“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain
I have fallen in love with France – once again. Why we stayed away for so long (collectively as North Americans, I mean), I will never fully understand. One year ago today, terrorists killed 130 people in a wave of attacks throughout Paris. Another 368 were injured. The world reeled, and French President François Hollande declared a state of emergency, which was extended until the end of January after a madman using a truck as his weapon killed 84 people in Nice this past summer.
Both attacks had serious consequences for tourism: Foreign visitors to Paris since the start of 2016 fell 15 percent when compared to the same period during the previous year, according to stats from the Tourism Office in Paris. Some sources put the decline at an even greater percentage.
I spent three weeks in France from mid-October until early November. My time there was magical. Leaving Paris, I boarded a jet to New York not only feeling as bubbly as a good champagne about France but also vowing to find a way to live there in the next few years. Yes, it was that good, which was somewhat surprising given how the media has portrayed France during the past 12 months. Fortunately, those portrayals appear to be fading and France seems to be returning to a period of relative calm.
“You may have felt a few months ago that France was not really safe, especially when you see soldiers patrolling in the town with their machine guns,” said tour guide Frederic Ollivier, who took us on bicycle tours of Rouen and Les Andelys. “If anything had happened between November and now, it would have been hard for us to convince people to come, but things seem to be under control.”
One Year Later, Thank You For Coming
To put things in perspective, Fred told me that he is planning a trip to Turkey, which his wife thinks is too dangerous. “But when you are motivated to see a place, you go, even if there is a certain amount of danger,” he said. “In France and in Europe, things have gone back to a peaceful period that we hope is going to last.”
He thanked us for coming to France, as did others during our journey along the Seine. One man in Vernon asked where we were from as he walked past. “The USA,” I said, to which he replied with a hearty “Welcome.”
“The world came together for us in New York after 9/11, so we felt a responsibility to be a part of the global community, and it was important for us to come here to support France,” said Michelle Robey, a New Yorker cruising with her husband Brian, a pilot for American Airlines.
Last October, the Robeys, both in their 40s, began planning a trip to Paris for the following April. Then came the November terrorist attacks. The Robeys would have proceeded as planned, but friends they were traveling with thought it was too risky.
“We tried to tell them that you can’t live your life like that, but they didn’t want to go,” Michelle told me. “So then I suggested Brussels, because I heard it was beautiful, and then a few weeks later we had the attacks on Brussels. They said, ‘No, no, no, we want to stay in the States.’ ”
So the Robeys suggested California to their friends, and then came the attacks in San Bernardino. “It was really bizarre, that chain of events, so we ended up going to Bryce Canyon in Utah,” Michelle said. “It was the safest place we could think of.”
But it wasn’t what the Robeys wanted. They wanted to send a message. “Brian as an airline pilot flies every September 11, whether he has a scheduled flight or not,” Michelle said. “He will go rent an airplane if he has to. It’s an act of defiance.”
France 2017 Bookings Picking Up
“2016 obviously was not the best year for France,” says Kristin Karst, AmaWaterways’ executive vice president and co-owner. “But we know whatever is down will be up again.”
AmaWaterways operates in three regions of France: Bordeaux, Provence and Paris/Normandy. “The river that was probably hit the hardest was the Seine, because of the proximity to Paris,” Karst says.
She points out that millions of people live in Paris and the surroundings, and they continue on with their daily lives. She goes on to say that on our cruise, we witnessed no cause for concern. Quite the contrary, “we enjoyed the people, the local flair, the local markets,” she said. “We should not let anything keep us from having these beautiful experiences in life.”
Bookings for 2017 have picked up because people are going back to their routines, and there’s not much in the media discouraging people to visit France, she says. “France has always been a number one tourism destination and it will be again, because it is just so beautiful,” Karst says. “The people are very friendly, there’s so much history and the food is fantastic. It’s just an amazingly charming country, so we are very positive about 2017 and we are absolutely positive that for 2018 our ships will be sold out again.”
AmaWaterways’ 2018 Rhone itineraries are already more than 75 percent booked already, she says.
