Paris, the Heart of Normandy, and an Exclusive Highclere Castle Experience

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By Karen Kelley

May 4th had finally arrived!  After months of planning and promotion, our WGCU group participants all met in the lobby of the Westin Paris Vendome.  Some of us had been in Paris for a few days and no matter when our arrival, we had each been met by a private driver and taken to the hotel.  The weather had been beautiful and the city never more alive, when we were met by our hostess and bus driver and taken to the nearby village of Le Pecq where our riverboat and home for the next 7 days, the Viking Rinda was docked.

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After check-in and lunch, we were taken on a walking tour of the gardens of Saint Germain en Laye, birthplace of Louise XIV.  That evening we had the first of many delicious dinners followed by a performance by a local chanteur and chanteuse singing opera and traditional French songs.  A great way to begin our voyage!

The next day we began our tour of the city of Paris passing along the Champs Elysees to Notre Dame.  After a break for lunch on our own in the Latin Quarter, we continued touring the city and took the opportunity for photos at the Tour Eiffel.  The vibe of the city was contagious.  There was not a cloud in the sky and all of the parks and public areas were filled with Parisians and tourists.  In light of the events this past November, the French seem determined to enjoy life and they definitely were!

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The next day we visited Giverny, the home of the impressionist painter Claude Monet.  He spent the last 43 years of his life here from the age of 43 until his death at 86.  The comfortable colorful house totally reflects his personality.  I had visited Giverny over 30 years ago and the unique blue kitchen and yellow dining room were just as I remembered them. He was a passionate gardener as well as painter and the gardens are still maintained according to his original plans.  The Japanese water gardens he had cultivated are exactly as they appear in his series of water lily paintings.  After a visit to nearby Vernon, a lovely town with half-timber houses some dating back to the 12th century.

We then continued up the Seine to the medieval city of Rouen, the capital city of Normandy.  This city is famous for the death of Joan of Arc in 1431 and we of course visited the pyre where she was burned.  Monet also immortalized Rouen with his series of paintings of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  The Gros Horloge (the huge town clock) and the Gothic law courts are also worth a visit.  We also saw La Couronne, the half-timbered restaurant where Julia Child had her very first French meal, an epiphany that changed her life.   Rouen is definitely a city worth a more extended visit.

Today was the highlight of the cruise, our visit to the historic beaches of Normandy.  The visit to the American cemetery was especially moving.  At the cemetery, we were each given a rose to be placed on one of the 9,387 graves.   To see that many white marble headstones, crosses and stars of David, majestically standing is quite an experience.  Beneath the 22 foot bronze statue, entitiled “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves”, we had a private memorial ceremony.   The members of our group who had served in the military were asked come forward so they too could be honored for their service.  Omaha Beach was our next stop and as we strolled on the sand in absolutely beautiful weather, we had to use our imaginations to envision the horrendous circumstances our soldiers had endured.  Once again, a very emotional and memorable experience.

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Les Andelys, our next port, is a tiny village on the Seine home to Chateau Gaillard the castle of the English king Richard the Lionhearted which was used to guard his Norman conquests.  The castle was built above two villages, Le Grand Andely and Le Petit Andely which eventually merged in to Les Andelys.  Most of our group made the trek up to the ruins of the castle but I confess I stayed in town and explored the little shops. Like many towns throughout the world, most the of the modern expansion has developed outside of town so Les Andelys is now very small.  Nonetheless, the women in our group did our best to aid their economy.

Believe it or not, we were now back in Le Pecq and had the opportunity to visit Malmaison, the home of Josephine Bonaparte, which is now a national museum.  The home is closed to the public on Tuesdays but Viking had made arrangements for us to have a private tour.  This was the only day it rained so the timing of our visit was perfect.  The chateau de Malmaison was purchased by Napoleon’s wife, Josephine,  1799 and was the French government’s headquarters from 1800 to 1802.  After her divorce, Josephine made it her permanent home until she died in 1814.  The unique decor is from 1800 and is the design of the most famous designers of their time, Percier and Fontaine.   Malmaison is not as well known as Versailles and other chateaux but it is definitely worth a visit.

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The Palace of Versailles was offered as an optional tour and was visited by many in our group.  Of course Versailles is known throughout the world as the symbol of the French monarchy’s opulence which ultimately led to the French Revolution.

After a day of one or two beautiful chateaux, some guests opted to take the illumination tour of Paris to make their last night in France totally memorable.  You do get a different view of the “City of Lights” at night and the tour culminated with a stop in front of the Tour Eiffel for the 11:00 PM flashing of the lights.  A beautiful way to say A Dieu to Paris!

Today we said good bye to the wonderful, friendly staff of the Viking Rinda and boarded our bus to the Gare du Nord where we boarded the Eurostar for London.  Two and a half hours later we arrived at the St. Pancras station.  We had a buffet lunch actually in the rail station, facing the trains.  This restaurant is part of the iconic St. Pancras hotel and featured sandwiches, local cheeses and charcuterie, representing the typical meal of the rail travelers of yesteryear.

