We all love a bit of an adventure, especially a travel adventure. As regular readers will no-doubt be aware, we had our BIG adventure in 2017. Last week, however, we had an adventure of a completely different kind. We went on a river cruise in France organised by Great Rail Journeys, that was to visit Paris and the Champagne Region.
The River Cruise in France
As far back as we can remember we’ve had a great passion for travel and we always look forward to the next trip, wherever it may be. One thing we’ve never done before is ‘group travel’, where one up-front booking and payment sorts out an almost door-to-door experience, including tours and excursions, food and drink and all other transfers.
We booked our river cruise in France with Great Rail Journeys. It was to take us on a journey from Paris up the Marne Valley to Epernay in the Champagne region.
We were to take in the history, culture and cuisine of the regions and do it all from the serene beauty of the River Marne on board the MS Raymonde.
As instructed, we met up at St Pancras Station, where we met some of the other members of our group and our guide Garreth, who was to escort us to our boat in Paris. We were given our train tickets and given instructions on how to get to the Eurostar train from the concourse. Of course this was all very familiar territory to us, having used the Eurostar service on many occasions. We could appreciate how useful it must have been to anyone a little apprehensive about getting through a busy international station though.
We’ve always sung the praises of the Eurostar service to Paris. We think it’s undoubtedly the best and easiest way to get from central London to central Paris. In the blink of an eye we were in a huddle at Gare du Nord before boarding our transfer coach.
Now this is where it all got interesting. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge relating to European history would be very aware that July 14th is one ‘mental’ day in Paris. Bastille Day draws crowds from all over France and results in the closure of almost every road within central Paris. It’s basically a street carnival – squared! Our journey to the Raymonde appeared to be blocked at every corner and after over two hours on the coach Garreth suggested our best option was to walk to where our boat was moored.
Disembarking near the Trocadero we knew we had a walk of around 1.8 kilometres, down steep hills, precipitous staircases and cobbled quaysides. All this with our week’s luggage. For 50 somethings, we’re still quite fit and active, but there were members of our party in their eighties. This surely wasn’t going to be an easy task, but between us all we eventually managed to get everyone and their luggage safely on board.
The MS Raymonde
The Raymonde is absolutely lovely. It’s clean, comfy, cool (it was over 30 degrees outside) and chilled. We all gathered together in the lounge to meet the crew and be briefed on the safety routines on board. After a delicious evening meal we sat back and enjoyed a bit of entertainment whilst getting to know some of our travelling companions a little better. It was a really nice cordial evening, culminating in some spectacular fireworks at the end.
Our first full day included a coach and walking tour of Paris before setting off on our journey up towards Champagne. We decided to abstain on that tour and opted instead for a delightful cruise along the Seine to our next berth at Bercy. The Raymonde sailed along beneath all the beautiful bridges, right past the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and eventually moored alongside at Bercy. We saw so much of Paris from the sun deck of the Raymonde. It was like a VIP private tour of the Seine in the morning sunshine. That afternoon saw us transiting tunnels, ascending locks and meandering through the Parisien suburbs on our way to our first stop at Lagny sur Marne.
If July 14th was a ‘mad’ day, then July 15th was off the scale! The French football team beat the Croatians in the World Cup final and the whole of France exploded – literally. It was truly a spectacle to behold, with fireworks, flares, frenchmen in various states of undress piled three-deep on cars and trailers while seriously depleting France’s booze reserves. It was a celebration to end all celebrations. I dread to think how many headaches needed attention the following morning.
An early start saw us continuing up-river towards Meaux, home of the famous Brie de Meaux cheese. We were taken into Meaux town centre and we explored the old town, cathedral and Brie de Meaux Museum. Our tour guide on this occasion proved to be quite hard work, as a result of her very long rambling descriptions, carefully presented in specially selected sun-traps. I’m sure she meant well, but those in our group who didn’t succumb to sunstroke drifted to other more habitable environments. When she did find a cooler spot in the cathedral, she started giving a lecture right in front of a gentleman knelt in contemplative prayer. I felt embarrassed for her.
