MONDAY, JUNE 19
Our Uber driver has a heated verbal exchange with a taxi driver, as he takes my wife, Marie and our youngest son, Lliam from the Pullman Eiffel Tower to Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. The cabbie was in the right, with our Uber driver aggressively blocking the cabbie’s attempt at making–what should have been–a simple merge. The Gardens are busy, and Lliam heads straight for a stand selling crepes. One drink at Cote St Germain, and when we emerge there is a distressed woman, who was the victim of a failed backpack grab. Dinner at Villa Marquise at Montparnasse, is underwhelming. Steak and veal dishes tough.
TUESDAY, JUNE 20
French daily sports newspaper, L’Equipe has its own television channel, and in recent days has been showing three-on-three basketball from Vienna, as well as team swimming from Barcelona, and BMX from Turkey. Madagascar beat France in the basketball, and there are wild celebrations from the Madagascan players and fans, as it means so much to beat ‘big brother’, given Madagascar was a French territory. Most of the prawns I see on sale at Paris markets, are from Madagascar.
Walk Avenue des Champs Elysees, to Arc de Triomphe, and then back to the River Seine, via Avenue D’iena. Motor cycle police escort a VIP bus through the Arc roundabout. Police have raided the Paris Olympic HQ, over corruption allegations. Drinks at Cafe Roussillon, which has a nice feel – mainly older patrons, but obviously a locals’ bar, as much as a tourists’ watering hole. Marie and I enjoy quality dinner at Oui Mon General, including mussels; a mushroom dish; white fish and a main course made primarily from the pig’s head. Staff take empty wine bottles to a recycling bin across the road from the restaurant. The restaurant proprietor has a swig from a couple of unfinished bottles, as he crosses the road. Waste not, want not.
Our son, Lliam flies to Dublin and catches a train to Thurles in County Tipperary with his cousin, Liana Kelly. He will spend the next three nights at the Kelly household at rural Fantane.
Controversial Australian rugby league forward, Josh McGuire has returned to Brisbane, from English club, Warrington, as a result of his second lengthy ban for saying something inappropriate on the field. It must have been bad.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21
Join ‘Scenic Gem’ for our River Seine cruise. Our cabbie from our apartment to the Quay, is Paris born, of Algerian descent and supports Paris St Germaine soccer club, but has a 12-year-old nephew who is into rugby union, while another relative went to the Toulouse v La Rochelle Top 14 Rugby final.
Marie and I are greeted dockside by Martyn, from Portugal, who is a sailor on ‘Scenic Gem’. The concierge, Mandy Kinnell, is from near Stirling in Scotland, and our butler, Robert, is Romanian, although the bloke who takes us to our room is from Serbia. Mandy was a member of Young Farmers’ in Scotland, and was a regular visitor to the Borders, where our friends, Elliot and Linda Gibson live (Hawick to be exact). ‘Scenic Gem’ was launched in 2014 by the mother of Scenic owner, Glen Moroney.Kerry and Maree Harmon from Hendra in Brisbane are the first fellow passengers we meet. They are originally from Northern New South Wales, and were married at Coraki, on the Richmond River. Wayne and Sue Douglass from Buderim in Queensland are the next couple we catch up with. Wayne played first grade rugby league for Wests Panthers in Brisbane, as did his younger brother, Kym. Kym infamously took out dual international, Ray Price in an Amco Cup game, with a high shot. When Price recovered, he told Kym if he did anything like that again, he would kill him. Kym called Ray, ‘Mr Price’ after that, and promised to be on his best behaviour. Wayne had a season with Bradford Northern in England (1977-78), and when he first arrived in the West Yorkshire city, stayed with Queenslander, Garth Budge, who had made Bradford his home, after playing there in the 1960s, and marrying a local lass, the daughter of prominent official, Harry Womersley. The Douglass’s are with Phil and Sue Vincent from Bribie Island in Queensland, with Phil hailing from Doncaster in England originally. Phil and his wife are both ex-military.
First dinner on board – artichoke soup, vegetable curry (moi); goats cheese souffle, pork belly (Marie). We both have banana ice cream, although it is more banana essence.
