Waking at dawn, I hear the gentle sound of birdsong and the faint swish of water outside my cabin. Gingerly pulling back the curtains reveals the bewitching sight of water meadows, low hills and placid inky blue water.
Can this really be the Seine, one of France's mightiest rivers? Sitting on my pocket-sized balcony I let the peerless rural beauty of Normandy overwhelm me – and marvel, as so many others have, at the bewitching light that drew artists such as Monet, Pissaro, Manet and Boudin here, and gave birth to impressionism.
"One day Boudin said to me, 'Learn to draw well and appreciate the sea, the light, the blue sky.' I took his advice," said Claude Monet, whose lush gardens in the village of Giverny, are now the region's biggest drawcard.
Monet's Garden, at its lushest in early summer, is just one of the many reasons to join Scenic's Normandy and Gems of the Seine river cruise; a leisurely itinerary that takes you from the heart of Paris to the medieval port of Honfleur and back to the French capital in 11 days.
Having already sailed with this Australian company in Portugal, stepping aboard the Scenic Gem at Port de Grenelle, just downstream from the Eiffel Tower, feels like a homecoming. The sleek 110-metre vessel, the smallest in the "Space Ship" fleet, was specially designed to ply this particular waterway and is equipped with two dining areas, a lounge bar, fitness centre, gift shop and a sun deck up top. Guests also have the free use of e-bikes, which are excellent for Normandy's often-hilly terrain.
After a welcome drink in the lounge, I'm shown to my balcony suite on B-deck by Pawel, my personal, 24-hour butler, who demonstrates its many features, which include a generous closet space, minibar, queen-size bed, a small writing desk and a well-planned bathroom. I particularly like the under-bed luggage storage and the smart flat-screen TV, which provides my favourite news channels, a selection of music and regular updates on the daily tours and shore activities (known as Scenic Freechoice). Sliding glass doors provide access to a narrow private deck, equipped with a small table and two rattan chairs.
While the ship can carry 128 passengers, there are only 117 on board (most from Canada, with a handful of Aussies and Americans) as we leave the historic quay at 9.40pm and motor gently towards Les Andelys, nosing our way out of the northern Parisian suburbs and into the bucolic glory of Normandy.
My infatuation with Normandy begins the moment I pull those curtains aside the following morning. For while the Seine may lack the grandeur and pomp of the Rhine or Danube, there is something disarming about this 777-kilometre waterway that meanders through some of Europe's loveliest, most fertile and fascinating regions.
An army of 40,000 Vikings once rowed their longboats along the Seine. The river has since played host to figures such as Caesar, Richard the Lionheart, Henry V and Joan of Arc, who was burnt alive in the Old Market in Rouen, which we explore on day two of the cruise.
In more recent times, Normandy witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in World War II when 156,000 Allied troops landed on its northern coast on June 6, 1944, before driving Nazi forces inland. The Battle of Normandy lasted three months and cost the lives of 20,000 British, American and Canadian troops – and almost as many French civilians.
The excursion to Omaha Beach, the D-Day Museum in Arromanches and the Normandy American Cemetery provides an insight into this ambitious and complex military operation. At Omaha Beach visitors can see the remains of a so-called Mulberry – massive pre-fabricated harbours, which played a key role in the liberation of Europe. The surrounding countryside is still pockmarked with German gun emplacements, concrete bunkers and small local memorials. In the parish cemetery at Giverny, where Monet is also buried, I find a moving tribute to seven British airmen whose Lancaster bomber was shot down near the village in 1944.
Later, on our return journey to Paris, we are treated to a classical concert performed in the Chateau de Roche-Guyon, an impressive manor house dating from the 12th century and in 1944 the headquarters of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of German forces. Before going inside to hear an ensemble of xylophone, clarinet, double bass and harp playing pieces by Ravel, Berlioz and Saint-Saens, we are treated to drinks on the terrace and the sight of a hot air balloon floating in the cloudless summer sky. Rommel would not have approved.
Of special interest to Australian travellers is the chance to visit the Somme battlefields, the scene of the largest battle of World War I where 3 million troops fought in the most atrocious conditions between July and November 1916. The full-day excursion, by luxury coach, includes time at the Australian National Memorial, Sir John Monash Centre and Victoria College in Villers-Bretonneux.
While history and local culture are the ongoing themes of this particular cruise – the river banks are dotted with immaculate manor houses, medieval villages, gothic churches and the occasional ruined castle – Normandy is also one of France's most productive farming regions, justly famous for its soft cheese, salt lamb, duck, tripe, cider and, of course, calvados. Unique to this part of the world, this barrel-aged apple brandy is consumed as an aperitif, a cocktail ingredient or an after-dinner tipple. Locals drink calvados as a digestive during long, multi-course meals – they say it creates a "trou Normand" (Norman hole) in your stomach.
A visit to a traditional apple farm is one of the many Freechoice options on this trip, alongside guided city tours (on foot or e-bike), visits to Richard the Lionheart's Chateau Gaillard, Joan of Arc Museum, Chantilly Castle, the Benedictine Palace and Monet's Garden. The itinerary includes a full day in Paris at the end of the cruise, with the option to take a walking tour of the city or a side-trip to the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, 55 kilometres south-east of Paris. Built in the 17th century, the baroque chateaux is said to have been the inspiration for the Versailles Palace and featured in the James Bond movie Moonraker.
When trying to sum up the 11-day odyssey along the Seine the word "effortless" springs to mind. The ship's 48 crew, under the direction of hotel manager Thomas Allnoch, work tirelessly to ensure that your every whim is met, whether that's a shirt that needs ironing or remembering your favourite evening tipple.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is trying not to overindulge in the fine French cuisine and premium regional wines served throughout the cruise. At lunch there is a sumptuous buffet in Crystal Dining, while the dinner menu (served either in the Crystal Dining or L'Amour Restaurant) includes salad, soup and main course, plus a decadent local dessert, such as lemon curd meringue, old school cheesecake and fig tart. Luckily, serving sizes are fairly modest and vegetarian options are available.
So unless you intend joining the early morning wellness classes or sweating it out in the gym, expect to arrive back in Paris better upholstered, but with your spirits soaring after a few days exploring Norman country.
British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London Heathrow via Singapore, with plenty of connections to Paris. See britishairways.com
Scenic's Normandy and Gems of the Seine cruise sails from Paris to Paris via Honfleur and includes day trips to the Somme battlefield and Omaha Beach, plus shore excursions to Monet's Garden, Chantilly Castle, Rouen, Honfleur, Cote Fleurie and Auvers-sur-Oise. Prices from $7895 a person, twin share. Tariffs include all meals and drinks, Scenic Freechoice activities, transfers, tips and gratuities and free Wi-Fi. Phone 1300 382 493 or see scenic.com.au
Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic.