Culture, chateaux, cider apples, cycling and cows with glasses
If an apple a day keeps the doctor away then I should be in very good health – assuming the old adage applies to consuming the fruit in liquid form too. It’s not yet lunchtime, and I’m enjoying generous samples of cider, Calvados and a delicious aperitif called Pommeau. In the preceding days, to fully test the theory, I’d tucked into apple and calvados sorbet, French apple pie and main courses served with apple sauce.
On the way to Chateau du Breuil, one of the leading calvados distilleries in Normandy, we’d passed orchards of apple-laden trees and the 17th century chateau has around 22,000 of its own. The informative guided tour took in the distillery before moving to the ‘cellar’ where Calvados is left to mature in barrels for up to 45 years. Unusually, the storage room is above ground and was built by ships’ carpenters, hence the impressive curved ceiling resembling the upturned hull of a boat. The barrels lose 3% of their contents during the evaporation process, which is lyrically described as the ‘angels’ share’, but still left plenty for our tasting session.
Continuing the countryside tour, we pass lush fields that are home to the region’s Normande cows, responsible for producing the rich cream and cheese for which Normandy is also famous and with distinctive spectacle-shaped brown patches around their eyes. Food and drink aside, from William the Conqueror to Joan of Arc and the D-Day landings, many chapters of Europe’s turbulent history have been written in this part of northern France and a river cruise is a fantastic way to take it all in.
Starting and finishing in Paris, our cruise with AmaWaterways took us to new sights and experiences daily, with no need to pack and unpack or embark on lengthy transfers to reach the next highlight. Carrying just 158 passengers, AmaLyra’s size means it can dock in prime spots inaccessible to larger river ships. So although longer vessels moor out of town, we had a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower on our first night, which set the scene for the week.
Part of the fascination of the Seine is that it remains an important commercial waterway. Flowing into the English Channel at Le Havre, it is navigable by ocean-going vessels as far as Rouen, and we shared the river with all kinds of vessels, including vast barges laden with freight.
The next day we arrive in Vernon, close to the village of Giverny that Claude Monet spotted while looking out of a train window. From 1883 to 1926 he made it his home and his beloved gardens became the subject of more than 500 paintings. While the majority of passengers opt for the coach tour, we decide to get there using AmaLyra’s on-board bikes which are freely available at all ports of call. It’s a tranquil ride along the old railway line used by Monet which is now a cycle and walking trail. There’s a sense of déjà vu as we walk into the gardens and see the instantly recognisable lily pond and arched bridge immortalised in his work.
Unlike many river cruise lines AmaWaterways offers a choice of daily excursions, not just one, and all included in the fare. For instance, are many evocative reminders of the D-Day landings including monuments, museums, military sites, intensely poignant war cemeteries and, of course, the landing beaches. To ensure passengers get the most from their visit the day’s programme includes separate tours focusing on British and Canadian beaches and the US beaches.
Ensuing days, interspersed with cruising, brought the choice of walking or guided cycling tours in Rouen, the historic capital of Normandy with lovely half-timbered houses and where Joan of Arc was infamously burned at the stake in 1431. Rouen’s cathedral is arguably the most beautiful Gothic church in the whole of France, with intricate architecture spanning the 13th to 16th centuries, flamboyant decoration and striking stained-glass.
Les Andelys, set on a strategic curve on the Seine, grew up around the mighty 12th century stronghold built by Richard the Lionheart when he was Duke of Normandy. Again, we opt for pedal power rather than the walking tour and cycle around the town in the wake of our eloquent guide Frederic Olivier. A terrific raconteur, with the addition of a plethora of sound effects to illustrate trebuchets and other weaponry, he relates the story of Les Andelys’ role as the ‘padlock of Normandy’ and how the Chateau Gaillard stronghold survived a year-long siege before falling to the French.
Back on AmaLyra, the heart of the ship is the panoramic lounge which is a perfect spot for watching the world float past. There are daily talks and musical interludes with the resident pianist as well as visiting evening entertainers, including a couple performing French chansons and a passionate interpretation of Edith Piaf songs from chanteuse Caroline Nin.
AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line belonging to La Chaine De Rotisseurs, a prestigious invitation-only culinary organisation. Imaginative and beautifully presented dishes span healthy options to full-on French fare showcasing the local meats, apples, cheese, cream and butter that led to Normandy being dubbed the ‘larder of Paris’ in the 19th century due to its abundance of produce. One day there is a Champagne and oyster lunch, another day French cheese takes culinary centre stage. Each week there is a captain’s gala night and passengers can also book dinner at the Chef’s Table, a seven-course tasting menu, in the intimate second dining room at the back of the ship. Contributing to the spirit of entente cordiale throughout the cruise there is free-flowing complimentary wine with lunch and dinner.
Our cultural and gastronomic journey ended back in Paris, where we left AmaLyra with expanding waistbands and happy memories. With the help of the AmaWaterways’ recipe cards left in the cabin I can even try and recreate some of the recipes back home. Bon appétit!
AmaWaterways’ seven-night Paris & Normandy cruise on AmaLyra is available from March to November, priced from £2,250pp, based on two people sharing a cabin, and including all on board meals, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, daily tours and excursions, complimentary bicycle hire and free Wi-Fi.