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River Cruise with the Family: Paris, Seine, and beautiful Normandy

by Silke Elzner

(Press Trip) River cruises have always been on the very top of my list. I just couldn’t picture anything more relaxing and more satisfying than floating down a big stream, passing by tiny villages, dramatic cliffs, and green pastures. But every time I dreamed that dream I also had to wonder: Is a river cruise something you could easily do with a family in tow?

Now that I had the opportunity to test this very special way of experiencing a destination, I am happy to confirm that it is indeed quite an easy thing to do, even when you travel with kids. To be honest, I secretly suspect that the kids actually had even more fun than us, even though that is hardly possible.

Normandy cliffs by the sea
Four seasons in a day, very often condensed within just a single hour – this is how we got to know Normandy. A paradise for impressionist masters and hobby photographers like me.

The following blog post shall share with you our experiences on the A-Rosa Viva, a German river cruise line which also operates in English on selected cruises. My focus will be on the treasures that we found in this beautiful region. We started our river cruise in Paris and continued on to Andelys, Caudebec-en-Caux and Rouen until we reached the English Channel. On our return, we also stopped by the tiny town of Vernon before surprising the kids with a trip to Disneyland!

I begin, however, with sharing our itinerary and the highlights along the way. This may also be helpful if you are planning a round trip in Normandy that may not involve a cruise ship. The article shall finish with a bit of a summary which will show you the advantages of travelling with A-Rosa as a family.

Eiffel Tower sunset
Paris welcomed us with this golden light on our first night in France. Before we climbed to the very top of the Eiffel tower, we enjoyed a leisurely walk with the kids along the Seine.

A Weekend in Paris

When planning our family trip in cooperation with A-Rosa I asked to have the flights to Paris moved forward, so that we could enjoy the French capital a couple of days before boarding the cruise ship to Normandy. This exploration of the city was not meant for us though – my husband and I had visited Paris on multiple occasions before – but rather to introduce the kids to all the world-famous sights that they had already heard so much about in the media.

I booked our Eiffel tower tickets well advance. I was keen to take the children all the way to the top, a privilege which we couldn’t make use of last time my husband and I were in Paris. Unfortunately, as I was studying the booking schedule on the official website of the Eiffel tower I soon discovered that all tickets to the top of the tower had already been booked out for months in advance. A little bit disappointed I had to activate Plan B: I booked my family onto a guided tour which also included the tickets to the tower.

It meant having to join a tour that we could have easily done without, and also consequently paying more than intended, but beggers are no choosers, and so this is how we managed to get to the top of the Eiffel tower in the end. Was it worth it? Absolutely! The kids loved the experience of climbing all the way to the second floor, then taking the elevator to the top. We were all smitten with the fantastic views of one of the prettiest cities in the world. Highly recommended, even with kids!

Paris book sellers
Exploring the streets and the charms of Paris with kids was an unforgettable experience for the whole family.

After climbing the Eiffel tower we hopped onto one of these tourist busses that stop just outside and that will take you all around the major sights. Under normal circumstances, this is not how we usually explore a city. But with two kids who hate walking and who are still in awe of the gorgeous sights and sounds of the city, this was the perfect solution. We interrupted the bus trip just outside of Notre-Dame, which is now burned out and a very sad to look at. I remember vividly the last time I was there and visited the inside of this beautiful church (See photos here). We then took the children to one of our favourites places in Paris, the Ile Saint-Louis, where we had lunch in one of the restaurants.

Instead of returning to the bus, we hailed a taxi and headed to Montmartre which was not included in the hop-on-hop-off tour. Again, this saved us from climbing the hill and preserved our kids’ precious energy reserves (if you can detect traces of cynicism , you are not very off). Our plan was to visit the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, but when I saw the line of people in front my heart sank. Again, a very different experience to what I recalled from our last visit in 2016. Also, back then there was no fence and no security screening. It’s a sad world we live in. We instantly dropped the church from our plans and explored the streets of Montmartre instead. What can I say? It is a pretty quarter with a lot of art and quaint little squares and cafes, but hell, it is packed. And we were visiting in October. I don’t want to picture how it may look in summer.

All in all, we were a little bit disappointed by Paris (not the kids, but we as adults). Now that we call Berlin our home again, we are spoilt with broad walkways and less traffic, tree-lined streets and friendly spaces. We found Paris overcrowded, very demanding and quite aggressive. Not to say that you shouldn’t visit Paris if you haven’t been there yet. But I would never think about moving there.

Seine river cruise
We were soon to discover that a river cruise was just as relaxing and peaceful as we had always pictured it to be.

A River Cruise to Normandy

The next morning we took a taxi to St. Denis, for this is where the river cruise was awaiting us. This is something that you need to be aware of: The cruise ship will not be docked in the centre of the city but rather outside. Don’t expect to see the City Lights from aboard the ship!

