During a light drizzle on Omaha Beach in Normandy, I scoop up a handful of sacred sand and carefully place it in a container. It’s hard to fathom on this eerily quiet day that I’m standing on the site where 12,000 Allied Forces lost their lives on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Beaches with code names, Omaha, Utah and Gold, were about a mile from the 100-foot salt bluffs where Germans troops awaited. But with constant assault from long range cannons in the well-fortified blockhouses, it must have seemed more like 1,000 to the young soldiers clamoring out of their landing craft.
We visit La Pointe Du Hoc, the highest point located halfway between Omaha and Utah beaches where 225 Rangers, including my cousin, Lt. George Klein, were given orders to take the hill and the main road behind. Three-thousand brave American boys met their deaths in the battle that ensued, but miraculously they accomplished their mission. Despite a bayonet wound in his thigh, George lived to return with all his limbs in tact and a chest full of medals.
At the American cemetery at Collesville S’Laurent, the gray sky echoes our somber mood. Hushed visitors walk silently through row upon row of crosses, interspersed with a few Stars of David. All face the sea where they lost their lives. A heart-rending recording of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Taps” pierces the silence and there’s hardly a dry eye at the memorial as the veterans of Korea and Viet Nam aboard our cruise ship stand at attention, blinking the tears away.
The trip to Normandy was decidedly one of the reasons a friend and I chose the Viking Cruise Line but there were many other places on the itinerary that excited us,especially Paris. It’s a city I’ve dreamed of since my high school French teacher said “Bonjour! Comment alley-vous?” in a lilting voice that sounded more like a song than a language. Though I’ve forgotten more French than I ever knew, the dream of seeing Paris has never died and decades later, it becomes a reality.
River cruises like the Viking Pride are designed for travelers over 55 who want to pack and unpack only once, eat at a five-star restaurant (onboard) three times a day and visit fascinating locales at a leisurely pace. It’s perfect for couples with different tastes, i.e., if the wife wants to shop and the husband is into history, it’s easy to go separate ways and reconvene at mealtime. The handsome ships stops at the edge of quaint towns that makes coming and going easy for all.
Bleary-eyed at 6 a.m. after a 10-hour flight, we land at Charles de Gaulle Airport where we are transported to the ship, a 140-passenger floating hotel. Our cabin is compact but adequate with plenty enough storage for two women and daily room service.
After a buffet lunch onboard, we find our second wind and take a taxi to the famous d’Orsay Museum that boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. Meandering through the permanent collection on the fifth floor, we gaze in awe at the wide array of Monet’s, van Gogh’s, Manet’s, Cassatt’s and more, then linger in front of “Whistler’s Mother,” immortalized by her son, James McNeil Whistler.
Over a seated dinner we mingle with the 140 other jet-lagged passengers who have come from nearly every state, Canada and Australia. Though there is live music and entertainment in the lounge nightly, our beds call and we slip into an exhausted slumber.
By the next day we’re raring to see the City of Lights and join others for a bus tour of all the well-know sights – The Arc d’ Triomphe, The Louvre, Les Invalides (Napoleons Tomb), the Eiffel Tower with a stop-over at Notre Dame (and time for shopping or exploring the grand edifice).
The Louvre is next on the agenda – a museum so enormous that if you stand in front of every work of art for just three seconds it will take you three months to see it all! The crowds are equally enormous, but our knowledgeable guide leads us through the crush of tourists for glimpses of Winged Victory, Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa whose elusive smile eludes me. All I can see above the throngs is the frame.
That night, we sail toward the little city of Vernon and fall sleep to the soft hum of the engines and the lapping of the water against the side of the boat. Outside our large picture window, twinkling lights from quaint villages beckon all who pass.
Another highlight is a visit to Giverny, the home and spectacular gardens where impressionist Claude Monet lived and painted from 1883 to his death in 1926. It far exceeds our expectations. Monet’s large but unpretentious home is furnished much as he left it, and in the gardens that inspired him we spot numerous scenes from many of his paintings, including the famous Japanese bridges. Patti and I (art class buddies) sit happily on a bench and sketch for a few minutes before wandering the magnificent gardens and water lily ponds, a riot of color in early spring.
On to Rouen, the capital of Normandy, best known as the site where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431 – a chilling reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. But the small city is full of charming half-timbered buildings and cobblestone streets that rise upward from the Seine luring us into small stores, particularly the chocolate shop known for “The Tears of Joan of Arc,” (almonds dipped in chocolate and covered in cocoa powder).
The last stop on the tour is the piece de resistance – the Palace of Versailles -- built as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII and embellished by his son Louis XIV who turned it into the magnificent official residence of the Court of France. Words can’t describe the resplendence of the palace where the ceilings are filled with breathtaking paintings and gilded décor covers every nook and cranny. The famed Hall of Mirrors lives up to its reputation with scores of crystal chandeliers, a painted arched ceiling, gold statues and candelabra -- all reflected in the arched mirrors that line the walls.
Before saying au revoir to Paris, we leave the ship after breakfast and head to the Eiffel Tower, the last site on our wish list. It’s far more majestic than I imagined and though the ticket line seems daunting, we’re soon squeezing into elevators heading to the top. This is our first totally clear, sunny day and the view is breathtaking – again exceeding expectations. Beneath us lies Paris, the city of my long ago dreams come true.
- Adventure travelers: these river cruises are too tame for you.
- Book months in advance. Tours fill up quickly.
- Watch the taxi meter. The ride to the d’Orsay from the ship: €20 (euros); the ride back: €6.50. Think we were taken? No matter. It was worth every euro.
- Make online reservations to all the major sites months ahead and avoid the long ticket lines. Free tickets to lesser-known museums are at online).
- Guard your purse or wallet. Pickpockets abound. Don’t sign any petitions or fall for the “is that your gold ring on the sidewalk trick.”