Settling onto a velvety cushioned bench in the legendary Paris bookstore, “Shakespeare and Company”, I gazed through the quaint second-story window at the monumental reconstruction of the Notre Dame only a stone’s throw across the Seine. I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Picking up the reddish threadbare hardcover “A Moment in Time” by H. E. Bates, the book emitted a musty fragrance, reminiscent of places steeped in history. My mind swirled with the possibilities of discovering antiquity in France and experiencing the French culture built on inspiration from over the centuries, while on our Viking River Cruise “France’s Finest”.
The daytime vibrancy of Paris lingers long into the evening. At the Palais Garnier, probably the most famous opera in the world, the wealthy used to buy season Opera tickets to see and be seen by fashionable people. This legendary building was made famous in the novel ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ by Gaston Leroux in 1911, followed by the musical in 1986. Arriving here at nighttime, my husband and I melted into the watching crowd, inching toward the front, as Argentine Tango dancers wondrously emerged on the marble terrace of the elaborate Opera house. High heeled women with their arms seductively draped on their partner’s shoulder moved with enviable grace. Dancers at heart, this moment enchanted us while off in the distance the spectacular show of sparkling lights emanating from the Eiffel Tower illuminated the opaque sky.
Back on the ship sleep eluded me. Wrapping up in my plush Viking bathrobe I stepped out on our veranda to luxuriate in the balmy evening air, reclining in a comfy chair overlooking the peaceful Seine. My eyes widened as I glanced toward shore, where a couple captivated my attention as they danced romantically to the melody in their hearts under the soft shadow of a street lamp. His hand gentle but firm in the small of her back, her short skirt fluttering to the movement of their feet and eyes passionately locked. The synergy was sheer magic. When they paused, I quietly leaned over the rail and offered them a bottle of Champagne.
Long on my bucket list was the chance to explore the life of the renowned artist, Monet. Donning helmets, we set off on comfortable bicycles along the Seine River. Stopping at Eglise Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny, we located the burial site of Claude Monet and his family. When Monet passed, the Crown Prince brazenly removed the black cloth from Monet’s casket and replaced it with brightly colored flowers stating “For my friend who never uses black, only colors.” Claude Monet and his impressionist friends decided to break the rules which became the Impressionist Movement. Unheard of before, they painted in the true colors of life, using quick, visible brush strokes, a bold or light look, with an emphasis on natural light, movement, nature, weather, leisure, work, vibrancy and influenced by the Japanese. With sun rays warming our backs, we peddled on through the village to Monet’s place of inspiration for over 40 years, now maintained by the Monet Foundation. Treading Monet’s garden paths allowed us to view firsthand the landscapes portrayed in many of his paintings. Glimpsing his famous green bridge, catching sight of an old wooden boat tucked away near the pond, and gazing on yellow water lilies beside colorful Nymphaea’s gracing the water’s surface. His works exploded into real life!
En route back to our ship, we pulled up alongside the Old Mill in Vernon which hangs precariously above the river’s edge. We stopped to sample scrumptious local cider, a blend of nine varieties of apples. Our picnic included Norman delicacies from a local boulangerie-pâtisserie comprised of apple stuffed brioches that literally melted in our mouths along with three different concoctions of exquisite macaroons.
Not all are romantic in France, practical also wins the day. Amidst the endless apple orchards in Normandy is The Domaine Duclos Fougeray, a picturesque rustic farm with buildings built in 1750 made of stone, clay, and timber. This ranch devotes 40 acres of apples for hard cider, Pommeau de Normandie (cider with brandy) and Calvados (apple brandy).
Kim, our host, and a retired engineer quipped, “The farm has 100 ewes and two rams who mate the end of September. Nice work if you can get it!” Sheep are critical to the farm’s success. Factors to consider include purchasing sheep who don’t attack the bark on apple trees. Regularly spreading sheep manure along with an annual light dusting of chicken droppings. And selecting sheep that love to eat apples, thus breaking the cycle of worms who bore into apples, in order to lay larvae, which causes the apples to fall too early. Naturally, owning sheep requires a sheepdog. Meet Hugh, the resident dog trained between ages one and two – with all commands in French, of course. Energy emits from his lithe body as he anticipates doing what he loves most…herding sheep. These animals contribute to a bounty of apples. From the apple harvest, cider is created and Calvados distilled. In addition to extensive knowledge about these brews, Kim relishes cookery and releases his first cookbook next month. After happily sampling his artistic appetizers along with the Pommeau and Calvados, we can vouch for his culinary accomplishments.
Cruising on to the Beaujolais wine country where granite soils and warmer climate make it ideal for growing grapes, we visited Chateau de Varennes owned by the Charveriat family and founded in 1809. Wines with a village name fall under strict credential guidelines. Grapes must be hand-picked, vines shaped in the traditional Roman style goblet, sulfates kept at a minimum, use of organic farming methods and vineyards watered with only natural rainfall. And what great timing! We observed Polish workers in the midst of processing freshly picked grapes as the fragrant aromas wafted toward us. Three individuals operating the grape crushing machinery were dripping with purple juice. From behind the equipment peeked ahead of silver, he sized up our group and then casually strode out to continue working wearing nothing but his hairy chest and his briefs…why unnecessarily stain your clothes?
Further downstream, in a mountainous province along the Right Bank of the Rhône sits Viviers, a sleepy town founded in the 5th century and one of the best-preserved medieval towns in southern France. No wonder the movie Chocolat was filmed here.
Our shoes plodded on lamp-lit cobblestones as we maneuvered through enchanting narrow streets winding between ancient stone buildings, making our way from lower to upper town at the top of the hill. The French tend to conceal their wealth, so basically, the exterior of the houses looked similar. Conversely, the interior displays their individual styles and affluence. When we paused in awe at one recently refurbished wood and gleaming metal door, our fascinating guide, Francis, mentioned, “I live here, so if you get lost in Viviers come to find me. My aunt once owned this home and used it as a safe house during the French Resistance”. A lost wandering tourist hesitantly knocked on the old wooden door late one night hoping the offer was sincere. Warm smiles from Francis and her son flooded the night. He stayed with them until morning, then reunited with his wife. A charming friendship was forged between the four of them, which continues to this day.
The heart of travel is people. The richest experiences we gleaned came from unexpected connections along the way. Sailing with Viking afforded countless occasions for interacting with French locals and shipmates. I realize this trip sounds idyllic, and truthfully it was!
“There are good ships and wood ships and ships that sail at sea, the best ships are friendship, may they always be.” Lionel Auber
LivingBetter50 Travel Editor
Pamela’s expertise flows from building her own successful business to guiding small and mid-size companies. She analyzes the business structure, is a diplomatic negotiator, identifies operational issues, and implements effective resolutions to lead a firm on a path to excellence. Her experience ranges from resort management, leadership conferences, property management, and business consulting to extensive traveling and travel editor of this online publication. Pamela shares the vision of LivingBetter50 to celebrate and encourage women of 50+ who desire to live life with spirit and passion each and every day.