My mom and I never had the perfect storybook relationship, due largely to the fact that we live on separate coasts. As the years have rolled on, I realized that travel may be the best way to get to know one another again. Due to the pandemic, it felt like we lost years of memories and sadly over the last 25 turns around the sun, trips home to Connecticut from California dwindled to annual events. RELATED: 12 Things to Know Before You Travel to Europe
One thing my mom and I have in common is our curiosity for exploring the world. Unfortunately, only recently have we ventured together on stays for more than a few nights. When I had the opportunity to hop aboard an 8-day Viking river cruise from Paris to Normandy, I realized this adventure was the perfect opportunity to strengthen our relationship. Since she just had knee surgery, my once super-active mother could barely walk a mile without pain and this mode of transportation would make it easier for her to see the French countryside with minimal exertion. On the phone, she quickly responded, “My bags are packed,” after divulging that she had been pregnant with me in Paris (although she didn’t know at the time) and hadn’t returned since.
For the Love of France – from Paris to Normandy on a Viking River Cruise
After a one-night hotel stay in Paris, we eagerly boarded the Viking Fjorgyn – one of the four Viking River Cruise Longships designed to navigate the Seine River and bring guests to the heart of Paris – at a docking location just a short walk from the Eiffel Tower.
Since Viking made sure we had a night in Paris aboard the boat both at the beginning and end of our cruise, my mom chose one of the pre-organized city tours to Montmartre so she would have less time on her feet. Later that day, I ran around the ship trying to find her, only to locate her outside the entrance laughing with new friends she’d met on the tour, some younger than me. “Let’s have drinks. Meet us for dinner!” her new compadres called after us.
We spent our second evening aboard the modern Scandinavian-designed vessel, clinking champagne on the rooftop under the twinkling Iron Lady before pulling away to glide down the Seine and follow the footsteps of medieval kings, soldiers, heroines, and artists.
In the 1860s, young painters such as Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh, and Camille Pissarro rode the new train lines from Paris north to picturesque country towns and Normandy’s striking coastline in search of inspiration. We began a similar journey, but instead were gliding down the Seine with less than 100 people aboard what felt like a floating boutique hotel, in stark contrast with the idea of a monstrous cruise ship filled with crowds and buffet lines. All staterooms feature balconies and are designed for guests to view the river’s culture, commerce, and creativity.
Upon checking into our room, I quickly realized how different we are regardless of bloodlines, as I organized and put away my whole suitcase in the numerous storage cabinets and drawers while observing my mom’s side, which looked like a bomb had exploded. Daily cleaning services refreshed our room but I secretly tidied up her area when she was not around. I had to remind myself we were here to appreciate each other’s differences.
Each day we slipped into a different port to witness history coming alive. Our first stop found us in La Roche Guyon, where a 12th-century chateau was carved into white chalk cliffs above the Seine. We roamed the gardens (my mom is a lifelong gardener) and climbed high into the castle’s medieval keep with dungeons and pigeonnier tower, once a status symbol to let others know you were feasting on pigeons daily.
For the Love of Art
As a former art history major, I imagined the Impressionists as they strove to capture the beauty and changing light en plein air of this enchanting landscape. My mom has been an avid watercolorist so she was just as eager to witness these former greats firsthand. In Auvers-sur-Oise we followed the last 70 days of Vincent Van Gogh’s life from his bedroom right to his grave recognizing many scenes he painted in the area, but not before looking at Monet’s home in Giverny with pond and bridge where the artist painted his famous water lilies. My mom kept exclaiming how wonderful our experience was as local guides met us at each port location to offer an understanding and appreciation for each place, while custom-curated optional onshore experiences were available for an extra fee.
For the Love of Heroes
A cold wet day in November didn’t hinder our third stop or our desire to follow Joan of Arc’s footsteps in Rouen, where she was wrongfully condemned of heresy and burned at the stake. In the bustling town stuffed with over 700 half-timbered houses, Joan’s story from 1431 continued with a memorial pyre and Joan of Arc Church with a roof shaped like her hat. Close by, the hundred-spire Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral showed off its intricate lace-like architecture giving me flashbacks of Monet’s many paintings representing the façade. It took four centuries to complete this soaring carved limestone magnificence as construction halted during wars. Mom and I huddled under an umbrella and ducked into a café for a crepe and cappuccino in awe of the day’s moving events, wondering what life would have been like for Joan today. Joan’s own mother dedicated the rest of her life fighting to restore her daughter’s name. Twenty-five years after her brutal execution, Joan of Arc was declared innocent and a martyr thanks to the persistence and love of her mother.
