My First River Cruise Experience…Pre-Cruise Extension

So after our amazing dinner last night, way too much wine and a good nights sleep, I was up at 6am to go to the gym (not because I am that good about going to the gym, just trying to mitigate the damage I knew I would do on the cruise!).  However, the gym at the Clarion doesn’t open until 10am.   What?  I have never heard of a gym not opening until nearly afternoon, but oh well.  Instead I went for a walk/jog around the grounds of the hotel.  It was dark and drizzly so I only did as much as I could stand before I  gave up and headed for coffee and croissants.

The plan for the day was breakfast in the hotel, then on the bus for a trip to Château Chenonceau then back to Tours to do an official sightseeing tour.  My only complaint about the Clarion is that it is kind of far away from the main part of town so it is not just a quick walk down to the shops, restaurants, etc.  So we would be taken on a tour with our lovely tour guide

Breakfast was again yummy and thus fortified we headed out to the waiting bus.  It was still kind of drizzling but on and off, and I was hopeful for a relatively dry day.

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It did stop actually drizzling but remained pretty dreary all day.  This Château, however is spectacular.  Another one of those “mistress gifts” that seemed to be so commonplace in times gone by.  This “little country house” was given by King Henry II to his lifelong companion and chief mistress Diane de Poitiers.  Diane commissioned the bridge that joined the bridge to its opposite bank, which would actually be what saved this Château 200 years later during the French Revolution.

This gift to Diane created just a smidge of jealousy in Henry’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici.  She had wanted Chenonceau for herself, but as long as Diane de Poitiers was so attached to it, the king refused to give it to the queen.

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All that changed when the king died.  Catherine forced Diane to move to a different château and Catherine made Chenonceau her favored residence.  She expanded the gardens,build new rooms, and threw lavish parties that included the first ever fireworks display in celebration of her son taking the crown.

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I love this stove and all of this copper!

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A portrait of Diane, by all accounts a very beautiful and accomplished woman.

After our time at Chenonceau, we loaded back into our bus for the short drive over the river Cher to Amboise.

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Amboise is most famous for it’s housing of Leonardo da Vinci when he fled Rome looking for better wine and work.  I am not sure what kind of work he found when he got here, but settling in the Loire Valley sure was a stroke of genius on the wine front!

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We wandered around this medieval town looking at some of the old wood buildings.

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And we stopped at a small place along the way for some lunch.

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I had the Pâté de Pâques (Easter Pate) and I cannot remember what I had as my main course…but I remember we really liked everything. I feel like I would have ordered the shrimp, but I am not entirely sure…see what happens when the wine is THAT good!

After lunch we had to make our way back to the bus for our next stop…Tours.  As I mentioned before, our hotel is not close to the main part of the city so we were going to be dropped off, given a tour by our guide and then picked up and driven back to the hotel.

Tours has been a pretty important city in France since Gallic times.  Many historians contend that the French spoken in this area is the purest form of French.  Tours was the cultural center of French nobility until the court returned to Paris & Versailles.  The Tours Cathedral was completed in 1547.

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And its pretty spectacular.  Even in a country that has a bazillion churches this one is awesome.

Back at the hotel, I was pretty excited for what the hotel had going on that night…a wine tasting.  This was wholly separate from the Viking activities and was run through the hotel.  But first we needed dinner.  This is where we come to my only complaint again…the hotel’s distance from town.  The hotel has a restaurant, but it is fairly pricey and set up as several courses. Great for a special dinner, a couple of folks in our group ate there and really enjoyed it.  In addition, you could order room service and have it delivered to your room.  Several of our group did that and said that the food was very good.  But if what you are looking for is a casual dinner service, the distance from town makes it very difficult to get to something like that.  In addition, one of the members of my party used a walker and the sidewalks can be challenging and in some parts, cobblestone.

In addition, I wanted to be at the hotel for the wine tasting.   So after getting somewhat frustrated with the front desk staff’s willingness to help, I logged onto my “Around Me” app on my phone.  Low and behold there was a Domino’s Pizza not too far away so I pulled up my Domino’s app, typed in my location and BAM!  Pizza delivery right to the hotel lobby! Now, I would venture to say that the hotel staff was not too pleased with me and my party sitting at a table in the lobby with our pizza, but it is what worked for us that night.

And as far as the wine tasting?  It was amazing.  Wines from Orléans!  Nothing makes me happier than local wines!

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And with it was served some little nibbly things.