Knights in Armour
Yum!

Andelys

We left Paris late at night and woke up in Andelys. When I opened the curtains of our cabin for a first glimpse outside I thought it was a dream come true: There was full medieval jousting competition in full swing right on the banks of the river. Young, handsome men, fully clad in armour, helmet and all, fighting each other with metal swords and battle axes. I was in heaven!

It was a promising start to our first cruise day. We started off by simply walking into the small town of Andelys to discover its beautiful timber-frame houses and narrow streets. Towering over it all was the ruined castle that was once built by Richard Lionheart (you know, the one that is mentioned in the Robin Hood tales and who went on a crusade to the Holy Land).

Richard Lionheart's castle in Andalys.
Richard Lionheart’s castle in Andalys.

In the afternoon, we joined our first ever excursion. A coach took us to the palace gardens of nearby Château Vascœuil. Just a tiny little palace really, but it is surrounded by a well maintained garden that is home to a number of brilliant art works, for example by artists such as Salvador Dalí (read here how we once explored the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Spain). While we were looking out the window onto the rolling hills and the beechwood forests, the tour guide shared with us some important information on the history of Normandy – the Viking conquests and the first settlements. This was something that we would be confronted with over and over again over the next couple of days.

Before heading back to the ship we also checked out the impressive castle ruin on top of the mountain in Andalys. From here, the views of the river Seine were just outstanding, while we could see the glittering white chalk cliffs that frame the river’s meandering path.

Caudebec-en-Caux portal
The medieval figurines in the ornamental portal of the church in Caudebec-en-Caux reveal a lot about the fashion of the time.

Caudebec-en-Caux

On the next day, we already woke up to a brand-new town on the banks of the Seine, Caudebec-en-Caux. The name, by the way, is Norman, i.e. it has Scandinavian and thus Germanic roots. With a little bit of imagination you can even work out that Caudebec means “cold little river”. We started the day with a little walk around the sleepy town which was a little bit more modern than Andalys the previous day but still could surprise us with a wonderful Gothic church and some very old buildings.

If you consider visiting Caudebec-en-Caux one day, make sure you check out the portal figurines on the outside of the church – they show ordinary people in everyday situations. There is also the Templar’s House and the Medieval Prison which are well worth a look. Besides all this, what really set Caudebec-en-Caux apart from other towns we were yet to explore was the abundance of potted and planted flowers everywhere around town. It really added something special to the old buildings.

Honfleur port
Not surprisingly, Honfleur easily got our attention. The former busy port has a colourful history and was heavily impacted during the Hundred Years’ War.

Honfleur

In the afternoon, we joined yet another tour to visit the pretty little port of Honfleur. Striking is the panorama that you get to enjoy as you walk around the old harbour – the narrow traders’ houses reminded us of Amsterdam. However, what I loved even better was the area around the old prison which managed to retain its medieval look. For a couple of seconds you could easily forget that you were actually in the 21st century – the illusion was almost perfect.

Honfleur medieval prison
The old prison in Honfleur looks like from another era.

Another highlight of Honfleur is the wooden church in the centre of town. It comes with a wooden bell tower, which had to have extra beams added to the outside to support the heavy weight of the church bells. The bell tower is also set apart from the basilica, which makes this whole ensemble one of the most curious churches I have seen in my life.

We finished our excursion to Honfleur with tasting some of the spirit which is made from locally produced apples, Calvados.

Wooden church and bell tower Honfleur
I don’t think that the Viking look of the church in Honfleur is coincidental. Check out also the supported bell tower on the other side of the square.

Deauville

As we left Honfleur to reach our final destination of the day, Deauville, we drove past hundreds of these apple trees that are used to produce Calvados. Deauville is a seaside town that was established for the rich and famous in mind. It is so well maintained and perfect looking that it reminded me of a Disneyland, but not in a good way, more in a plastic kind of way.

If you ever think of losing your millions in one of the casinos there, or maybe catch a glimpse of the film stars who come here for the film festival, make sure you have the 650 Euros ready that you need to fork out per night for a room. Personally, this is not my kind of place, but I will admit that Deauville does indeed have a very nice, broad beach which is covered in some incredible shells. So this is where we spent the afternoon.

Deauville film star changing rooms
Deauville is particularly well known with movie aficionados. I particularly loved the private dressing rooms by the beach where rich people can change into their bathing suits with uttermost privacy guaranteed.

Rouen

Days 3 and 4 of our Seine river cruise came with a very different type of destination: not a small town like Andalys, Honfleur or Deauville, but a big modern city: Rouen. We dodged the massive car traffic on our way from the ship to the old town and then we were already charmed by the big golden clock in the gate tower, the huge Gothic cathedral, and the many unexpected pockets of timber-frame goodness.