Queensland win the return State of Origin game, and therefore the series, with a 32-6 result at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. Our daughter, Melanie Mariotto and her husband, Greg go to the game. Greg is an AFL man, who passionately supports Essendon. He does not enjoy the match as much as Melanie, and is a bit taken aback by the Queensland crowd. Our son, Lliam watches the match in Dublin’s Woolshed Sports Bar, after getting a train to the capital from Thurles, with his other Irish cousin, Emma Kelly. There is a tribute before the match to former Queensland coach and Australian halfback, Barry Muir, who died last year. The tribute was organised by new QRL CEO, Ben Ikin, at the urging of former dual international, Geoff Richardson, who played under Muir in Queensland sides. Geoff and Barry’s widow, Louise travel to the match from the Gold Coast, but get stuck in traffic and miss the tribute. Get the shock news Justin Holbrook has been sacked as coach of Gold Coast Titans, with Des Hasler to be the new man, from 2024. In the meantime, Jim Lenihan will run the show. I interviewed Jim way back in 1992 when he made his top grade (playing) debut for Ipswich Jets.
THURSDAY, JUNE 22
This is the breakdown of nationalities on Scenic Gem: Australians 28, Kiwis 1, Canadians 9, Americans 13, Poms 44, Irish one. Crew members hail from places as diverse as Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, France (the skipper, Ludovic Libs), Hungary, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, England and Romania. It seems Romania boasts the most crew members – 22. It turns out the lone Kiwi is Sue Douglass, a Christchurch girl, who has lived in Australia a long time, but still goes for the All Blacks. One of the Poms – Trevor from Kidderminster – ‘traps’ me at the coffee machine and goes into chapter and verse about every day of his two visits to Australia. He is a lovely bloke and I listen to everything he has to say. But Marie wondered what the hell kept me so long. Trevor reminds me of actor, Wilfred Brambell, who played rag and bone man, Steptoe, in the English comedy series, ‘Steptoe and Son’.
Our first mooring point is Les Andelys, and our first excursion is to an apple orchard on a plateau above the river. Our coach driver – a female – goes like a bat out of hell. It is a bit scary, on top of the news of the Hunter Valley bus tragedy. Another Aussie couple – from Bacchus Marsh in Victoria – are like me – clinging on for dear life, as our heroine negotiates the curves, taking us up to the plateau, where the orchard is located. Our guide gives a French history lesson, and chuckles at his own jokes, which I don’t mind. Our man from Bacchus Marsh asks the orchard guide how many lady birds there are on the farm. He means lady bugs, but even so, what a question! The group is invited to try three different styles of cider – dry, semi-dry and Rose. “Do you swallow?” asks an American lady. A bit personal, dear! After our descent from the plateau, we walk the lovely village of Lyons Le Foret.After the captain’s official cocktail party, we have dinner with Chris and Deidre from Sevenoaks in Kent, England, although Deidre is originally from County Offaly, in Ireland. She is thrilled when I tell her Marie and I attended a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, Dublin, in 1977, between Offaly and Dublin. And bloody offal it was too. (I didn’t say that to Deidre). Our boat arrives in the medieval city of Rouen at 10.30 p.m.
Learn of the passing of former Great Britain rugby league skipper, Welshman, Bev Risman. He captained Britain in the 1968 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. He is the son of the legendary, Gus Risman from Tiger Bay, Cardiff, captain of the 1946 Lions. Bev was a stalwart of Universities Rugby League and the 13-man game in London.
FRIDAY, JUNE 23
A film crew has taken over the forecourt of (Catholic) Church of St Maclon, in Rouen, and our guide has to rejig our walk around the city. The movie has a Christmas theme, with ‘snow’ sprinkled on the ground. There are so many groups on guided tours that it is a bit too busy for my liking. The BBQ back on the top deck of Scenic Gem is pleasant enough, but the steak is tough as an old boot. Marie and I return to the streets of Rouen after lunch, and seek out the dungeon tower where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, before she was burnt at the stake. We had visited the tower, way back in March, 1978, when we were driving through Rouen in our Kombi, on a Euro adventure. A puppeteer in Cathedral Square has a weird ‘Johnny be Good’ routine. Doesn’t seem right, in the middle of a medieval French city.Back on board, there is a special presentation, entitled ‘A Day in the Life of a WW1 Tommy’, presented by Ben, a former British serviceman dressed in the uniform that would have been worn in the trenches in northern France (in the 1914-18 ‘War to End All Wars’), and brandishing an Enfield Rifle. Ben served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have dinner in Crystal Dining with the Sue and Wayne Douglass and Phil and Sue Vincent. Phil can’t eat his steak, it is so tough. Entertainment in the Gem Lounge is provided by ‘Destination Woodstock’, a three piece band from Paris, who are infatuated by the Beatles. (They are from that era). They start with ‘Michelle’ and finish with ‘When I saw Her Standing There’. When they played Rolling Stones’ hit ‘Satisfaction’, a passenger, in a white business shirt, gets up with his wife, and brings out his best moves. He really goes for it, and his wife asks the band not to play the song again.
