Standing on the sundeck of the A-Rosa Viva watching the sun go down and Paris fade into the distance made me think: why have I never thought of going on a river cruise before?
The pleasure of a trip like this is going to bed knowing that when you wake up there’ll be a different town just the other end of the gangway.
Who doesn’t want to look out of their window in the morning to find that what had been Paris the night before is now Rouen?
This historic gem once had so many churches that it was known as the City of a Hundred Spires, the most imposing being Notre Dame in the town centre.
Claude Monet was so impressed he painted it at least 30 times, capturing the changing tones of the stone facade in all types of light.
It’s worth meandering around the streets further afield, because at almost every turn there’s another row of timber-framed buildings crying out to be photographed.
Not all the old churches have survived, many because the Allies bombed the bridges crossing the Seine in 1944, destroying many of the buildings lining the banks in the process.
Among the casualties was a church called St Vincent. Its ancient stained glass windows had been removed when war broke out in 1939, to guard against exactly this possibility, and now adorn the incongruous modern church of St Vincent and Jeanne d’Arc.
The French have an attitude to modern architecture that is far more tolerant than in England and I suspect that many visitors from the UK will be surprised to find this new structure occupying one side of the market square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Still, there’s always the other three sides of the square where you can enjoy a drink at a bar that dates back centuries before ambling back to the boat.
The village of Caudebec-en-Caux marked the furthest point up the river that the A-Rosa Viva ventured.
The French king Henry IV is said to have declared that the chapel here was the most beautiful in his kingdom – don’t be fooled by his use of the word “chapel”, it’s the size of a small cathedral.
There was another treat for us here as the A-Rosa Viva has its own stock of e-bikes, and what a wonderful way they are to explore the Normandy countryside. Being electric, they make short work of the steepest climbs, including the 165ft high Pont de Brotonne over the Seine.
Acorns and sweet chestnuts crunched under our wheels as we glided through the Forest of Brotonne, where you still find houses with thatched roofs which have a line of earth at the apex with lilies poking out – apparently the roots help keep the thatch in place.
Another spot that was a joy to wake up beside was the small riverside town of Les Andelys.
For the energetic, there was a walk to the top of the promontory overlooking the river and exploring the still impressive ruins of the castle built on the orders of Richard the Lionheart.
Alternatively, you could stick to a gentle stroll through the half-timbered shops of the village, centred around a quiet square with an impeccably pollarded lime tree and a church originally built for the labourers constructing the castle.
There’s also a monument to the town’s most famous son, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a balloonist who became the first person to cross the Channel by air, way back on January 7, 1785.
Less successful, in my opinion, were the optional coach excursions.
Travelling an hour or so to Le Havre to stop for five minutes to take photographs of the seafront from a hilltop seemed hardly worth the effort.
This port was flattened in the Second World War and rebuilt by an architect known as the Poet of Concrete and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, but unless you’re into post-war architecture I’m not sure that there’s much here to hold the attention.
Beyond Le Havre is Étretat, a quaint resort with a stony beach hemmed in by chalk cliffs, but the half-hour stop was scarcely long enough for a stroll and ice cream.
It was the same with the trip to Deauville, Honfleur and a Calvados distillery all on the same afternoon – as much time was spent on the coach as at the sites.
If it was up to me, I would have cut the excursion down to just Honfleur, to give time to enjoy the gorgeous historic port at leisure, which might particularly benefit the more mature travellers who perhaps might not walk as fast as they once did.
On the other hand, the coach trips did come with helpful commentaries from local guides, throwing up some wacky anecdotes.
I knew, for instance, that Camembert is made from the milk of a particular breed of Normandy cattle , but I didn’t know that Napoleon liked it so much that he ate a whole one every day – allegedly.
Whatever the outing, it was always a pleasure to return to the excellent A-Rosa Viva.
The crew couldn’t be more friendly, the boat was spotless, the cabins bigger than some hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. There was even space for a small gym, spa and outdoor whirlpool. Entertainment in the bar included quizzes and dancing, and the hot and cold buffet offered plenty of choice.
If I have one suggestion, it would be to include more local produce – such as some Normandy cider to enjoy as you watch the French countryside slip past, or a Calvados as a nightcap as you relax on the sundeck that stretches almost the whole length of the boat.
A perfect toast to Paris.
Book the holiday
A seven-night all-inclusive Paris & the Seine Valley to Normandy river cruise aboard MS A-Rosa Viva in September costs from £1,509pp, including Eurostar travel from London St Pancras to Paris, two excursions (Rouen guided walking tour and Normandy Coast & D-Day Landing Beaches) plus the services of a dedicated Shearings cruise manager on board. Based on two sharing. Coach packages are from £1,369pp and flight packages from £1,604pp.
Optional excursions can be booked on board: Bike tour through Normandy from €49pp; Côte Fleurie to Honfleur, Deauville and Calvados distillery from €79pp; Côte d’Albâtre, Etretat & Le Havre – from €59pp.
Find out more at shearings.com or call 0344 874 8220.
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