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A Seine cruise into art world fantasies and the realities of war
© by Tom Douglas
The Seine River cruise boat Avalon Creativity made port at Andelys, one of a number of stops along the serpentine route the vessel makes on a regular basis.

COURSEULLES-SUR-MER, France - There's an old friend waiting here to greet you - at least in spirit. Burlington's Garth Webb, who died in May 2012 just months before the opening of an Oakville high school named in his honour, spearheaded the campaign that funded the construction of the Juno Beach Centre in this Normandy town on the English Channel - an extended body of water the French call La Manche (The Sleeve).
     The D-Day participant landed near here as a lieutenant with the Canadian 14th Field Artillery on June 6, 1944. He was appalled when he returned 50 years later to take part in ceremonies commemorating the history-altering military campaign that gave the Allies a foothold in Nazi-occupied Europe. There were monuments galore honouring the Americans and British troops who took part in Operation Overlord but only a few small plaques in remembrance of Canadians.
     Garth and his partner Lise Cooper fanned the flames of Canadian patriotism in an untiring effort that resulted in the raising of $10 million. Ottawa kicked in another $3 million, with a further $1 million each coming from Ontario, British Columbia and France. Since opening its doors on June 6, 2003, the Centre has welcomed thousands of visitors - many of them Canadians wanting to learn more about their country's military heritage. The numbers are expected to increase dramatically in 2014, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
     In addition to artillery pieces and bunkers scattered across the sand and sea grass landscape of the Centre, interior displays feature permanent as well as short-term exhibits and the continuous screening of two riveting war-related documentaries. There is also a well-stocked gift shop offering books depicting Canada's role in the Normandy Invasion in addition to a wide variety of souvenirs.
     Overseeing all this just outside the Centre's front entrance is a large banner featuring a 1944 photograph of Garth Webb in battle dress. The eyes of the young artillery officer peer down from under his trademark bushy eyebrows at a plaque proclaiming the pathway leading to the building as Esplanade Garth Webb.
     The Juno Beach Centre was just one stop on a recent eight-day Paris to Normandy's Landing Beaches Seine River cruise aboard the Avalon Creativity. The riverboat accommodates up to 140 passengers, about two-thirds of them in staterooms with sliding doors that open almost the full extent of the outer cabin wall. Protected from toppling into the Seine - which isn't the cleanest waterway in the world - by horizontal grillwork euphemistically called a French balcony, you can watch the countryside glide by as the ship follows the loop-the-loop course of the river as far as Rouen. There, Canadian and Commonwealth passengers can participate in a motor coach tour to the Centre, the nearby Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery and Pegasus Bridge, captured in the early morning hours of D-Day by glider troops of the British 6th Airborne Division. The Americans on board have their own special excursion to Omaha Beach and other landmarks targeted by U.S. forces during the Normandy campaign.
     Even an avid military buff, however, can find many World War One and Two tours a bit tedious by journey's end, crammed as they are with visits to battlefields, museums and war cemeteries. One participant on that type of junket was heard to say on the final day of her whirlwind excursion: "I'm not worn out - I'm warred out."
     That's perhaps one of several reasons why a river cruise has such growing appeal. What first grabs the attention of many travellers is the realization that on a cruise you aren't hopping from one hotel to another. This means no getting up at 6 a.m. after a full day of sightseeing to have your luggage out in the hallway for the journey on to the next destination. This exhausting 15-cities-in-14-days type of tour has become such a cliché that Hollywood made a movie about the ordeal called If It's Tuesday It Must Be Belgium.
     Our Avalon adventure not only afforded passengers the opportunity to pay homage to the veterans of World War Two, it also took advantage of the rich cultural offerings of the Normandy area. For instance, our first stop on the cruise was the small village of Vernon and a visit to Claude Monet's beloved Giverny where he planted massive flower gardens, installed ponds resplendent with water lilies and constructed a bamboo-festooned Japanese garden. On those days when the artist didn't feel like travelling to nearby cities to paint railway stations or harbours, he needed only to step out his back door - et voilà - instant inspiration.
     A stroll through the gardens is a photographer's delight and the follow-up tour of the maestro's mansion, replete with copies of dozens of his painting, brings to an art lover's mind that kid-in-a-candy-store feeling. One slight drawback is the popularity of the place. So many bus tours descend on the Monet estate on any given day that the walkabout resembles a human assembly line and you really have to bend yourself out of shape to take a picture that doesn't have a dozen or so other amateur photographers in the frame.