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Yummy!!! But I am glad I ordered the pizza…I don’t know if you know anybody like this, but sometimes I can get a TINY bit hangry when I don’t eat.  I’m sure you would never even notice.

Overall, our Pre-Cruise extension was an amazing addition to our trip.  The Loire Valley is amazing and so varied in its sub-regions.  The food and wines that we tried were all incredible and all so different.  I could go back and spend a month there in a heartbeat so if you know anyone headed that way…Just sayin’!

Next up, arriving in Bordeaux and boarding the Viking Forseti.

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My First River Cruise Experience – Getting There and Paris

Châteaux, Rivers & Wine.  This is the theme of my first ever river cruise.  This came about because my mother really wanted to do this cruise and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

First the details:  This was on Viking River cruises, starting in Bordeaux cruising to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye, Pauillac, then back to Bordeaux.  In addition, we took the Pre-Cruise extension that included Paris, Orléans, the Loire Valley, and Tours before heading to Bordeaux to meet the Viking Longship Forseti.  We paid Viking to handle our flight arrangements, and all I can say about that is “lesson learned.”

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Having never sailed a river cruise before, I was unused to the lack of planning required.  As you know, if you have read any of my previous reviews, I am a crazy planner so not having to do any of that for this cruise left me feeling a bit disconcerted and not in control.

So, without handling any of the travel planning, we began our journey in April.  Our flight was Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Paris.  I had never been through JFK before but since we had been checked through, I assumed we would be fine.  I was wrong.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Charlotte, we sat on the runway for almost an hour waiting for clearance, but after that the flight was uneventful.  I knew it would be tight to make our next flight but we should have been able to make it.  What I did not know about JFK is that we would be required to check in again at the Air France counter even though we already had boarding passes.  Then, we had to make it through security again.  Unfortunately, these couple of issued added up to us missing our flight to Paris.  We then had to wait to see if we would make it on to the next (and last) flight to Paris.

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We did in fact make the last flight out, so I called Viking to let them know not to meet us at our original arrival time, but that we would be there a couple of hours late.  A long, but uneventful flight later, we landed in Paris, collected our bags and headed out to meet our Viking rep.  We were loaded into a comfortable minivan and off we went to our hotel, Le Méridien Etoile.

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Check in was easy and quick and our rooms were ready immediately.  We headed upstairs to unload our luggage and rest a bit.  Which ended up being a good idea as the heavens opened.  It rained for a bit, but then right as we were ready to head to dinner, it stopped.  We had no real plan for dinner, but I did have a place in mind, I just wasn’t sure how far away it was.  And as luck would have it, it was right down the block!

If you read my post on Nice, you may know how much I love mussels.  Well Léon de Bruxelles is famous for their mussels so I knew when I saw them, I would have to try it.  I mean, can you really be better than sitting by the Med drinking Rosé?  Well, actually no.  But the mussels were still REALLY REALLY good!

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And there were so many I could not finish all of them.  We all enjoyed our dinner tremendously and left fully satisfied.  I know it is technically a chain, but I would certainly go back anytime I am in Paris.  Service was great (and friendly!), prices were reasonable and the food (and wine) was outstanding!

Because of our delayed arrival in Paris, we did not have our day of sightseeing as planned, but we had one thing we didn’t want to miss, Bateaux-Mouches.

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A river cruise down the Seine.  The cruise departs every 30 minutes so there really isn’t a need to pre-book tickets, unless its a holiday or event, or you want a dinner cruise.  We just wanted a lovely sunset-ish ride through Paris.  In all of my trips to this city, this was one thing I had never done and even though I’ve been there multiple times, this was certainly a new way to see the city I love!

The cruise was lovely and afterwards we caught a taxi back to our hotel.  We had a early morning pickup to begin our tour through the Loire Valley so after a quick Lillet Rouge & Tonic in the hotel lounge we all hit the sack (well, except I had to work still, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to work from anywhere!).

Up bright and early, we showered (yay!!) and headed down for breakfast.  I will tell you, I have had plenty of crappy hotel breakfasts and Le Méridien Etoile is not that.  Not that at all.  Breakfast was awesome and if anyone knows where to get that little jar of kiwi yogurt please let me know!

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After breakfast and hotel check out, we handed over our luggage and were loaded onto a motorcoach to begin our tour.