The rain continued on our bus journey to Oxford but by the time we arrived it had disappeared.  Our hotel, the Oxford Spires Four Pillars was located on the Thames river on the sight of an old farm.  Horses still graze daily on the grounds.  The main building of the hotel is modern with a nice comfortable lounge and restaurant.  My room and few others in the group, actually had rooms in one of the ancient farm stables on the grounds.  We arrive just before dinner time so some of us headed to the local pub, dined in the hotel restaurant or strolled in to one of the town restaurants.

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The next morning we met our guides for our morning walking tour of beautiful Oxford, of course home to Oxford University.  Christchurch serves as the landmark in the center of town but the university actually consists of thirty colleges dispersed throughout the city.  Our Blue Badge guides were excellent in pointing out all of the historic sights as well as several of the local pubs and buildings  used in the filming of the British mystery series shown on PBS, primarily Morse and Inspector Lewis.  We stopped for tea in the city’s oldest pub (built in 1607) and the manger was eager to tell us that Secretary of State, John Kerry had stopped in the day before for a pint of bitters.  After tea, (no bitters for us)  we had the unique experience of visiting a student dining hall in one of the colleges.  The dining hall was beautiful, a smaller version of the dining hall of Harry Potter and was set for lunch.  In fact, the aroma of the students’ impending lunch menu filled the air!  As soon as we exited, the sign immediately appeared “Closed to the Public”.   Now hungry, we broke for lunch in town and then met at the bus for our short ride to Blenheim Palace, the accidental birthplace of Winston Churchill.  Originally built in 1704, the palace was a gift to John Churchill from Queen Anne for his military victory over the French.  Two hundred years later, his descendants invited his somewhat poorer relatives, Randolph and Jennie Churchill, were invited for the week-end.  Jennie went in to premature labor two months ahead of her due date, and Winston was therefore born and baptized in these luxurious surroundings.

Once again under beautiful blue skies, we toured this opulent palace and learned of its very rich history.  Just as Lord Grantham married American Cora Levinsion to obtain the necessary money to keep Downton Abbey sustainable, the Duke of Marlborough married wealthy American Consuelo Vanderbilt for the same reason.  However, unlike Lord and Lady Granthan, the Duke and Consuelo despised each other and finally divorced.  However, her money had indeed kept the palace going.  Also, like Downton Abbey, Blenheim served as a hospital during the war.  Today, the place is still spectacular and surrounded by gorgeous gardens designed by the famous landscape architect, Capability Brown.  I found Blenheim Palace even more interesting than Versailles and definitely worth another visit.

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The next morning, our last day in Oxford, we were free to sleep in or explore Oxford on our own before dressing for our long awaited visit to Downton Abbey.  At 2:30 PM, boarded our bus for the village of Bampton, the location of the fictional village of Downton.  This village is so tiny and quaint that little had to be done for the filming.  Most of the filming was at the local St. Mary’s Church (renamed St. Michael and All Angels for the show) which was the setting for many weddings, funerals, christening and even the jilting of Lady Edith at the altar.  The actual gravestones in the cemetery are so ancient that the majority are ineligible so Styrofoam gravestones had to be used for the filming.  We visited this beautiful church, as well the settings for Mrs.Crawley’s house, the old grammar school building which served as Downton Hospital and the buildings used as the Downton local pubs, the Dog and Duck and the Grantham Arms.

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We then headed to Highclere Castle, “Downton Abbey”, which is actually forty miles from Bampton.  Upon arrival, our coach was admitted but we had to stay parked until top secret “royals” had finished their visit.  We diligently watched as the entourage of limousines and SUV’s all with dark windows passed by.  We eventually discovered that the guests were Prince Edward, his wife Princess Sophie and the King of Bahrain.  We then walked up the driveway to the spectacular home which sits on 5,000 acres and also has spectacular gardens designed by the famous Capability Brown. We were instantly welcomed by the owner, Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon.  We were so pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by her and she happily chatted with each one of us.  We were invited to make ourselves at home as we were free to explore on our own.  Knowledgeable and friendly docents were on hand to answer any of our questions.  As we sat in the drawing room or explored the other salons and bedrooms, we were served with wine, champagne and hors d’oeurvres.  We were definitely in another time and place!  We also had the opportunity to visit the Egyptian exhibit in the cellars of the castle.  The 5th Earl of Carnarvon had financed and explored with Howard Carter and of course they discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.  Most of the find is in the British Museum but the family did retain some fascinating pieces.  Viewing these artifacts (including a petrified mummy) in a cellar added to the experience.

 

The bus back to our hotel was very quiet as we were all re-living the past few hours.  We snapped back in to reality over our “last supper” together at our hotel.  Shepherds pie, curry and bread pudding, the perfect end to a perfect trip!

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