A Journey into history
Cruising the Seine
By Bob Irvine
In September, my wife Karen and I took a cruise down the Seine from Paris. With many stops along the way, our ship, the Amadante, spent a week plying the Seine before reaching Le Havre on France’s Normandy coast. We then left our ship and travelled by bus for a four-day tour of Saint-Malo in Brittany. Here are just a few highlights of our trip.
Dominating the cobblestoned centre of Normandy’s capital is the immense Notre Dame Cathedral. Built and rebuilt over eight hundred years, the church has three towers, each with its own distinctive architectural style. Across the square and facing the cathedral for many decades was a department store. In 1892, Claude Monet asked if he could paint the cathedral from there. The manager of the ladies’ lingerie department cleared out a storage closet with a window to make space for him. The result was some 30 exquisite paintings of the cathedral, exploring the play of light on its columns and sculptures in Monet’s Impressionist style.
Strolling under the Great Clock of Rouen (originally crafted in 1389 and housed in a Renaissance arch), we reach the Old Market. Here we learn the stories of two women. The first is immensely sad: a small garden on the north side of the market marks the exact spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. Her crimes? In addition to declaring her a heretic, the judge admonished the 19-year-old for leading French troops into battle while garbed in men’s clothing!
On the south side of the market is a much happier story. It involves La Couronne, the oldest inn in France, founded in 1345. It was here in 1948 that Julia Child ate what she later described as “the most exciting meal of my life” (oysters, sole meunière and a green salad). Julia then enrolled in the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, traditionally a male bastion. In 1961, after nine years of recipe testing and research with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Julia published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. Coming later were Volume 2 and TV programs in which Julia invited Americans to venture with her into a world beyond mashed potatoes and meatloaf. And it all started in Rouen!
The D-Day Beaches
A trip to the Normandy beaches where Allied soldiers landed – and the nearby cemeteries where the fallen were laid to rest – is a moving and melancholy experience. The scale of this largest amphibious attack in history defies comprehension: on June 6, 1944, over 6,000 Allied vessels transported more than 130,000 soldiers across the English Channel. (Some 20,000 Allied soldiers were dropped by parachute and gliders inland behind the enemy’s beachhead positions.)
The Juno Beach Centre pays homage to the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives during the Second World War. While at the centre, we explored the remains of a Nazi gun emplacement. We were disturbed by the commanding view that the gunners there would have had of Allied soldiers advancing on the beach before them. Of the 14,000 Canadians who landed on Juno Beach on D-Day, 340 were killed.
After passing through the massive walls of Saint-Malo at its Saint-Vincent gate, one is instantly transported back to medieval times. (Aromas from nearby restaurants serving steaming galettes bretonnes keep you firmly rooted in the 21st century.) It was from here that corsairs – pirates appointed by the King of France – pillaged foreign ships in the English Channel. It was also from here on April 20, 1534, that Jacques Cartier began his first of three voyages to explore what would become Canada. And Chateaubriand – not the roast beef tenderloin but rather François-René de Chateaubriand, the influential historian, writer, politician, and diplomat – was born here in 1768.
Because of its fortifications, Saint-Malo housed a major Nazi garrison and served as an important communications hub linked to Berlin. For this reason, on August 6, 1944, Allied planes bombed Saint-Malo. At the same time, 10 battalions of American artillery fired on the town. In the end, Saint-Malo was liberated but severely damaged. A major program of rebuilding after the war returned Saint-Malo to its former splendour. The town served as the setting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. (Netflix is currently making a series based on the novel.) Karen read the book voraciously whenever we had a free moment on our trip.
The Seine: Heart of Many Stories
These are just a few examples of sights that we saw on our Seine cruise. There are many others. On a rainy day, Karen and I explored Mont Saint-Michel, first established as a monastery in the eighth century. At his beautiful home and gardens at Giverny, Claude Monet painted his beloved waterlilies. In the town of Bayeux, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts – on embroidered cloth almost 70 metres long – the events leading up to the conquest of England by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Interested in exploring these and other spots, in person or as an armchair traveller? Here is a good starting point: en.normandie-tourisme.fr/discover/.
Bob Irvine is a long-time Glebite and frequent contributor to the Glebe Report.