Welcome back to the travel blog describing our recent Viking River Cruise journey from Geneva to Paris. Part 3 of the story concluded as we were sailing up the Mosel River from Cochem to Bernkastel, Germany – our last segment onboard the ship. (The original itinerary called for us to be docked in Trier, Germany, at that point, but alternate arrangements had to be made as the river was temporarily closed to ship traffic following a collision between two ships.)
Sep 26 (Monday): After breakfast, our final meal aboard ship, we boarded our bus at 8 AM for the trip to Paris. There were two stops along the way, which helped break up the journey as well as provide more interesting things for us to learn about. The first stop was the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, near the site where the famous Battle of the Bulge (also known as the Ardennes Offensive) was fought in World War II. The cemetery was established on December 29, 1944 by the 609th Quartermaster Company of the US Third Army while Allied Forces were containing the final German offensive of the war. It was formally dedicated in its current state in 1960 and is administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. It contains the graves of 5,074 American soldiers, including that of General George S. Patton, as well as tablets listing the names of 371 missing in action. The grounds are immaculately tended, with the graves arrayed in an arc so each one faces toward the US, and there are many informative plaques commemorating the soldiers and providing historical information, such as maps illustrating the major battle movements. I found the place to be very moving – a solemn reminder of the costs of war.
Next was a stop in Reims, France (pronounced “Rhas,” where “Rh” represents that unique, throaty, cough-like French “R” sound). We had some free time to explore the market square and find lunch before taking a brief walking tour with a local guide. The major attraction on the tour was the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Rheims. The cathedral was originally founded in early 5th century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary (or “Our Lady,” thus “Notre-Dame”) and was the traditional site for coronation of French kings, at least before the French began cutting off their heads. Clovis was the first king baptized and crowned in the cathedral and is still entombed in the present-day church. Construction of the present church was begun in the 13th century, on the site of an earlier church destroyed by fire, and completed in the 14th century. It is a beautiful example of high gothic architecture, undergoing extensive restorations in the 19th century following minor damage during the French revolution and in the 20th century following major damage during World War I.
Two of the guests travelled on their own during the free time to visit the site in Reims where Eisenhower had his headquarters after D-Day and where Germany surrendered to the Allies to conclude World War II. As we boarded the bus again for the final journey to Paris, they showed us some interesting photos of the place, inspiring me to mark it down as a site to visit if we get back to Reims someday. After an hour and a half or so of driving on the bus, we began to get bogged down in the traffic entering Paris. As we neared the heart of the city, progress slowed to a snail’s pace as the streets were jammed to capacity. We caught a glimpse of the iconic Arc de Triomphe as we turned onto Avenue de Wagram, turned onto Rue de Courcelles, and spent what felt like another half hour crawling along the final half mile. At 5:30 PM, we arrived at the Hotel du Connectioneur, our home for the next four nights, which claims to be a five-star tourist hotel.
On first impression, the hotel appeared to live up to the claim, with a very attractive lobby, a lovely garden in the rear, and attractive furnishings and paintings in the corridors. We were given what were purported to be keys to our room, but when we got to the fifth floor and found the room, the “keys” did not work. Upon further examination, we realized that they were merely plastic cards bearing the name of the hotel, with no magnetic strips. Back down to the lobby went Pat, returning after ten minutes with actual keys. (We later learned that several other members of our tour group had the same problem.) Once in the room, we found it to be a bit “tired,” with a scratched banquette with doors that didn’t quite close properly, drapes that were difficult to close, and other signs of wear and tear. I don’t want to give the impression that we were unhappy with the hotel – we and many other guests merely thought it didn’t quite live up to its five-star billing.
At any rate, once our luggage was delivered to the room, we set off on foot to explore the area around the hotel. We were quite impressed with the hustle and bustle of the city and the many fashionably dressed women – I suppose the men were also fashionably dressed but somehow, they didn’t make an impression on me. (Am I a chauvinist pig? Perhaps a bit …). Our walk took us to the Arc de Triomphe before we found a restaurant called La Flamme, where we had lovely Parisian dinner.
On the way back to the hotel, my phone died again. Since Pat had left hers at the hotel, we had only our semi-functional memories to guide us as we tried to retrace our steps. Being a couple of old farts who were rather tired by that point, we became slightly disoriented and had to stop into a bar to ask directions, but eventually we made it back for a nice night’s sleep – with visions of Parisian sugar plums dancing in our heads.
