland due to the accumulation of silt over the years. It harbours dozens of shops, boutiques, and sidewalk cafes.

After shopping for all things Provence like lavender, sea salt, herbs de Provence, rice, and the ever popular Nougat de Montelimar, we head back to our longboat, the Viking Buri, Along the way our guide sincerely thanks us for coming to France, especially this year as she poignantly notes that others chose to stay home. She adds with heartfelt emotion, "We welcome you and honour you as the resistance."

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IF YOU GO:

Viking River Cruises: vikingrivercruises.com

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