The Big Cheese
The Meaux highlight was the visit to the cheese museum. We really love cheese and this was something we were looking forward to, but when a little man came into the room with a golden robe and a big flying saucer on his head we could hardly stifle our giggles. The cheese tasting was fun though.
Rejoining the Raymonde a little further upstream at Saint-Jean-Les-Deux-Jumeaux we spent another enjoyable evening on board.
Next Stop was Château Thierry. This was one of the most enjoyable days, with a walk up the hill to the old castle, taking in the views, the history and a falconry show. All truly enjoyable, with a friendly and interesting tour guide. Once again we spent a lovely evening over a delicious meal and good wine on board.
Our penultimate leg took us to Dormans, from where we took a coach to visit the splendid and ancient city of Reims (pronounced ‘Raans’, as we were to discover). We had no idea how significant this city was in European history. It was once one of the biggest and most strategic cities in the world. Its history goes back way before the 11th century and despite the damage sustained during the two World Wars, it has plenty to see and marvel at. The cathedral is vast and some of the stained glass art took our breath away. It really was spectacular. As with our Meaux day we found the guide’s commentary all much too detailed and long-winded, so we ‘accidentally’ lost him and read the information ourselves on the info plaques scattered around. Despite this it was a very enjoyable day and we learned lots.
This Is What Champagne’s All About
Our final full day was spent sailing up to Epernay, the capital of the Champagne region. We walked along the Rue de Champagne, home to many of the famous Champagne Houses; Mercier, Moet & Chandon to name but a few. Then we went on to Hautvillers, home to the creator of Champagne, Dom Perignon. The day closed with a visit to a local grower and Champagne producer. We saw, and were taught about each stage of Champagne production from the first grapes to the final product. The afternoon culminated in a very enjoyable tasting session. We returned to the boat educated and happy!
Garreth joined us on our departure day to ‘help’ us get to Paris and onto the Eurostar. After a hassle-free trip we arrived back in St Pancras just after lunch. We had just enjoyed one of the nicest weeks we’ve ever spent anywhere.
We can see that group travel has its advantages. It can be really reassuring for those who are more apprehensive about independent travel. The trip was all-inclusive, so there was no need to seek-out things to do or places to go. The excellent planning resulted in some fantastic and enjoyable days.
The highlight, however, was simply cruising up the river. The Marne is a smaller river than many of the other European waterways and the closeness to nature and relaxing, serene atmosphere made it all truly memorable. The food was fantastic from start to finish and we had a lovely group of travelling companions. It all made the trip even more memorable. It’s virtually impossible to fault the Raymonde in any way. The river cruise in France is comfy and intimate, yet the standards are exceptionally high throughout. Laure and her catering crew were professional from start to finish and nothing was any trouble to them.
Great Rail Journeys were a pleasure to deal with and all their ticketing was efficiently handled. Other than the welcome meeting at St Pancras, we had no reason to contact them during our trip, but we were completely confident in their service. There’s even a very useful mobile app to keep all the important information in one place. This includes stuff such as confirmations, itineraries and emergency contact details.
Would we do it again? Absolutely! We had one of the best times of our lives. We thoroughly enjoyed the company, the lovely MS Raymonde and we saw some of the nicest parts of France we’d ever visited. It was an eye-opener and was something we’d wholeheartedly recommend to anyone wanting a one-stop-shop for touring this region.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 527180) offer a 7-day France’s Waterways From Champagne to Paris cruise departing from London St Pancras. The holiday includes 6 nights aboard the Raymonde, 17 meals, all-inclusive selection of drinks, and excursions. Prices start from £1,195 pp twin share cabin for 14 May & 25 Jun 2019.
Special Offer: Take advantage of saving up to £75 per person on 2019 departures when booking on or before 14/08/2018