Sep 27 (Tuesday): After a complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel, we boarded a bus for an introductory tour of Paris. Shortly after departing, we noticed a nice-looking Boulangerie called Le Pain du Faubourg and made note of it as a potential place for lunch. The bus then made a circuit around the rather amazing traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe – it has some seven or eight lanes of traffic, all unmarked, and connects to a dozen avenues which radiate out like bicycle spokes. Somehow the Paris drivers manage to safely negotiate it while weaving across multiple lanes to reach their desired avenues, but we were extremely happy to be riding the bus rather than trying to drive on our own. The bus tour took us to the central city and along the right bank of the Seine River (after very briefly crossing to the left bank and back again) while our guide pointed out various landmarks. Most notable to me was the Louvre, the former royal palace which now houses the word-renowned art gallery. I could not believe the size of it – it was simply impossible to capture it in a photo.
The bus crossed to the left bank again and dropped us off near the Square Rene Vivani, a scenic park on the left bank, which offered a view of the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris. The cathedral is located on an island in the river called Ile de la Citie, the strategically located site of the original city of Paris. It is currently inaccessible as work continues to restore the cathedral following the major fire in April of 2019, with scheduled completion in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
After a brief talk by our guide, we were given some time to wander on our own with instructions to be back in no more than 40 minutes. We set off across the river onto the island, where we passed by the central police station located on a street known as the Quai des Orfevres, which immediately brought back memories of the books I’ve read by George Simenon featuring Chief Inspector Maigret – his office was located in that very police station. We enjoyed ourselves immensely as we wandered aimlessly westward to the end of the island, then across to the right bank and back eastward, snapping photos in every direction.
As I began to wander off again in who knows what direction, Pat reminded me that we needed to get back to the Square Rene Vivani quickly so we didn’t get left behind by the tour group. After again becoming momentarily disoriented, we eventually negotiated our way back to the right bank and were literally running (although I was lagging well behind my young whippersnapper of a spouse) so as not to be late. But all was well, as we arrived in plenty of time to rejoin our guide, although I was huffing and puffing a bit from the mad dash. As I strolled around the square, waiting for the group to depart again, I was approached by a young woman brandishing a petition and gesturing in a manner so as to indicate that she was deaf and collecting signatures for some important matter related to aid for the deaf. Reluctantly I began to fill in my name and country of residence, but I stopped when I got to the column stating how many Euros I was going to give her. Since I didn’t have any, I went to find Pat and ask her for some money to donate, but she told me I was an idiot, and luckily the tour guide summoned us to start moving along at that point. Later, I learned that the woman was part of a large, well-organized group of scammers who are nor deaf at all but work the crowds for money at many popular Paris tourist spots. Harrumph.
We walked with the guide for several blocks and through some lovely parks to the famous Sorbonne University, where our bus returned to pick us up again. We drove through the Luxembourg Garden, back to the left bank, and past the Hotel des Invalides – a complex of buildings containing museums and monuments relating to the military history of France, originally constructed by Louis XIV as a hospital for wounded soldiers – before stopping briefly at the most iconic landmark in Paris.
The bus returned us to the hotel shortly before 1 PM, and we walked to Le Pain du Faubourg to buy a nice sandwich for lunch. After devouring the sandwich back at the hotel, we once again headed out to board a bus at 2 PM, this time for a tour of the famous Palace of Versailles. The bus ride took a half hour as we drove 11 miles to the southwest, passing directly by the Roland-Garros Tennis Center. This caused a brief pang of regret for Pat, as we had originally planned to take this Viking trip in May of 2020, at which time the French Open tennis tournament would be ongoing and she might have been able to attend some matches. Of course, not only was the Viking trip cancelled due to Covid but the French Open was also delayed for five months, but we have vowed to return some year during a future French Open.
Getting back to the tour – I can only say that Versailles is simply stupendous. It was built by Louis XIV between 1661 and 1715 on the site of a hunting lodge and chateau built by his father. In 1682, he moved the seat of his court and government to Versailles, making the palace the de facto capital of France. This continued during the reigns of Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI, who primarily made interior alterations to the palace, but in 1789 the royal family and capital of France returned to Paris. For the rest of the French Revolution, the Palace was largely abandoned and emptied of its contents. Napoleon used Versailles as a summer residence from 1810 to 1814, but did not restore it. Following the Bourbon Restoration, when the king was returned to the throne, he resided in Paris and it was not until the 1830s that meaningful repairs were made to the palace. We first toured the gardens, then entered the Palace itself for a guided tour – tour groups are limited to no more than twenty people and set for specific time periods. I won’t try to say anything more about the Palace, but leave you with the following photos that don’t fully convey the beauty and magnificence of the place.
