Normandy reveals its heritage treasures one port at a time during an unforgettable journey through the heart of France’s architectural and cultural history
By Ismaël Houdassine
River cruises appeal to travellers looking for restful pleasures rather than the bustle of a large and noisy cruise ship filled with tourists. The slow pace of the journey, interrupted at intervals by the need to pass through locks, the limited number of passengers on board (from 100 to 150, on average), and the short distances covered are some of the attractions of the concept.
Our adventure begins in Paris, just steps from the Eiffel Tower. The MS Botticelli, a craft that can hold 150 people at the most, is moored at the Quai de Grenelle. As we leave the French capital, the storied bridges and buildings of the City of Light pass before our eyes.
The mighty River Seine flows through a bucolic countryside and past picturesque villages, and our ship meanders through the landscape to our first stop: the commune (or township) of Les Andelys. Here we find the breathtaking beauty of the area’s heights and a stunning view of the ruins of Château-Gaillard, a medieval castle constructed by Richard the Lionheart between 1196 and 1198, when he was the Duke of Normandy as well as England’s king.
At the wharf, we head out to explore this famous castle, which was captured by France’s King Philip II in 1204, the first of many times it would change hands over the years. The yacht harbour below is also worth a look, with its magnificent traditional half-timbered houses. Lovers of monuments won’t want to pass up an excursion to Castle Martainville, which houses The Museum of Norman Traditions and Arts.
Joan of Arc and Madame Bovary
Our next stop is Rouen, a vibrant city overflowing with history and surprises. Normandy’s capital features a number of architectural gems dating from the Renaissance, including the Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral, immortalized time and again by Claude Monet.
Strolling for a few hours in the ancient twisting alleys of the historic district is like travelling back in time to meet famous people such as Joan of Arc. It was in the Place du Vieux-Marché, at a spot marked today by a large cross, that the Maid of Orléans was tried for heresy and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431.
Lovers of literature can walk under carved porches and half-timbered houses as they make their way to 51 rue de Lecat, where Gustave Flaubert was born. The family home and its flower garden have been turned into a museum dedicated entirely to the early years of the author of Madame Bovary. Along the way, take a break and enjoy one of the region’s specialties: a Normandy crepe.
Beyond Rouen, the Seine covers 180 kilometres (119 miles) before reaching the English Channel near Caen, the home of the Caen Memorial Museum and its exhibits dedicated to D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.
The old port of nearby Honfleur is a pure delight. Bordered by colourful houses, the port city was the Impressionists’ playground. Its winding streets, authentic market, and distinct maritime ambience make it one of the region’s most impressive spots. Be sure to climb the hill to Notre-Dame-de-Grâce chapel to take in the panoramic view of the Seine estuary and the Pont de Normandie bridge. The sight is breathtaking.
From Honfleur, there’s no shortage of excursions. You can follow along the Côte Fleurie to visit seaside resorts with authentic charm, such as Deauville or Cabourg. You can also head for the Albâtre coast and Veules-les-Roses, one of the prettiest villages in France. Finally, the more fearless will jump at the chance to hike to Étretat and its magical white chalk cliffs.
Bringing together culture, nature, and history, Normandy is a region crammed with wonderful surprises. It’s a gorgeous part of the country—as you leave, you’ll be promising yourself that you’ll be back.