Travel: Paris To The D-Day Beaches Of Normandy

By: Nicole Pensiero

The monument Les Braves located on the center of Omaha Beach. Photo credit: Nicole Pensiero.

Anyone who has seen the Steven Spielberg film “Saving Private Ryan” will recall the harrowing opening scene of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. It was June 6, 1944 – the day the Allies liberated Europe through the largest surprise invasion in human history. D-Day’s significance in changing the outcome of World War II cannot be overstated; its mythology still looms large today.

So when I came across information for a European river cruise that would take us from the urban delights of Paris to the beaches of Normandy, I was all in. A bit of culture, some fine dining, and a great history lesson, too. I figured it would be an incredible trip – and it was.

Having gone on two previous Viking river cruises in Europe, this 310-mile adventure along the Seine, from Paris to Normandy, was not only my first overseas adventure since the start of the pandemic, but one that made me realize that travel is always something to be savored, no matter what the circumstances.

Normandy Beach Memorial. Photo credit: Nicole Pensiero.

Even though we’d booked this vacation a year-and-a-half earlier, in the spring of 2020, we weren’t even sure our trip was going to happen until a couple of weeks beforehand. That’s when we had to begin addressing various last minute travel requirements, getting a (negative) COVID PCR test within 72 hours of our flights.

Once onboard the slick, Scandinavian-style Viking Fjorgyn, things felt pretty much normal – but with less passengers, face masks worn in all public areas, readily available hand sanitizer, and daily COVID testing. We were escorted to our lovely third-floor stateroom with a balcony, ready to savor the beauty and culture of France.

While most European river cruises start in one country and end in another, our cruise remained in France, but offered a lot of diversity, sailing from Paris to breathtaking Normandy and back. From the urban wonders of France’s largest city, to quaint villages along the River Seine, it all led up to the big-ticket destination – the D-Day landing beaches.

We enjoyed our first two days in Paris, docked close to the iconic Eiffel Tower. We were introduced to some of the most iconic landmarks in the “City of Lights” – including the Arc de Triomphe – and given time to explore the outside of Notre Dame Cathedral, closed and still undergoing massive repairs in the wake of a devastating 2019 fire.

We especially enjoyed our only optional excursion, a 3-plus hour walking tour to explore the culinary delights of the city. Our guide, a charming Frenchman, escorted us by Metro to bustling Boulevard Saint-Germain. There, we café “hopped,” tasting everything from cheese and beer to pastries and cookies.

While we had plenty of time onshore, there were an array of onboard activities, too, including a  watercolor painting class taught by a professional artist (for 10 euros), and a free baking class.

Trek of the Paris to Normandy river cruise.

Setting off from Paris on our second night, we made several stops enroute to the D-Day beaches of Normandy, including Giverny, the quaint town where French impressionist Claude Monet settled in 1883 and painted his most famous works. His house and gardens were absolutely beautiful.

Each lunch and dinner was a gourmet-style three-course meal; breakfast was a wonderful buffet with an omelet bar; you could also order other standard favorites from an a la carte menu. Unlimited complementary beer and wine is offered at lunch and dinner, and there is a well-stocked bar as well. One of our favorite things is the self-serve coffee station, offering fresh brewed hot beverages and baked goods around-the-clock. Aside from dining and drinking, we were asked to keep our masks on, including on bus trips to sightsee. But I was pleasantly surprised to see the popular meal buffets were still there onboard; we could go up and serve ourselves, too, as long as we wore a mask.

We also loved the city of Rouen, the capital of the region of Normandy. This medieval city, where Saint Joan of Arc was put to death, is a fascinating mix of history and culture. We certainly learned a good deal about the ill-fated, teenaged “Maid of Orleans” during our walking tour of the city.

Finally, we arrived at what, for me, the highlight of our river journey: a full-day, included excursion to the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy. While it took more than two hours by bus to arrive in this charming seaside region of France once we’d docked, it was totally worth the effort. We arrived around lunchtime, enjoying a quintessentially French lunch of chicken stew at the bustling Hôtel de Normandie, in the lovely town of Arromanches-les-bains, which also houses an extensive D-Day Museum.

As we left the museum to explore the actual landing beaches, our cruise director, Jorge, invited veterans from our ship to lay a wreath at the massive monument to the Allies. It was a brief, but moving ceremony. In fact, the entire visit to Normandy’s D-Day beaches was incredibly poignant, made even more special by the spectacular, sunny weather we enjoyed – which seemed in stark contrast to the brutal weather faced by soldiers on June 6, 1944.

After leaving the beaches, we moved on to the American Cemetery, located on more than 170 acres, and containing the graves of 9,386 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings. Row upon row of white crosses overlook the beaches, bearing silent witness to those who changed the course of history. We even found the graves of two of President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons: Quentin, who was killed in aerial combat at age 20 in World War I; and Theodore Jr., who at age 56, was the oldest officer to take part in the Normandy invasion, leading the Fourth Infantry Division’s landing on Utah Beach. One month later, he died a month of a heart attack. The entire day in Normandy – from walking on the actual landing beaches, to visiting the cemetery – was incredible. That evening, we shared stories about our day over a delicious buffet dinner featuring an array of French cuisine.

I must say: river cruising is a great way to see the world. The ships are relatively small, yet spacious, and with no rocking involved, it’s virtually impossible to get seasick. There is a continual focus on cultural enrichment, and Viking river cruises are a bit different from what you might expect: there’s no casino, no swimming pool, no inside staterooms and no formal nights. It’s all about experiencing a country as a traveler, not a tourist. And with less than 150 passengers on our ship, it was a great way to make new friends.

Sailing back to Paris, we made a few stops along the way as our trip was winding down. We enjoyed a relaxing last night in the “City of Lights,” enjoying our farewell dinner and being dazzled, yet again, by the glittering Eiffel Tower.

This trip certainly was relaxing and fun, but also a great history lesson about World War II. In fact, it inspired me to recently watch a terrific series on Netflix titled “Greatest Events of World War II in Colour.” Originally released by the BBC, this fascinating, eight-part series features an entire episode about the D-Day landings in Normandy. I was more grateful than ever to have traveled to that sacred ground.

Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey resident and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. You can follow her at @NicoleWrytr

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