Despite the efforts made to limit the number of people inside, as the tour proceeded the crowds became overwhelming. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the close contact and donned my mask about halfway through. As we rode the bus back to the hotel, I also began to feel as though I were catching a cold. I felt relieved to get back to the hotel, and we set off again for the Restaurant Morny, about a half mile south of the hotel, where we had a nice dinner. (I had flank steak and a Lagavulin single malt Scotch, only my second dram of the entire trip.) On the way back to the hotel, we stopped into a grocery store so I could by a couple of Cokes, which had become my morning go-to since Dr. Pepper seemed to be unavailable anywhere.
Sep 28 (Wednesday): Wednesday was the first day of our so-called Post-Cruise Extension, and we had no planned activities until 5 PM. We decided to spend the day just gadding about, visiting some new places as well as some of the places we had seen on yesterday’s tour. So, we went to the nearby Metro station and purchased an 8-pack of tickets for 16 Euros. Each ticket was good for one trip, for as many trains and transfers as desired until physically leaving a Metro station.
Our first trip was to the Montmartre district, where we rode a little tram up Montmartre hill (which we were each able to board using one of the Metro tickets) to visit the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica and have some nice views of Paris from the high elevation.
As we walked down the Montmartre hill, I was again approached by a supposedly deaf person soliciting money, and she became rather aggressive when I failed to produce any money. She eventually walked away and I saw that she joined a group of about a dozen women of similar age, all wearing what was essentially a uniform of a gray jumper over a white blouse. Harrumph again. We then walked to a restaurant recommended by a search on Pat’s phone, but it required reservations. Luckily, we found a nice, casual place called the Brasserie Flotte nearby. After lunch we set off for the Louvre, not actually to visit the museum, but to see the famous pyramid at the entrance and to explore the nearby Tuileries Garden.
Then we crossed the Seine to visit the Musee d’Orsay on the left bank, an art museum housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900 for the World’s Fair. We strolled around the building looking at paintings by Monet, Renoir, and other French artists and briefly entered a special exhibit of works by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Unfortunately, the crowds were rather large, and I again began to feel uncomfortable with the close contact and wore my mask during most of the visit.
We used the last of our Metro tickets to return to the hotel, arriving shortly before 5 PM, and began to get ready for what was to be a highlight of the trip – dinner and a cabaret show at the Paradis Latin, which claims to be the oldest and most legendary cabaret in Paris, located in the Latin Quarter. The building was initially built by Napoleon as a theater where bourgeois and intellectuals mingled with merchants, workmen, and students. It was rebuilt by Gustave Eiffel in 1889 and has served as a popular cabaret ever since.
Unfortunately, my “cold” was starting to feel worse, and I worried that I shouldn’t be going to an indoor cabaret show if I was contagious with something. So, we took out our home Covid tests, and instead of the Paradis Latin, we discovered trouble in paradise. I was positive. Despite my five vaccinations and previous careful avoidance of people, I had become infected by contact with someone, either a fellow cruise patron, someone in the crush of visitors at Versailles, the deaf scammers – who knows? The bottom line was that my vacation was done and I needed to begin isolating immediately. Pat was negative, so after some discussion we decided that she should go to the show and I would stay in the room with my mask on. She returned later in the evening with a glowing review of the show, as well as some photos and videos. Here’s one for your viewing pleasure:
She was only allowed to use her camera during the pre-show while dinner was served. The real show was apparently spectacular, including multiple lithe and attractive performers, multiple costumes – in some cases rather minimal – and multiple sets. I would have loved it, Pat told me, and I felt really sorry for myself.
Sep 29 (Thursday): I put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign and stayed in the hotel with my mask on all day. Pat brought me up some breakfast from the buffet and left for a walk to a nearby park, the Parc Monceau. She again returned with photos, several of which I’ve included below.
She then went off to get another sandwich at Le Pain du Faubourg, but she returned with a surprise for me. Somehow, she took a wrong turn or something and couldn’t find the place, but she found a similar place whose name she doesn’t recall and bought a sandwich there. And, wonder of wonders, the place had cans of Dr. Pepper! She bought two for me, and my previously flagging spirits soared! Then she was off again, this time for a walking tour called “Flavors of Paris” to the St. Germaine neighborhood in the 6th Arrondissement. She visited four local shops and sampled Parisian foods, including olive oil, chocolate, cheeses, and macaroons. She also passed by the oldest café in Paris, Le Procop.