Rouen golden clock
Rouen left a big impression on us. How big can be seen with this golden clock as an example. The clock is two-sided, so you can see the face on both sides of the tower.

Rouen is a very organic city. By this I mean that it has very modern parts to it but also very old and charming streets with wonky buildings and big Gothic churches. It is of course the city where Jean d’Arc was executed – you can find her mentioned in many places.

I particularly loved the old pestilence graveyard with surrounding arcades which used to be the bone house. When we visited, there was a bit of construction work going on, but we could still make out the carvings in the timber-frame that had been done by medieval gravediggers.

portal Rouen cathedral
Just a small section of the beautiful and elaborate cathedral of Rouen.

A must-see in Rouen is also the cathedral, of course, a prime example of Gothic church architecture. Inside, we even found the heart of Richard Lionheart (I believe the rest of his remains had been returned to England).

Since we had two days in Rouen, we joined our fellow passengers on the second day for another land excursion. This time, we were to explore Le Havre, the seaside town of Êtretat, and the steep cliffs of the Alabaster coast.

Le Havre modern church
This 1990’s church in Le Havre is all concrete and colourful glass stones. It takes a while to fully comprehend the beauty of this weird structure, which quite curiously reminded me of a 1960’s starship.

He Havre

We started with the city of Le Havre right on the mouth of the Seine. Le Havre is something very different. Due to its very prominent position the city was reduced to a pile of rubble during WWII, which left the city fathers with the difficult task of rebuilding pretty much the whole centre of the city. The design they came up with was heavily borrowed from the German Bauhaus school of architecture. It is something I am very familiar with, since I grew up in Germany.

As the coach rolled us through the city centre, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of the 1960’s postcards of my own German hometown. It did not quite impress me as much as it probably should have. It was definitely not love on first sight, even though Le Havre’s center has been added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.

kite surfers Le Havre
Le Havre’s beaches get a fair deal of ocean breeze.

Êtretat

However, the more time we spent in Le Havre, the more I started to understand the city’s aesthetics. It grew on me. As I caught glimpses of the beach with its colourful bathing houses, the kite surfers and glittering autumn sun, I was sad to not have taken more pictures of the city. Le Havre is definitely underrated and should be included in any trip to Normandy.

By the way, looking at the kite surfers as they danced on the waves of the English Channel, I was reminded of Tarifa in the south of Spain. Always a pretty sight to behold!

Êtretat stone arch
An unforgettable trip with the kids to Êtretat. The rock arch in the background is famous: Monet once painted one of his beautiful impressionist pictures here.

After Le Havre, we also visited the small seaside resort of Êtretat, a thoroughly Norman town with a narrow bay and amazing stone arches. I have been told that Êtretat was a particular popular place in summer, when there are so many tourists in town that you can hardly find a spot to take a deep breath. Anyway, visiting in October was clearly different and quite spectacular as well.

The one single thing that I will remember best about Êtretat is probably the weather that we had on that day. It was typical Normandy weather: all four seasons in close succession. From sunshine to hail, we had it all. And it changed the light continuously, so that I simply couldn’t stop taking photos of the landscape and the beach and the chapel and the houses in the village. I am not surprised that the impressionists once had had their base in Normandy.

This little chapel is perched high on a cliff in Êtretat, Normandy.
This little chapel is perched high on a cliff in Êtretat, Normandy.

Vernon

Our last stop of our river cruise was the town of Vernon. Vernon can be summarised with just a handful of sights, it is not the most spectacular place you get to see as you cruise the Seine. Having said this, the sights that Vernon do have can be called first-class: an old church with pretty stained glass windows, the remains of a medieval bridge with a 16th century mill on top, and a small castle.

The modern stained glass windows in the church of Vernon cast a colourful light on the ancient walls.
The modern stained glass windows in the church of Vernon cast a colourful light on the ancient walls.

Because Vernon had not enough to show for to fill a whole day, most cruise passengers took the coach to nearby Giverny instead. Giverny is where the artist Monet once lived. Surrounding his house is a beautiful ever-flowering garden which was the inspiration for his famous lily pond paintings.

We didn’t quite feel like joining another tour though, and opted for the old mill of Vernon instead which looks so pretty and fragile on the broken medieval bridge.

After this very last stop we slowly cruised all the way back to Paris. One last time, we glided past ancient villages and massive castles, deep forests and steep chalk cliffs. We even had an abundance of sunshine for a change, which allowed us to make use of the sundeck of the ship.

Vernon mill
Not much is left of the medieval bridge in Vernon. Standing on the very last stone arch is this 16th century mill, which seems to stubbornly defy the laws of gravity.