 

Freedom in the Med…Nice Nice

Today we were in Nice, more specifically Villefranche-Sur-Mer.  This port is not big enough for the large cruise ships to dock, so Freedom has to drop anchor offshore and we all have to “tender” to the dock.  The tender boats are the property of the local port and not the cruise line so they are always different.  Here are the ones we used:

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They are a bit on the small side compared to some we’ve used in the past, but they were speedy and continuous so there was no real wait to get to a tender.  Today our tour was one I purchased through Viator.  Villefranche Shore Excursion: Small-Group Monaco and Eze Half-Day Tour.  This one was technically another half day tour, but I had a plan for the second part of the day so we would have a long, busy day away from the ship.   On this tour we would be visiting Eze, a medieval village with a famous perfumery; Monaco, with the changing of the guard, and Monte Carlo then back to Villefranche.

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Here is our approach to the port on the tender.  I was already thinking how pretty this port area was but I had no idea what was to come.  We found our tour guide and the rest of the people on our tour (three single young ladies) and headed to our first stop, the Village of Eze.

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Eze is famous for its stunning views, its amazing botanical garden and the Chapelle de la Sainte Croix, the oldest building in Eze built in 1306.  I recently learned that this town was a favorite of Walt Disney.  I can certainly see why.

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These views were amazing and the pictures in no way do them justice.  We stopped at Chappelle de la Sainte Croix.  Like many religious buildings, the very simple exterior:

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Gives way to an absolutely amazing interior.

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This is the meeting place for the White Penitents of the Roman Catholic church, known for their care of plague victims.

We then made our way up to the Jardin Botanique d’Eze.  This garden has an amazing collection of succulents which had to be thriving in the unbelievable dry heat that we had the whole trip!

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Our next stop, actually just about five minutes away was our tour of the the Laboratory Fragonard.  So if I’m being honest, I was really not looking forward to this.  As in Turkey and Croatia, I avoid these “factory tours” like the plague if I can.  They tend to be nothing more than sales pitches, which sometimes can be downright aggressive.   However, this one was really not bad.  It was interesting and while there was a definite pitch at the end, it wasn’t terribly aggressive (not that we didn’t end up spending money, but at least we didn’t have to lug a carpet home with us!).

Our next stop would be the Principality of Monaco.  Our tour guide gave us plenty of commentary along the way as she deftly navigated the narrow, really high, right on the cliff roads,  We stopped in time to watch the changing of the guard as well as shop for an AS Monaco jersey…since Monaco just won the Ligue Une, not a single store had one and we had to settle for a scarf.

Monaco screams wealth from every street corner.  If you consider that 1 Million Euros will purchase a room of approximately 161 square feet, you can see why a Monaco address is its own status symbol.  Here’s one of the parking lots:

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Then the Changing of the Guard:

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Then it was time to meet our guide back at Cathédrale Notre-Dame-Immaculée, or Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace and her husband are buried.

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Our next stop was Monte Carlo.  We were there right after the Grand Prix so they had not yet removed the stall numbers from the street, which was cool to see!  Then the most famous casino in the world.  As you know, I love me some casino. At this time, however, the Monte Carlo Casino was closed to the GenPop and open to invited guests only.  Believe it or not, I didn’t get an invitation.  Nor was I dressed for the casino, which has a very strict dress code that apparently did not include shorts and tank top.

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This casino is massive.  In fact it is too big to fit in one picture, so the powers that be have created a solution…a circular mirror that reflects the entirety of the casino facade…its really cool.

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Also, I can guarantee you that everyone of those cars in the reflection are Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls, etc.  They were really pretty.  Here’s me eyeballing the Casino entrance…I shoulda made a run for it!

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We then met our tour guide for the ride back to Villefranche.  Now was the moment I had been waiting for…lunch!  Our guide made a couple of recommendations, one pricey and one more reasonable.  However, I had one goal…Mussels. And Rosé. And a sea view.  And I got all of them!!!

We asked her specifically where she would go to eat mussels and she pointed us to a seaside cafe called Lou Bantry. We sat on the patio, I ordered my glass (okay carafe) of chilled wine and my moules frites.  Oh My Goodness!!! Here’s my “bowl” of mussels:

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It was HUGE!  And amazing!  And it was at that moment I realized that I never wanted to leave.  I love Villefranche-sur-Mer.  If I ever move overseas, this is where you can find me.  Here is our view:

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See how happy I look??? This is my happy place.  But eventually we did have to leave, as much as that broke my heart, I still did want to see our other stops.  Here’s a quick spoiler for you…I did love our other stops, but I still want to be here.  This one felt like home to me.  I can’t wait to get back there…I am not sure when it will happen, but I know it will.