A banner featuring Canadian soldier Garth Webb, the driving force behind fundraising for the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy, greets visitors to this Canadian World War Two museum near one of the D-Day beaches   The beloved Claude Monet water lilies and other blooms attract millions of visitors to his estate at Giverny   The graves of Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo lie in a small cemetery above the town of Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent died of a gunshot wound    The ruins of Chateau Gaillard, a castle built by Richard the Lionheart, are situated above the town of Andelys in Normandy

     Another port of call with an artistic motif featured a visit to the quiet little town of Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent van Gogh spent his last days. Our tour included a visit to the sparse second-floor room where he lodged, and died, at L'Auberge Ravoux, a small inn just down the street from the railway station that welcomed the tormented artist to his final destiny. A climb up a steep hill to the village cemetery, past landmarks van Gogh painted, including the church L'Église d'Auvers, brings you to the double plot where Vincent and his brother, financial supporter, and mentor Théo are buried beneath a blanket of ivy.
     Another hill we climbed on the cruise took us up to the ruins of a castle near the village of Les Andelys featuring a panoramic view of the valley of the Seine that took our collective breath away almost as much as the climb itself had. The castle was built in 1196 by King Richard the Lionheart, who was not only England's ruler at the time but also the Duke of Normandy.
     For some of the passengers, the tail end of the cruise was the best part where the Avalon Creativity became their dockside hotel in Paris. This allowed them to take part in an optional Paris by Night bus tour or just unwind with an onboard dinner and a good night's sleep to rest up for one last chance to play Joe Tourist. That opportunity presented itself on the last day of the trip with a complimentary sightseeing tour that took in Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, Arch of Triumph and a number of other famous Parisian landmarks.
     It would be nice to think that some of the passengers, as they packed up for their flight home, said a silent word or two of thanks to Garth Webb and all the other brave men and women who fought for the freedom that made such a trip possible.

Tom Douglas is an Oakville-based travel writer and author of a number of books on Canada's military heritage. Read Tom's bio at: http://www.writersunion.ca/member/tom-douglas

Juno Beach - Courseulles sur Mer - 65th Anniversary
Bloody Normandy: Juno Beach and Beyond - Part 1

Winston Churchill said that Operation Overlord was 'undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult' ever undertaken. With nearly three million troops involved, it was an incredible feat of organisation - and the first step towards the liberation of Western Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Follow the Allies as they land on the Normandy coast on 6 June 1944, that will forever be known as D-Day, and then track their hard fought campaign to liberate Paris.

Photo Credits
Tom Douglas

Port Saint-Louis
The Seine is dredged and oceangoing vessels can dock at Rouen, 120 km (75 mi) from the sea. Commercial riverboats can use the river from Bar-sur-Seine, 560 km (350 mi) to its mouth. At Paris, there are 37 bridges. The river is only 24 metres (80 ft) above sea level 446 km (277 mi) from its mouth, making it slow flowing and thus easily navigable.
The Seine Maritime, 105.7 km (65.7 mi) from the English Channel at Le Havre to Rouen, is the only portion of the Seine used by ocean going craft. The tidal section of the Seine Maritime is followed by a canalized section with four large multiple locks until the mouth of the Oise River at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Multiple locks at Bougival / Chatou and at Suresnes lift the vessels to the level of the river in Paris, where the mouth of the Marne River is located. Upstream from Paris seven locks ensure navigation to Saint Mammès, where the Loing mouth is situated. Through an eighth lock the river Yonne is reached at Montereau-Fault-Yonne. From the mouth of the Yonne, larger ships can continue upstream to Nogent-sur-Seine. From there on, the river is navigable only by small craft. All navigation ends abruptly at Marcilly-sur-Seine, where the ancient Canal de la Haute-Seine used to allow vessels to continue all the way to Troyes. This canal has been abandoned for many years.
The average depth of the Seine today at Paris is about nine and a half metres. Until locks were installed to raise the level in the 1800s, the river was much shallower within the city most of the time, and consisted of a small channel of continuous flow bordered by sandy banks (depicted in many illustrations of the period).
   - Wikipedia

If you go
Avalon Creativity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_river_cruise_ships
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seine
About.com: http://search.about.com/?q=the+seine
Trip Advisor: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Search?q=seine...

Travel Aid
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
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Media Guide (local newspapers with current listings): http://www.abyznews...
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Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/
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