SATURDAY, JUNE 24
With ‘Scenic Gem’ tied up next to another riverboat, our window looks down on cabins below. As Marie opens our curtains, she is confronted by a naked gentleman, sitting on the edge of his bed, playing with his smart phone. Could have been worse.
Today’s excursion takes us to the Somme Battlefields, and our English guide, Victor, a former journalist from Nottingham, is excellent. He has lived in the Somme region for 25 years, and what he doesn’t know about the World War 1 conflict, is not worth knowing. Marie and I had been to the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, but not to the impressive John Monash Centre, which adjoins the Memorial. Afterwards, we visit the museum at the Villers-Bretonneux School, where the pupils pay tribute to Australia every day, given our troops liberated the town from the Germans during the decisive battles of 1918. They, at least, have been taught there is something good about our country. Victor says the Australians were the most respected fighting force of the War. Lunch at a restaurant in a nearby village is excellent – chicken, roast potato, asparagus and tomato, followed by some sort of tart – all so much better than the food back on ‘Scenic Gem’. We sit beside two couples from the south of England, although one lady is originally from the Outer Hebrides. Both couples have properties on Portugal’s Algarve Coast. Poor people.
After lunch, we visit the Commonwealth Memorial, where there are hundreds of English school children on excursions, some from Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire. Then to Caterpillar Valley and Lochnagar Crater. Caterpillar Valley was the scene of a courageous charge against German positions by an Indian cavalry regiment. The crater is the result of a mine, placed under German positions by British engineers in 1916. Victor points out the spot where Germany’s ace World War 1 Pilot, The Red Baron – Manfred Von Richthofen – was shot down, by an Australian soldier, believed to be Queanbeyan born, William ‘Snowy’ Evans. Evans was a shearer in Queensland when he enlisted in the Army in 1914. For some reason, I always thought the Aussie who shot down the Red Baron, came from Beaudesert.Victor, who loves his job, is worried he will get a poor review, because he managed to leave behind an Australian couple at Villers War Memorial. But let’s just say, the couple involved had a habit of wandering off and doing their own thing, so it was bound to happen. They rejoined our group in time for lunch, because there was more than one bus. But they had the shits at being left behind. Our departure from Villers was delayed half an hour as we searched for them, but, in the end, we had to go.
Learn of the passing of prominent Labor politician, Simon Crean. I interviewed Simon at the Waterside Workers’ Club in Brisbane in 1979, when I was industrial roundsman for the ‘Telegraph’, and Simon was assistant secretary of the Storeman and Packers’ Union.
SUNDAY, JUNE 25
Scenic Gem arrives in the historic fishing port of Honfleur at 2.30 a.m. The local liquor, Calvados is such a ‘deadly’ drop, it was used as fuel in World War II, when there were shortages of petroleum. We taste various genres of the cider-distilled liquor at the impressive Calvados Experience in Pont-l’-Eveque. Our guide, Melanie, has not heard of singer, Melanie Safka, after whom our daughter, Melanie Mariotto, is named. She promises to Google her. From the lookout at hilltop Beaumont-en-Auge it is possible to see the English Channel. The village reminds Marie of Pujols, the hilltop village outside Villeneuve-Sur-Lot, where we have stayed many times on previous visits to France. Pujols is in the heart of rugby league territory, and boasts junior sides.
Back in Honfleur, we walk the beautiful town, finishing up in a park, where there is live music and lots of families. There is a bloke wearing a New Zealand Chiefs Rugby Union jersey. There is also a circus in town. We decide to skip dinner on board, and pay for a meal in town, with Marie keen to have mussels. At our chosen restaurant, we order ‘Moules and frits’; half a dozen oysters and homemade foie-gras terrine, as well as a small bottle of Alsace white wine. Just after taking out first sips of the wine, our waiter says there are no mussels, even though they are advertised inside and outside the restaurant. That was the only reason we came into town, turning our back on a ‘free’ meal on board! We’re out of there, but they want us to pay for the wine. I make it very clear that will not be happening, and we march out. There is no knife wielding chef following us – thank heavens – as we head back to the boat, and order room service. We watch Cat Stevens at Glastonbury, but are too weary to stay up to watch Elton John close the festival.
Photos of Honfleur: