Amy and Julie are currently exploring France and the Seine with Tauck, starting with two nights in Versailles before sailing the Seine from Paris on MS Swiss Sapphire - here's Amy's first impressions as they enjoy a few days touring before setting sail...
One of Tauck’s mantras is ‘how you see the world matters’, and I could not agree more. A family-run company spanning three generations and ninety years, they have turned touring (and river cruising) into not just a slick operation, but an art form.
My trip with Tauck, and my colleague Julie, started in the town of Versailles, the former capital of France after Louis XIV moved the royal court to his fabulous and famous royal residence in the late 17th century, before heading to Paris to join the MS Swiss Sapphire for a cruise along the Seine through Normandy, and then leaving the boat and crossing the Channel to spend two final nights in London at the Savoy. The itinerary promises a real smorgasbord of French history, art, culture, and of course a variety of local Normandy products. As I write this, I am currently in Paris, having arrived onboard yesterday. To go back to my original point about how you see the world matters, already I have seen how Tauck adds discrete little touches and an excellent quality and standard of tours to enhance guests’ experiences.
Arriving at the Gare du Nord by Eurostar, we were met by our Tauck driver and from there taken to our hotel in the nearby town of Versailles, the Trianon Palace Hotel. The hotel is elegant on the outside, but inside it’s even more beautiful and impressive, and it boasts a fascinating history; the ‘Clemenceau Room’ is so-called because it was here that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were decided and dictated by Clemenceau before being signed in the famous Hall of Mirrors in the nearby Palace of Versailles in 1919, one of the peace treaties formally ending the First World War between Germany and the Allied Powers. On our first night, we enjoyed a welcome dinner and reception in this historic room. The hotel grounds border the extensive grounds of the Palace of Versailles, and it’s about a ten minute stroll up to Petit Trianon, originally built for Louis XV’s famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour (although she died before its completion and was instead inhabited by her successor, Madame du Barry), the chateau is perhaps best known for its association with Marie Antoinette. Our room, however, had views of the Palace of Versailles on the other side. The room was spacious, and boasted a balcony you could step onto, as well as a wonderfully large bathroom, beautifully tiled and complete with double sinks, a shower/bath, and underfloor heating.
Shortly after arriving at the hotel, we met three of our Tauck tour directors as we signed in (we met the fourth, our cruise director, once we checked in onboard the Swiss Sapphire). We were given some paperwork, including options for the welcome dinner and upcoming excursions to choose from. This really is a wonderful itinerary, packed full of interesting things to see and do and make the most of experiencing this region of France, but there’s also quite a bit of flexibility to suit guests’ interests. Our first choice was an optional excursion to the Palace of Versailles or the Montmartre district of Paris; much as I love Montmartre, I’ve never been to Versailles, and I knew that with Tauck’s reputation for quality tours, it would probably be one of the better opportunities to discover this famous palace, so Julie and I both chose Versailles. We also opted to choose the Louvre from the selection of guided visits to Parisian museums – the other alternatives were the Musée de l'Orangerie and the Palais Garnier Opera House, and I’ve heard from other guests that these tours were excellent, too – and our third choice was a walking tour of the Le Marais District, as opposed to a more military history-themed tour, visiting Les Invalides. The combination of the included tours and the optional excursions really gave us a very in-depth insight into Paris, and throughout the quality of guides has been exceptional.
Our first full day, Friday 14 October, we set out from the hotel for a nearby Chateau, the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, a grand and innovative building which really pioneered many of the principles of French classicism, such as the ‘transparency’ principle and the famous manicured French gardens, which were later replicated on a much grander, larger scale with the Palace of Versailles. This Chateau was built by Nicolas Fouquet in the 1660s, a senior minister (the minister for finance, in fact) of the young King Louis XIV, just as the King started to rule for himself. When, in 1661, Fouquet invited Louis for a fabulous feast, Louis took great umbrage at this incredibly grand, rather palatial mansion, and was devoured by jealousy – ultimately, this led to Fouquet’s downfall and he was shortly arrested and jailed for life. However, Louis was also inspired by the decadence and beauty of the building and its gardens, and months later he commissioned the iconic Palace of Versailles. We were given a fascinating and informative tour of this chateau before enjoying a delicious country luncheon in one of the historic buildings in the grounds, with some free time to take a stroll through the gardens and explore further before heading back. That night, we had dinner on our own in the town of Versailles, but were taken to the Market Square and given some local recommendations by our Tauck tour directors, which made things a lot easier than trying to find something entirely by ourselves. We enjoyed a delicious dinner in one of the recommended restaurants - Le Boeuf à la Mode – which was utterly charming in decor, and were promptly served our food (French onion soup for Julie, with an unbelievable amount of melted cheese on the large crouton, and French steak and chips for me).
