Dispatch, France: Battles and brushstrokes along the Seine


The Seine is so inextricably linked to Paris that the City of Light can often overshadow the many treasures elsewhere along the river's banks.

But over the past several days of sailing along the Seine on Avalon Waterways' newest Suite Ship, the 128-passenger Avalon Tapestry II, the river has become so much more to me than just than a scenic byway between the Right and Left banks.

One cannot sail the Seine without getting pulled back in time to the critical role the waterway played in World War II. As you make your way north from Paris, each town and village along the way tells a story of triumph or defeat for the Allied forces against Hitler's troops. It's like a rolling prep course toward what is the major draw of this itinerary for many who book it -- the Normandy beaches, where the famous Battle of Normandy began on D-Day, June 6, 1944. During the 70th anniversary of the battle last year, demand for Seine cruises climbed considerably, and some like Avalon have added inventory in response.

Once having had experienced it, it feels that no trip along the Seine would be complete without a heavy, but necessary, day-long visit to the sites that defined the offensive, and to the burial grounds that remind us still, 70 years later, of the tens of thousands of losses.

It's a long day, both logistically (requiring a couple hours driving to and from the ship to the beaches, as well as additional driving between landmarks) and emotionally. But for travelers like myself, for whom many pivotal moments or personalities in history aren't completely solidified in my mind and heart until I see and experience them firsthand, it's a must in order to fully grasp the enormity of the mission, the key turning point it represented in the war and the sacrifice that was endured.

While the beaches of Normandy were an expected highlight of an itinerary that delivered on its promise, there was also a pleasant surprise on the return sailing to Paris -- Auvers-sur-Oise, the village where Vincent Van Gogh spent the last three months of his life.

A walk through the town is a journey through the visual inspiration for Van Gogh's final paintings. Our great tour guide/storyteller, who we were very fortunate to have, provided vivid insight into the painter's troubled life, tortured relationships and the circumstances that led to what is widely believed to be his final suicidal act, when he shot himself in the fields outside the city in July 1890 at age 37. He died two days later in his little studio apartment in town.

Vincent Van Gogh and his beloved brother Theo Van Gogh (known for their treasure trove of letters written to each other) are both buried in a cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise in a simple plot covered with ivy.

As we gently glided back into Paris, I was reminded that a river is only as impressive as the stories it tells. And the Seine tells so many more stories than I realized.

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