Disneyland

On our very last day in France, we surprised the kids with a trip to Disneyland. The ship helped us with pre-booking a taxi to get us there since there was no organised tour offered. We had already purchased the entrance tickets online using the on-board Wifi – no issues whatsoever.

If you ever think about taking your family to Disneyland in Paris: do it! But be prepared that this experience will spoil you for any other European theme park. I first visited Disneyland when I was 18 and I will never forget the experience. Taking our kids there who are now 10 and 12 was just the perfect time to experience the park together with them.

Kids are very welcome on board A-Rosa.
Kids are very welcome on board A-Rosa.

River Cruises and Kids – How is This Working out?

We were curious to find out how well one could join a river cruise when you have kids. Turns out, it can be easily done, and it also very enjoyable. To be honest, I suspect the kids had even more fun than us!

Kids Club

You need to remember that a river cruise boat is much, much smaller than one of these ships that cruise the Seven Seas. Which is why our ship, the A-Rosa Viva, did not offer a dedicated kids club area. Initially, this was a major concern of mine, because on bigger cruise ships it was mostly the access to unlimited gaming consoles which kept the kids entertained. When the kids program started on our first proper cruise day, my concern got even bigger, because the group got together for some play-do action. I looked at my 12-year old son and my heart sank.

But then we showed up with the kids and were greeted by a young man, it was actually him who could build immediate rapport with each kid on the cruise. I guess it was his age which brought him close to the interests of these children: youtube stars, gaming, music… he simply spoke their language. In the end, the kids never asked to leave the ship. We only forced them to come with us once, to Le Havre and Êtretat, to give them a taste of Normandy. But you could see that they would have preferred staying on board on that day too.

The kids club on A-Rosa ships is only available on selected ships, routes and times. It is highly recommended you check the program before you book your family in.

Food and Kids Meals

My son is a very special kid when it comes to food. You can serve him the most opulent buffet with a choice of freshly cooked meals and he will find not a single dish appealing. He will refuse to try. He would rather starve to death than eat a food that was not 100% to his taste. I think you can now understand our relief when this was noticed by one of the waiters who, without fail, would offer us a plate of specially cooked pasta straight from the kitchen every night.

Having said that, there was a special section with kids meals – think French fries and chicken nuggets kind of food – available. Not the right choice of dishes when it comes to our son, but I just explained that he is very special in that regard. I certainly appreciate the effort to provide meals also for kids on board.

Accommodation and cabins

What I loved about this trip was that we did not have to share our cabin with the children. Instead, we were given two cabins side-by-side. They were not connected, but given the age of the kids this was no problem for us. I know from checking the website though, that this ship, A-Rosa Viva, also offered connected rooms.

The beauty about this arrangement is that as a family of four you don’t pay for the second cabin. How cool is that? The deal goes like this: 2 adults + 2 kids = 2nd cabin for free. I cannot stress enough that this was a big factor in enjoying our cruise even more.

Language and Internationality

A-Rosa offers German-only cruises as well as international cruises. Our cruise was an international one, even though most passengers were German speakers. Those that hailed from other countries were mostly from Great Britain and traveled without kids, probably because there were no school holidays in the UK at that time of year.

All information and activities were offered in both languages, and crew and team spoke good but not perfect English. I watched the British guests during announcements and in the dining room: if there was any frustration because of the language barrier, it was slowly overcome with friendliness and flexibility. I also noticed how in particular older passengers started mixed language conversations in the lounge – it was really heart-warming to watch how we all became such a close-knit community.

Andalys castle
The cost of building the castle in Andalys ruined Richard Lionheart as well as his kingdom of England. On the upside, the massive fortress helped secure Normandy for him.

Advantages River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises

I think it becomes quite clear from the tales above that we had a wonderful time in Normandy. From my perspective, I particularly loved the fact that the ship can only hold a limited number of passengers. This made the experience very cosy and intimate. You would bump into each other from time to time, and a degree of familiarity would set in.

The only thing to criticise was the nightly entertainment. But then I have very particular tastes when it comes to music, and I understand if the majority of passengers is well over 50 and have different preferences. After a long day exploring the country, I happily retired to my cabin, not missing the entertainment program one bit.

Another huge advantage was the fact that we could explore all the places without these masses of tourists. River cruises stop in small ports with little tourism, at least in October. And there are no huge port facilities you first have to cross to reach your destination. It was as easy as walking over the gangway and you were already fully emerged in the experience. Highly recommended!

Disclaimer: My family and I were guests of A-Rosa River Cruises. All expenses such as flights, cruise accommodation, meals and one excursion were paid for in exchange for social media coverage and a review on this blog. All opinions in this article are entirely my own and have not been influenced by my partnership with A-Rosa.

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