I did eventually get back on the tender to go back to the Freedom.  Our next stop is Florence.  By the way…here’s our ride:

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She’s a beauty and since I have been on her three times now, with a forth time scheduled, I kind of think of her as mine.  But you can ride her too!!

 

Freedom in the Med…Marvelous Marseille!

After a yummy dinner at Chops, we were up bright and early (some of us were less bright than others, but we were all at least up!) to meet our tour: Aix on Your Own.  I booked this though Royal Caribbean.  I NEVER book through the cruise ship as I can always find better tours on my own, but we had some Cruise Credit, and this was really just transportation up to Aix and back to the ship and it was only 4ish hours which I figured was a good amount of time for our first day.

So at 9:20 we all assembled in the theater and waited for our group to be called…which it was, finally.  Another reason I usually don’t book tours through the ship is because I really don’t like being tied to someone else’s schedule…I’m not sure if you have noticed, but I am a bit of a type A person.  But really, I was going to try and just go with the flow on this one…try.

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The port at Marseille is a bit of an industrial area, which I knew and that was why I wanted to go up to Aix.  I wanted to get a bit of that Provence feeling.  Aix is certainly a good place to do that!

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The wide cobblestone streets, fountains EVERYWHERE!!! In fact, we couldn’t turn a corner without another cute little square with a pretty fountain there…or a playground…or a merry-go-round!

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We had a map, but as we’ve already covered, I’m not super good at those so once again we were wandering aimlessly from cute street to cute street; hardly a tragedy!

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Of course the architecture is amazing every which way you turn.  And as usually happens when I am “following the map”  we stumbled into one of mom and my’s favorite things:  The local Farmer’s Market!

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The food is so fresh and the colors are so vibrant!  It truly is a feast for the senses.  Especially in Provence, with the scents of garlic and lavender in the air.

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We continued wandering around and finally found what we were originally looking for…Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the town square.

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This is the site of the former Halle de Grain (corn exchange) and the center of the merchant trade in Aix.  It is a mostly pedestrian square with cafès and shops lining three sides of the square and the impressive Hôtel de Ville taking up the fourth side.

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Next to the Town Hall, is a clock, originally erected in 1510.

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After admiring the square and checking out some of the cute shops, we headed towards the Cours Mirabeau.  This is a wide tree lined street, now dotted with tchotchke shops and cafès, including the now famous Les Deux Garçons: watering hole for famed writers such as  Paul Cézanne and Ernest Hemingway.    This street is also the dividing line between the old town, where we had already been wandering, and the new town.

We decided it was time for lunch, and as it was nearing 100 degrees, it was certainly time for a cold beverage.  We stopped at a restaurant that looked like it had immediate seating…and we quickly realized why…they were not very tourist friendly and even made some comments in French about our party.  Since I speak the language fairly well and I certainly know my insults, we took the hint and left without ordering.  I was probably crankier than the rest about it, but everything happens for a reason, and we then moved to La Piazza Papa.  Yes, a pizza place.  But the service was friendly and the food was good!

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After eating and relaxing a bit, we decided to venture back out into the afternoon heat…well we made it as far as the first Gelato shop we saw!!  I’m not kidding you, it was HOT!!

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You can see the shop behind this big rock fountain thing…Giovanni Gelateria…and if you are ever in Aix you should find this place and order all of the gelato.   The flavors were amazing and the girl behind the counter was so awesome!!  Such a difference from our crabby first restaurant stop.  Oh…if you see that big rock fountain, yeah.  Well its covered in bees.  Consider your self warned.

We wandered a bit in the new town, but for real it was hot so we decided to head to the statue/fountain that was our meeting place for the bus back.  We were early for sure, but there was a cafè with cold beverages and free wifi so we sat there until it was time to board the bus back to the ship.

The bus ride back was uneventful, pretty much everyone was hot, tired and glad to be sitting.  I had originally thought that since this tour was only a half day tour, we could visit the Old Port area if we had the time and inclination.  Well, we certainly had the time but no one really had the inclination so we just boarded the air conditioned ship and chilled out until our dinner reservations at Giovanni’s table.

Our next four ports we had full day tours scheduled so this half day was a good break between our full days in Barcelona and what was to come…No more half days for us, but plenty of heat!

Next stop?  Nice!