MONDAY, JUNE 26
As Australians, I think we sometimes feel divorced from the Normandy Landings of 1944, given our ground troops were busy dealing with the Japanese in the Pacific. But there is a strong Aussie connection with D Day, because most of our airmen were in Britain, and we even had a naval presence. My wife, Marie and I visit the Normandy battle grounds during a full-day excursion from our Seine River cruise, on Scenic Gem, which is moored at Honfleur. Nearly everyone else on our coach is from Britain, which is understandable. Our guide, Carolyn is from Bayeaux, where we visit the D Day Museum and cemetery. Marie lays a poppy at the grave of RAAF airman, Frederick James Knight, from Haberfield in New South Wales, a graduate of Scots College. He was killed the day after the first Normandy landings (on June 6, 1944) when his Lancaster bomber was shot down, over Vire. I wander over to the Reporters’ Memorial, which honours journalists killed, while covering conflicts around the world. Next stop is Arromanche-les-Bains on the coast, where there are remnants of a Mulberry Harbour, towed over from Britain, during the Normandy campaign. The impressive new ‘Landing Museum’ is so busy. Our group enjoys lunch at La Marine Hotel (chicken and pasta), where the staff are efficient. We sit with a couple from Surrey – Mel and Mary – with Mel having worked in IT, while Mary had a career in the National Health Service. He retired at 55, and is involved with the Courtyard Theatre, in Surrey. In a recent play – ‘Pressure’ – he took the part of General Eisenhower.
Our coach trip takes us a short distance along the coast to the impressive British Normandy Monument, which was built by public subscription, with ‘The Lord Ricketts’ (Lord Peter Ricketts) the Chair. Liam O’Connor was the architect. Among the thousands of names are war correspondent, A. A. Thorpe and J Donnelly from the Royal Navy. (My wife is a Donnelly). Among the other visitors, are children from Dyserth in North Wales.
Next stop is ‘Memorial Pegasus’, a Museum which pays tribute to British paratroopers, who landed behind enemy lines, before the beach landings. A documentary on the campaign is shown in the Museum theatre, with the introduction by Prince Charles, now King Charles. When elderly Trevor – a man in his eighties – tries to find a seat, none of the much younger people on seats near him, offer to surrender their places, and he has to do his best on the floor, alongside (the relatively young) Marie and I. We have to help Trevor to his feet, at the end of the film. Something similar happened in the theatrette at Bayeaux, when a young bloke spread his legs on the last available bench space, preventing my wife from sitting down. She stood beside him for the entire film. I just don’t get the lack of common courtesy.
Our young guide at Memorial Pegasus at Ranville, is excellent. I mention to him that I saw the 1962 movie ‘The Longest Day’ – at Murwillumbah’s Regent Theatre – with a school group. Some scenes from the movie – about D Day – were filmed here, where the Museum now stands. The epic production starred the likes of Sean Connery, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Richard Burton. The guide says there is no way French schools would be taken to see the movie, because the producers “took a few liberties” – with the truth. I walk over the ‘new’ bridge over the Orne River/Caen Canal, to take a photo of the first house liberated on Mainland France, during World War II (Other towns and villages had been liberated on the French Island of Corsica). The house is now the Cafe Gondree. Six gliders, towed by Halifax bombers, left Dorset in England on June 5, 1944; landed here and took the bridge, in what was an amazing feat of navigation and courage.
Back on board Scenic Gem, Marie and I team up with Kerry and Maree Harmon, to win the music quiz.
TUESDAY, JUNE 27
Scenic Gem leaves Honfleur at 3.45 a.m., and arrives in Caudebec-en-caux at 6.15 a.m. Marie and I skip the Benedictine Abbey excursion, electing to have a quiet day on board. The BBC has a rugby league show – highlights from the weekend’s games. You beauty. Marie and I succumb to the lure of Caudebec-en-caux and walk around the town, up into the thickly wooded hills. An old chap does handcuffing gestures, as I try to converse with him. Turns out the big tourist attraction in town, is a medieval prison, and he was trying to get that message across. A cargo barge called ‘Cyclone’ goes by, as we return to Scenic Gem, which sails for Vernon at 1.15 p.m.
It is our turn to dine at the head of the boat, in L’Amour Restaurant. Everyone gets a chance, but it is by invitation only – from Restaurant manager, Florian Anton. We sit at the same table as two American couples – Matthew and Kathleen from Florida; Wayne and Joan from California. Matthew is an ex-hospitality executive with Walt Disney, while Wayne is an ex-medico. Joan was a theatre nurse, while Kathleen was a stay-at-home mother. As we pass under a bridge, the graffiti reads: Sweet Revenge”. Cruise concierge, Mandy Kinnell is tonight’s guest entertainer, and has a lovely voice.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28
A monument on the riverside at Vernon tell us that Notts Sherwood Rangers liberated the heavily bombed town, in 1944. Today’s excursion is to Monet’s Garden, at nearby Giverny, where Marie has been previously – on a day trip from Paris, with Margaret Heisner, catching the train to Vernon. Boy, the gardens are so crowded, even though our group gets there before opening. The Japanese love the place. Back in Vernon, we walk over the bridge to see the mill, which straddles the remaining two piers of the old bridge, which was built in the 12th Century. Marie finds a patisserie – ‘Au Peche’ – maybe the one she visited with Margaret.