As the boat easily maneuvered the calm river, we sailed down the curvy snake-like Seine to reach Normandy, where we honored 25,000 soldiers killed here fighting for our freedom. A man nodded at me while I watched him scrub the white crosses in the rain in the American cemetery where over 9000 crosses and stars of David face the USA. Nearby, 5000 soldiers lie buried in the British Cemetery. The Caen Memorial Museum chronicles that somber period.
Traipsing along the D-Day beaches thinking of the troops’ heroism, I scooped up sand and seashells to remind me where the liberation of Europe began. My mother recounted stories of her own father in the second World War as she was born while he was abroad, then reminded me of her brother and uncle’s sacrifices too as our great Uncle Tat was a prisoner of war in Germany. As we locked arms to stay warm, she reminisced about her own mother, my French-Canadian grandmother, Marie Gionet (Landino), and how she wished we all could have been here together to witness our shared heritage.
For the Love of Food and Connection
A daily schedule in our room alerted us to the day’s activities. Almost hourly, guests can choose from an organized assortment of fun while on board. Guests could savor cocktail hours, live music, and guest lecturers. My favorite onboard enrichment included a French class, a cheese workshop, and a lemon tart cooking demo where we oohed and aahed over the possibilities of trying the techniques at home.
Casual and fine dining meals on board fostered new connections. We dined with panoramic views on the terrace or rooftop when weather permitted. Keeping with the regional cuisine, chefs picked up ingredients from each locale, creating dinners like a Taste of Normandy. These sit-down, white tablecloth lunches and dinners were where my mom and I really bonded, as conversations with new friends opened up our own past while sharing new memories allowed us to really rediscover one another again and cement our kinship.
For the Love of Castles
Each morning, a new port beckoned with a new day of excitement as breakfast on the terrace and bedroom views presented new scenery passing by, giving us a window into daily life of the idyllic rural French countryside. While days were packed with exciting endeavors, traveling on the river helped us slow down and appreciate the setting. In the narrow lane town of Les Andelys, full rainbows shot across the sky on our hike up to Chateau Gaillard, an imposing Middle Ages castle built in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart. In the commune below, it was impossible not to meander through this teeny village and poke around the shops for French souvenirs. This brought back memories of my teen years when a big day out was perusing the shops at the mall and sharing a pizza with my mom.
We were elated about returning to Paris to sleep under the glittering Eiffel Tower again, but not before storming more castles and walking the bucolic grounds of Chateau de Malmaison, Napoleon’s last residence that became his wife Josephine’s passion project that she kept after their divorce; and opulent Versailles, the former royal residence built by King Louis XIV considered “a way of behaving in the 17th century.” My mom and I snapped selfies outside Versailles, smiling as large as could be at our great fortune to be here together. This was her first time to the royal residence and where she reiterated, “I can’t believe how many bucket list dreams I am checking off in one trip!”
For the Love of my Mom
Our last night aboard the ship in Paris we celebrated with bubbly that Viking welcomed us with upon return. After a festive dinner and hugging new friends “goodbye”, I was exhausted and ready for bed. I turned around and my mother was slipping out of the room. “Where are you going?” To my surprise, she exclaimed, “I’m headed back upstairs to talk to more people.” She was obviously not ready to leave.
I wasn’t ready either. I fantasized about scurrying onto another boat for another cruise with her. If only I could keep these precious moments with her forever and continue on with her by my side. Her joy became my joy as I witnessed art, culture, and history through her eyes. By learning about the past, we created our own history. The memories we made I will cherish forever because as time flies by, these moments become sacred, and our time together is nothing but priceless.
Extend your stay before and after the trip with additional days in Paris. While Viking offers additional Paris excursions (i.e. culinary tour, a Montmartre visit, and Paris at Night tour) including a hotel room stay, I played tour guide and took my mom to some of my favorite spots like Notre Dame, the Carnavalet Museum, and Place Des Vosges for lunch at Café Hugo.
The GetYourGuide App saved us from long wait times as I booked many “Skip the Line” passes on the app weeks in advance to experience Saint Chapelle, The Louvre, Arc de Triomphe rooftop access, and the Eiffel Tower elevator to the top.
Fashion lovers will want to book tickets in advance online to admire the Yves Saint Laurent and Dior fashion houses – now museums – along with the Louis Vuitton Foundation to admire art and the Frank Gehry-designed building.
The best way to end your time in Paris is to celebrate on the Champs Elysees with a French culinary classic meal of escargot, onion soup, steak frites, and sole meuniere at the sophisticated legendary Fouquet’s Brasserie opened in 1899. As my mom confirmed, “This was one of the best meals of my life!”
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