Two Cruises In France
In October, I river cruised from both Bordeaux and Paris. I just stepped off of AmaWaterways’ AmaLegro last week in Paris after a memorable seven-night cruise along the Seine.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the mood on board AmaLegro was euphoric for the duration of the cruise. It began on the very first night, when the captain maneuvered AmaLegro in front of the Eiffel Tower for picture-perfect framing. Huddled on the outside decks, we snapped photos of the monument as AmaLegro staff brought around complimentary glasses of Calvados (an apple brandy from Normandy) to break the chill of the October evening.
We were only a few hours into the cruise, and yet it appeared that all of us onboard AmaLegro had absorbed that spirited French sense of Le Joie de Vivre, a feeling that was not to leave us for the duration of the cruise.
Part of the reason for the heightened mood was due to the weather, which was sunny and in the 70s for nearly the whole week. Another part of it was due to the wonderful crew on AmaLegro. The captain, whose French is better than his English, said in a heavy French accent, “I love you” to the audience during his farewell speech, and you got the sense that he meant it. Throughout the cruise the captain would grab the hands of people and drag them on the dance floor, coupling strangers and encouraging them to dance together. I’ve never been on a river cruise with so much toe-tapping.
Let’s Go Back To France
But it took the beauty of France and its people to send spirits soaring into the stratosphere. On our bikes rides and walks, we were greeted by locals telling us to have a nice day, Bonne journée.
The affinity between the French and the Americans is a natural one. Fred, our tour guide, said: “There is a very close link that dates back to the two world wars.”
During our eight days on the Seine, we struck up conversations with locals in small bars and cafes in the towns where we docked. We rode bicycles, up to 30 miles on one day and 24 miles on another day, through beautiful French countryside.
We visited the Landing Beaches. We sampled Camembert (and other cheeses), cider and Calvados, all staples of the Normandy region. We dined on oysters, which AmaWaterways brought on board, fresh from Normandy.
We strolled through Monet’s gardens, dressed in fall colors, and perhaps inspired by the Impressionist painter, we aimed our cameras each day of the voyage to create works for art of our own.
To sum up our cruise along the Siene: It was magical, as is much of France. And after spending the better part of October and part of November in this wonderful country, I left wanting to tell others that it’s time that we all rewarded ourselves with a trip to Paris, Bordeaux or the Rhone river.
On the anniversary of the Paris attacks, it’s time for us to make a statement and to return to France, a country that welcomes us with open arms and a warm embrace.
Note: AmaLegro finishes her ten-year tenure with AmaWaterways in two weeks. She is being transferred out of the fleet and replaced on the Seine by AmaLyra for 2017.
Paris on a beautiful October day. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
View of the Eiffel Tower from my stateroom window. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
The captain maneuvered AmaLegro and spotlighted the Statue of Liberty before we sailed from Paris. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Flying our flag: Welcome back. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Approaching Les Andelys. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Captain Claude Grard. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Scenic cruising past beautiful landscapes along the Seine. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Our wonderful cruise manager Annie Lebailly toasts hotel manager Talida Lupu. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Pastry chef Orsolya Toth serving up Crepes Suzette. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Corporate Chef Stefan Schmitz prepares fresh oysters from Normandy. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Belgian waffles for breakfast on AmaWaterways. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Cheese tasting on AmaLegro © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
At Monet's Gardens. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
At Monet's Gardens. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
At Monet's Gardens. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
This is November in France? Photo by Mike Louagie
Bikes on board AmaLegro. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Testing her bike, AmaWaterways' Kristin Karst. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Ready for Halloween. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Celebrating Halloween on AmaLegro. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
All dress up and nowhere to go. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
The pumpkin who loves wine. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Leaving Les Andelys. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Saddling up to tour Rouen. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
In Rouen. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Oysters, wine and friends. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Having a beer at a local bar in Caudebec-en-Caux, Mike Louagie & Ralph Grizzle. © 2016 Bar Patron
Enjoying the view. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
View from Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Our tour guide Frederic Ollivier and his son Christophe. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Our wonderful tour guide Frederic Ollivier. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
AmaLegro docked in Les Andelys. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Grisel? An old spelling of my last name. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Les Andelys. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Captain Claude Grard (left) and 2nd captain Alexandre Prevost. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Cruising into Les Andelys. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Industry along the Seine. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Docked side-by-side on the Seine. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Gorgeous evening. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
Sunset on the Seine. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle
In the wheelhouse, sailing back to Paris. © 2016 Ralph Grizzle