At 6 p.m. Scenic Gem moors by the gardens of 12th Century La Roche Guyon Chateau, where there is to be a ‘Scenic Enrich Event’, with a classical quartet playing exclusively for our group. Marie represents the Ricketts’ clan, as I am feeling unwell. I stay in our room and watch James Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’; an episode of Minder, and then a bicycle race from Redcar, in North East England. A speedboat, with kids tobogganing, goes by. Scenic Gem departs for Le Pecq at 9.30 p.m.
THURSDAY, JUNE 29
I feel a little better this morning, so I join Marie and 11 others for our excursion to Chantilly Chateau Stables and Equestrian Museum. The stables are magnificent, and one of the horses is called ‘Koala’. We see a horse being trained, while a lady exercising a horse stops and talks to our group, for at least 15 minutes. The stables are the biggest and grandest in Europe, and are home to an equestrian troupe, which stages shows all year round. Our tour guide, Sonya, has a lovely way of talking English. There had been a thoroughbred race meeting at Chantilly yesterday.
At lunch on Scenic Gem, there is an Aussie – from Helensvale – in a Bintang singlet. Not a great look. Obviously doesn’t have a mirror in his room. After lunch we partake of the cheese tasting, presented by Chef, Adriana, and Calvados tasting, presented by Vlad. The highlight was the baguette. Why couldn’t we have had baguettes every day? The gala ‘farewell’ dinner is quite good, and for once, the steak is tender. The red wine from Burgundy, is a fine accompaniment. Scenic Gem sails into Paris, mooring at Quai de President Roosevelt, right next to the Restaurant La Barge.
Spanish lass, Aida – the entertainment director on board – also sings really well. Tonight she dedicates a song to her dad, who died three years ago. I love her version of ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’. Aida tells me of her distaste for bull fighting, after I mention that Marie and I went to the bullfights, in Barcelona, in April, 1978. We didn’t like it either, and the bullfights are now banned in the Catalonia region of Spain.
Back in Brisbane, prominent journalist, Jeff Wall’s funeral takes place. Jeff was heavily involved with rugby league in Papua New Guinea, and also with the Journalists’ Rugby League in Queensland.
FRIDAY, JUNE 30
Crook again. Not self inflicted. I spend most of the day in bed, leaving only so the room can be cleaned. I watch ‘Mission Impossible. Rogue Nation’. Marie to Vaux-le-Vicomte Palace. Riots in Paris worsen, as the fallout continues from the shooting, by a policeman, of a teenager. Marie sees lots of motor cycle police on her way to the Palace, but no other evidence of trouble.
SATURDAY, JULY 1
Farewells take place, as people leave Scenic Gem at the end of our cruise. We all have to be out of our rooms by 8.30 a.m., but we can stay on board all day if we wish, eating and drinking. Our airport transfer is not until 4 p.m. One of the female passengers has a fall, hits her head and is taken to hospital. An American couple had gone the entire cruise without their luggage, which was lost by the airline they flew with. They retained their sense of humour, and were well looked after by Scenic, who did their laundry for free.
Because we have time to kill, we accompany fellow Brisbane residents, Kerry and Maree Harmon, to a nearby food hall – Halles d’ Issy – where Kerry tucks into prawns. If had been feeling better, I would have had a crack at the oysters and craft beer. There is a huge poster promoting this year’s rugby union World Cup in France. There are no white players on the poster. We hope to catch up with Kerry and Maree back in Brisbane, and likewise the other Queenslanders, whose company we enjoyed – Wayne and Sue Douglass; Phil and Sue Vincent.
Along with Maree and Kerry, we are the last to leave ‘Gem’. There are only 58 passengers on the next cruise, including two small children. The crew are shocked when they see kids boarding, because they weren’t told in advance about the age of these guests, and it is usually an ‘adults only’ cruise. I’m glad I’m not on this next trip. I don’t like the idea of a capacity cruise, but 58 is too few. And I don’t want kids on the cruise. I think this duo will be bored senseless for long periods, given they appear to be under-10. They are into screen time, soon after boarding.
On our way to the airport, with Kerry and Maree, we see three burnt our buses on trucks, the result of the rioting. Getting through customs etc at the airport is relatively painless, after dramas we experienced in previous departures from Charles de Gaulle.
SUNDAY, JULY 2
Arrive in Singapore at 5 a.m. Local soccer on TV in the lounge. No-one at the game. There is also a (English) Premier League show, which has a former top goalie analysing the efforts of goalies. An Australian opposite me comments on “the disgraceful call”, to disallow a catch in one of the Ashes cricket Tests. A couple from the Adelaide Hills tell us they have been on a cruise from Amsterdam to Basle. A bloke comes in wearing a Billabong singlet. He is fat and has tattoos. Once again – no mirror. He eventually puts on a shirt, to the relief of everyone.
Marie and I are last on the plane for the next leg to Brisbane – just make it before the gate closes. Back in England, former Bronco, Corey Norman, who has been playing in France, makes his debut for London Broncos in a 56-6 win over Newcastle Thunder. Norman had a hand in four tries. I watch Creed III (not bad) while Marie goes for ‘Pride and Glory’.
Our European Odyssey is over. Seven and a half weeks was long enough. The weather was magic – it rained on only three days, and then, very lightly. Everywhere we went people were wonderful, whether it was on London’s crowded Tube; the busy streets of Bergen in Norway; the cafes and restaurants of Paris, or the small towns of Normandy.
For a look at out previous Euro travels, just Google ‘Steve Ricketts Travel‘.