Cruising into French History

By on October 28, 2019
French History

We walked up the plank to board the Viking River Cruise ship, my husband and I had eagerly anticipated embarking on a river cruise for some time.  This mode of travel is remarkably stress-free and comfortably stylish with understated elegance. It was to be our floating hotel for the next week, floating from one port to the next.  Traversing along the river was to give us access to French history. Walking on cobblestone streets in medieval towns, exploring an emperor’s country residence or marveling at the mastermind behind the Roman Aqueduct.  The vastness of history experienced on France’s Finest, a Viking river cruise, is a reminder that the universe we live in expands significantly beyond our personal world.

We arrived in Rouen, a city with a turbulent history, devastated by fire and plague during the Middle Ages.  Joan of Arc, the young French heroine was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in Rouen. Bombing during WWII laid waste to large portions of the city.  Now it stands as the capital of Normandy with a scenic haven to dock along the Seine river. We boarded a luxury motorcoach and headed to the beaches of Normandy.  Ironically, our escorts included a good-natured German driver and a spellbinding French tour guide who appeared to get along superbly.  Relations between the nations have not always been so amicable.

The surrender of France to Germany on June 1940, coupled with the creation of a Nazi-approved Vichy government, was an overwhelming blow to many French citizens.  The French Resistance, “La Résistance”, rose up with cells consisting of small groups of armed men and women who engaged in guerrilla warfare. Published underground newspapers provided intelligence information and maintained escape networks to help the Allies trapped behind the enemy lines.  The French Resistance movement fought against the Nazi German occupation of France – leading up to D-Day and the Battle of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The invasion of Provence on August 15, 1944, was followed by the Allies’ rapid advance through France into Germany. These battle strategies culminated successfully after years of planning and development. The allies secretly built two prefabricated harbors to protect landing craft during these invasions. Prior to the Battle of Normandy, ships towed the artificial barrier sections across the Channel to France, assembling it off the coast. Remnants of this monumental effort can be seen today. They expect that over the next ten years, these artifacts will succumb to the ravages of time. French History

At the end of our sojourn to the beaches, our guides appreciatively grinned and shook hands.  Nevertheless, the French do not forget why the Allies came and fought by their side.   In Normandy, the provincial town of Vernon with rows of half-timbered houses reminded us how recent this history is.  Strolling by an open second-story window, we noticed the United States and Canadian flags clutched in an arthritic waving hand, by an old woman in her 90’s who was just 11 when the Allies liberated her town.  Her beaming smile and love for Americans touched our hearts. Smiling, we waved back.

French historyGoing further back in history, we visited the country home of Napoleon Bonaparte, Chateau de Malmaison.  Napoleon, a controversial figure who was a hero to some and a tyrant to others, rose from poor, humble beginnings and believed he was doing what was right for France.  He went on to become one of history’s greatest military leaders, rising to prominence during the French Revolution and serving as emperor of France. He centralized government, instigated education reforms, reinstated Roman Catholicism as the state religion, created the Bank of France and commissioned the elaborate Arc de Triomphe.   Who was the secret behind his success?  

A woman.  In 1796, Napoleon bolstered his national profile dramatically both by his critical victories against the Austrians and by his marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais.  Napoleon always adored Joséphine but she lost her ability to conceive during her imprisonment for being an aristocrat. By 1810 he divorced her and married Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, who bore him a son, Napoleon II.  In hindsight, Josephine’s great gift of listening to the influential people and sharing her perceptions with Napoleon played a larger role in his life than he realized. The downfall of his career came when he married Marie and although he generously continued to provide for Josephine, he no longer had access to her insights.  

On the walls of the Chateau de Malmaison, a striking portrait of Napoleon commanded our attention.  The wild-eyed stallion, frightened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s power, rises up in front of the conquered Alps mountains.  This famous portrait portrays his military might and a bit of “fake news”. Traversing the steep highlands required Napoleon to ride mules.  Napoleon’s horse did not have the ability to traipse these peaks. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s planning, execution, and cunning military genius will always define him.

Docking at an Avignon port on the Rhône river, we took the opportunity to hike beside the nearby river of Gardon.  Rounding a bend in the trail, the massive Pont du Gard Aqueduct loomed as a masterpiece of ingenuity going all the way back to Roman times 2000 years ago. This magnificent three-tiered structure, built without mortar, was one of the most ambitious engineering projects of its era.  Carrying water to the Roman outpost of Nimes from the springs of Uzes 31 miles away. It took 24 hours over an average tiny gradient of 10 inches per mile for the water to move the whole distance of the aqueduct. The Pont du Gard stands today as the greatest legacy of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus. For form and function, it is one of the Roman Empire’s most astounding vestiges.French history

Water from the Aqueduct played another important role in Roman culture, as an essential source for the famous Roman baths which fostered community. These public baths were within the budget of most free Roman males.  After a morning’s work, the freeborn Romans enjoyed spending the afternoon at the Thermae (large imperial bath complexes) as a social meeting place. Not only did men and women come to bathe, but to meet with friends, exercise, or read at the library.  As forerunners to our current day spas, the baths had hot and cold pools, steam rooms, saunas, exercise rooms, and hair salons. Reminiscent of the past, society continues to benefit from spas today.

French historyTime continues to march forward creating a new history in its wake.  We learn from the past and appreciate those who have gone before us, hoping that we make better decisions ourselves.   As the nineteenth century magistrate of history, Lord Acton stated: “History is not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul.”

Pamela Lovegren’s expertise flows from building her own successful business to guiding small and mid-size companies. She analyzes 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.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Ronald James Carper

    October 28, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Very remarkable, I felt as though I had a tour guide. This would be an amazing adventure to slowly cruise from one spot to another learning every piece of history as we go. To actually be able to see the sites would the heart-stopper to enjoy. This will definitely be placed on my list of life activities to experience.

  2. Mary Tyler

    October 28, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    This sounds like a wonderful vacation! Thanks, Pam, for the history you wove into your travel article.

  3. Carol Miller

    October 29, 2019 at 10:13 pm

    Great pics. I loved how they matched the narrative.

  4. Linda Hurley

    November 3, 2019 at 6:17 pm

    What an interesting tour! I would “like” this article but I do not do Facebook. But I do LIKE it!! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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Cruising into French History