And again, she brought me a surprise – one of the establishments had too much cheese for the Viking guests on the tour, at least in part because I didn’t show up. So, they packaged it all up and sent it home for me!
Sep 30 (Friday): At last, it was time to go home. Pat again brought me up a plate for breakfast, and we headed down to the lobby at 9 AM, both of us wearing our masks, and boarded a bus for the airport along with two other couples. I was already feeling much better and was able to reassure the others that I was not seriously ill, though did not tell them about my positive Covid test. I was afraid that if anyone found out, I would have to stay in France for 10 days according to their travel policy. I am confident that the risk of my traveling was minimal as both Pat and I wore our masks all the way home (except for the brief time we were eating on the plane). In my defense, I will say that the only reason I even took the Covid test was out of concern for others whom I could possibly have infected, and I suspect that many people are travelling these days while unaware that they are positive, because most people probably are not self testing unless they feel quite ill.
Viking again showed their commitment to excellent customer service as we were accompanied on the bus by a Viking agent, who escorted us all the way through the confusion of Charles De Gaulle Airport directly to the Delta check-in counter. The airport proved to be very clean and modern, with automated passport scanners and face recognition cameras for a hassle-free exit from French sovereign territory into the International Airport space. Here’s a photo I took from our boarding gate.
During the flight, I watched two movies (including Maigret, starring Gerard Depardieu, inspired by our sighting of the Quai des Orfevres police station). In stark contrast to Charles De Gaulle, when we disembarked at Dulles International in Washington, DC, we found an old, grungy-looking place. We took a weird looking bus to an enormous customs hall, where we had to shuffle along in line for half an hour to reach one of the entry gates with an actual person in attendance. (There were about fifty gates, but only ten or so were in service.) After passing customs, we took a tram to the Delta check in counter to drop our luggage, then went through the TSA screening line with shoes and belt removal and all that because Delta failed to note that we are approved for TSA PreCheck, had a mad scramble to find my phone and vest, and ended up literally running to our gate as we were being paged: “Passengers David and Patricia Saari, report to Gate xx for immediate boarding.”
Back at MSP, we summoned a Lyft ride, only to discover that the driver had left and charged us a $5.00 no-show fee, all because we were waiting at “Zone B” instead of “Zone A,” some fifty feet away. Live and learn. But we did eventually arrive safe and sound at our condo at 9:49 PM CDT after summoning a second Lyft ride.
So, there you have it, dear readers – all in all an amazing and thoroughly enjoyable journey. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland, down the Rhine, up the Mosel, and on to Paris.
Final Thoughts: I’ve been thinking a lot about the trip during the three weeks since we returned, and I’d like to leave you with a few last updates and thoughts:
- Regarding the Covid situation: On Saturday, I contacted Health Partners for instructions on what to do. I was prescribed a regimen of antiviral drugs and instructed to continue isolating for five days and masking for five more after that. The “cold” symptoms disappeared in a couple of days, and I never got a fever or any sort of aches or pains. After several days of negative tests, Pat also had a positive test and followed isolation and masking instructions per her Allina Clinic. She felt crummy for a few days but also had no fever. We are both fine now, with no carryover whatsoever, currently at our summer place in Grand Marais.
- If we had it to do over again, we would have worn our masks in all crowded areas during the trip. We were not vigilant enough, lulled into complacency by being vaccinated and boosted and having avoided infection throughout the worst of the pandemic. However, we believe it is safe to travel if proper precautions are taken.
- We highly recommend Viking to anyone considering overseas travel. As I have described in the blog, their planning and service were excellent. We met several people on the trip who have travelled five or six times with Viking, and one person who was on her tenth Viking trip. All agreed that the trips are well worth the price.
- We learned a lot on the trip about European history and culture. We found people everywhere to be friendly and welcoming of us as American tourists. I visited Paris nearly fifty years ago and had a very different feeling – at that time I perceived many as snobbish and disdainful of the American tourists. I hope my observations on this point are correct and that things have changed for the better and forever.
- Nearly all of the guides on the trip expressed serious concern about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which they perceive to be the worst crisis for Europe since World War II. Let us remain committed in our support for Ukraine, as we are supporting all our European allies by doing so.
- I’ll close with an observation one of the Viking guests made that summed up the differences between Europe and North America very concisely: In North America, 200 years is a long time, and in Europe, 200 miles is a long way. Let’s continue to cherish both cultures and learn from each other.