The day we visited the Palace of Versailles, we were joined by another local guide and shown through the state apartments, including the War Room and the magnificent Hall of Mirrors, and some of the private apartments. Again, the quality of local guide was excellent – informative, detailed, humourous and engaging – and while the Palace was, of course, very busy, the use of our VoxBoxes meant that we could still hear what the tour guide was saying, and as we were travelling in an organised group, the logistics were taken care of, and there was minimum waiting or queuing. The tour of the Palace took about an hour and a half, and then we had about three hours’ free time, but with a number of suggested options, such as an introduction to the gardens with the guide before she left, and she even took some of us who were interested on a brief walk through the private apartments of two of the daughters of Louis XV. Afterwards, Julie and I strolled down the ‘Allee Royal’, which is flanked with marble statues and several entrances to the maze gardens, before stopping for an enjoyable lunch just outside the main grounds, by a lake with rowing boats. After lunch, we strolled a bit more and explored a little more of the gardens, deciding to opt out of the optional visit to the carriage museum before heading to the bus. It was nice that it wasn’t rushed, and while it’s fairly impossible to see the whole gardens in one afternoon, we had some time to explore.
From Versailles, when we got on the bus (and enjoyed a macaron from Barbara, one of the Tauck tour directors) I was palpably excited about getting on MS Swiss Sapphire, and when we arrived into Paris and could see the Eiffel Tower, my excitement only increased. The realisation that the boat was docked so close to the Eiffel Tower was an extra special touch; after all, location, location, location! Later that night we repositioned a little further away, but not until after the Eiffel Tower’s glittering light show! The Swiss Sapphire is a stunning boat, timeless and classic in decor, with warm, wooden tones, and gleaming brass – sophisticated, yet welcoming. We were greeted on board by the smiling crew, and handed a cool towel, and were soon ushered into the lounge to enjoy a drink.
Our first night onboard began with dinner in the Compass Rose, where the menu reflects local dishes and ingredients, such as snail soup (or beef consommé) and duck, after which we were welcomed onboard and to Paris with some very entertaining cancan dancers.
We were introduced to the sights of Paris on a sightseeing tour by coach with an excellent local guide who pointed out the sights, along with all the history and information, and we had a couple of photo stops at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomph, before finally arriving at the Louvre for our guided visit. Starting with Greek sculptures, we were given a narrative of how the Greeks developed and improved before culminating in the quality craftsmanship which made the Venus de Milo so famous, before viewing other masterpieces and ‘stars’ of the museum, such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and – of course – Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. We were also shown how the Italians started the Renaissance and improved their artistic skills a couple centuries earlier than the French, but also saw some of the great French works, too. Our tour guide really made us feel engaged in the art, encouraged us to think about it, but didn’t take it too seriously or pompously. That evening, we had another flavour of Paris with the entertainment, this time a jazz singer with an absolutely beautiful voice, who created a great rapport with the audience. From cancan to jazz in two nights, it was excellent to see variety in entertainment, particularly as some people feel that river cruises can be a bit restrictive in their entertainment (particularly compared to ocean cruises), but Tauck prove that this is absolutely not the case! Just before the jazz singer, we were invited up to the lounge after dinner to enjoy ‘cherry jubilee’ desert, with a chef dishing out gelato, and we could choose a range of toppings. Dinner had, again, been delicious, particularly the hot mustard soup which was simply stunning – not too overpowering, but very, very tasty.
Our final day in Paris began with our walking tour of Le Marais, which showed us a different side to Paris. Originally marshland, this district was first populated in the medieval period, and it’s still historic, but less homogenous than the grand facades built by Napoleon in the 19th century, and with fascinating elements of medieval and Jewish history, too. Whichever choice of excursion, everyone was taken to the Latin Quarter for local lunch and some free time, with Tauck providing each person with twenty Euros for their local lunch; a nice and very convenient touch. The Latin Quarter has always been one of my favourite districts of Paris, because I’ve always loved the Notre Dame, so we had some time to enjoy its exterior after lunch (by the time we’d finished eating and wandered over, the queue was massive, so we decided against popping in, but instead went for a stroll along the river bank).
Before we sail off for our next destination, Conflans and the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh spent his final days, we have a pastry and chocolate demonstration by one of Paris’ top pastry chefs to look forward to. When this was announced last night, it’s fair to say that the excitement was tangible! It’s not included on the itinerary or in the brochure, so this really was a very nice surprise, and – again – it’s just another example of Tauck adding something special to enhance guests’ experiences.
Au revoir for now!
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