River Cruising in France

River cruising has an undeserved reputation as an expensive vacation. When you purchase a river cruise, your fare includes your food while on the cruise as well as house wine and beer, and, of course, soft drinks, tea and coffee. Also included in the cruise price are the excursions. And the cruise ship will offer an excursion or two every day. We did a little math and calculated a per diem rate and we were impressed at the savings we achieved by taking a Seine river cruise as opposed to booking hotels and paying for meals in restaurants and purchasing train tickets or renting a car.

The Seine is the river that flows from Paris to the English Channel at Rouen. Our cruise boarded in Paris. We arrived by train from London at the Paris Nord train station. Finding a cab was easy. The drive was pleasant, and while the cabbie was not fluent in English, we were able to communicate our destination with our limited French and with the help of our cruise packet. No sweat! The departure point for the cruise in Paris was just down the street (a very busy street) from the Eiffel Tower. So, after unpacking and having a bite to eat, we had a nice December walk (about a mile) to the tower. The weather was chilly but we were pretty lucky with the weather for this trip and only had one really cold day. The Eiffel Tower is huge and really impressive. We chose not to purchase tickets to ride the elevators, and the lines were long, so we decided to climb the stairs. We did not make it to the top. This is one tall tower! We did however make it to the second level and still had an amazing view of the “City of Light.”

The next day we rose early for a half day city tour. We visited Notre Dame de Paris, the Arc de Triomphe, and the huge traffic circle around the Arc. The cruise line doesn’t include the traffic circle in their literature but I had always wanted to see it. We also drove along the Champs Elysees. Most of this was a driving tour just to see the sights but we did get out of the coach for a short walk to Notre Dame de Paris. We were able to admire this architectural masterpiece. After this city tour, we went back to the boat for lunch and then back on the coach to the Louvre. This art museum is a must for any trip to Paris. It doesn’t really matter if you’re an art lover, this place is amazing and worth the time. The museum houses the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory and the code of Hammurabi which was written in 1754 BC on a basalt column (more than 3500 years ago).

Day 3 was an excursion to the towns of Giverney and Vernon. Giverney was the home of Claude Monet and we were able to visit his home and the gardens he made famous in some of his masterpieces. If your cruise is in the winter from November till April you will instead go to Auvers-sur-Oise. Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted here, and this town is filled with scenes you may recognize if you know some of his work from this period. If you decide to stay on board the ship, you will be treated to a charming cruise through the French countryside and will get to watch as the ship traverses several sets of locks on the river.

You will cruise through the night and arrive in the morning in Rouen, the capital of Normandy. You will have a walking tour through the center of the old town. Included in this walking tour are Notre Dame de Rouen, a spectacular gothic cathedral, and the old towns’ bell tower with a 16th century astronomical clock. Also on this walking tour is Rouen’s 14 century courthouse where Joan of Arc was sentenced to death and the nearby market place where she was executed.

Day 5 is a highlight of this cruise. This is a full day tour of the Normandy beaches where the Allies invaded Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.” You will see Omaha Beach, The American Military museum, and Arromanches Debarkment D-Day Museum. If you choose to, you can add in a trip to Bayeaux to see the Bayeaux tapestry. This tapestry was started in 1067, one year after William the Conqueror won control of England, and tells the story of the conquest much like a modern day comic strip.

After a morning cruise on day 6, you will arrive at the small town of Les Andelys. After lunch, a guided tour takes you up to the Chateau Gaillard. This castle was built by Richard the Lionheart in 1196. It is an excellent example of medieval architecture.

On Day 7 you can visit the Palace of Versailles, built by Louis the XIV and opened in 1682. This was the home of the French King and his court until the French revolution in 1789. The palace is famous for the opulence of its decorations and the luxury afforded the French Monarchy. Of course, you can visit the Palace as tourist any time you happen to be in Paris, however the place is usually mobbed with visitors and having a guided tour from the cruise lines allowed us to jump the lines and get in quickly. We arrived at our dock in Paris in time to walk to a Christmas market and get in some last minute shopping. We walked to this market with some of the couples we met on the ship and really enjoyed this time with new friends.

Day 8 was time to debark and head home. France is filled with history, beauty and friendly people. And some really stinky cheese.

You are best to work with a travel agent as they will maximize the promo deals – check out Condor Tours & Travel for more info on river cruising or any travel.

Why can Americans travel to Cuba now?

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Cuba is the one place in the western hemisphere that Americans have been unable to visit as tourists in most of our lifetimes.

The US embargo of Cuba was established in 1961 as a result of bank and business expropriations, mass exodus of Cuban Nationals to the US and summary executions by the Castro regime. Cuba had been a popular tourist destination for US travelers in the 50’s. So popular that Havana was known as “the Latin Las Vegas.” This period of tourism in Cuba was dominated by hotels and casinos that were operated by organized crime in the United States, many times in partnership with Cuba’s dictator, Batista. In spite of this connection to organized crime, tourism to Cuba in the 50’s increased at the rate of 8% per year.

With the fall of Batista in 1959 and the rise of the Castro regime, tourism from the US dropped significantly, so that by 1961, fewer than 4700 US citizens visited Cuba as tourists. In that year, Congress passed the “Foreign Assistance Act.” The United States had been in many on-going disputes with Cuba since Castro had deposed Batista. The United States had imposed an arms embargo on Cuba even before the fall of Batista (which actually affected the Batista regime more than the rebels). This caused the Castro government to negotiate an arms deal with the Soviet Union. Next came a series of US actions and Cuban responses which further drove the countries apart. After the “Bay of Pigs” invasion by CIA trained Cuban exiles, relations between the United States and Cuba were severed. And Congress passed the “Foreign Assistance Act” which, among many other things, prohibited aid to Cuba and authorized the President to impose a complete trade embargo against Cuba.

The restriction on travel to Cuba lapsed in 1977, and while the restriction was renewable every six months, the Carter administration did not do so. President Reagan re-imposed the embargo in 1982. An interesting fact about the current regulations is that travel to Cuba is not prohibited per se but makes it illegal to have transactions (spend money) in Cuba in most circumstances.

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The restrictions on tourism have been loosened considerably in the last year and a half. We can book a Cuban visit for any size group, from a couple wanting to explore this forbidden island, to a group of friends of 20 or more. All of the Cuban itineraries offered by Condor Tours and Travel can include people to people cultural exchanges that enrich any visit to this island, but these are not necessary any more, so it’s up to you. Stay tuned for our next blog, which will be about Lori Snow’s recent group trip to Cuba, including a day by day description of the group’s activities.