Dinner on the Marco Polo was a pleasant experience that same evening. We had a good table and, it has to be said, were well looked after in the busy, beautiful Waldorf restaurant. Good company and good food- created and plated for the British palate- combined to create a wonderful atmosphere.
I was still basking in that warm glow of contentment when I wandered back into Honfleur about nine o’clock that evening. By now the Marco Polo was ablaze with light from stem to stern; deck after deck of her lights shimmered bewitchingly on the silent, ink black Seine. It was hard to take my eyes off her as I wandered back into town, but the volume of traffic on the roads made it infinitely wise to do so!
I sauntered slowly back to that gorgeous marina. There was no rush- we would be here till one in the morning, before heading fifty more miles upstream for our truncated visit to Rouen.
The town was a lot less busy than on the afternoon. The crowds of shoppers and tourists had vanished like Channel mist, and only a few groups of mainly locals thronged the bars and cafes that surrounded the still waters of the marina. The only sound was from a few televisions, screening football games. Every now and again, a burst of ragged cheers was testament to a goal. Personally. I couldn’t care less. For tonight, I was a man on a mission.
That mission involved finding a suitable quayside venue and a decent bottle of wine. Intrepid detective work gave up both. For a couple of blissful hours I sat enjoying some delicious Muscadet on an unfeasible warm, October evening.
The wine was effortlessly chilled, and so was yours truly by the time I wandered back to the warmth and light of the Marco Polo. Ah well, when in France…
Back on board, the night was in full swing. There were still several hundred people up on the outer decks when the Marco Polo swung loose soon after one in the morning and stood out into the darkness, destination Rouen.
The rain came back with a vengeance in the morning. It thumped unerringly on the streets of the old town of Rouen as we took off on a quick, guided walking tour. Rain or no, I saw enough to make me want to come back for longer.
In the first grey light of that Monday, pools of light from shops and houses glimmered weakly on the sodden, winding cobble stones of the old part of town. Row upon row of vaulting, half timbered houses loomed above the almost deserted streets. Many of these dated back literally many centuries.
Gothic spires and ancient, turreted ramparts scowled their contempt at the early morning gloom, just as they have done for centuries. In the city centre, the famous Gros Horlorge clock was a sudden, unexpected burst of blue and gold bravado, as welcome as it was isolated in its quirky splendour. Cafe chairs were stacked up against walls, as if seeking refuge from the rain. Lines of plane trees stood shivering like Napoleon’s grenadiers in the bone chilling cold.
The spot where Joan of Arc was martyred in May, 1431 is marked by a stark, single cross. The simplicity and pathos of the place combined with the driving rain, and struck home like a guided missile. I found myself far, far more moved than I would ever have guessed possible.
How can anyone actually burn an eighteen year old girl alive? And how can that same lonely, no doubt terrified girl show such amazing courage and strength? During her sham trial- the verdict was already determined- this illiterate peasant girl calmly and completely destroyed every charge and argument brought against her by her supposedly well educated, soon-to-be murderers. All, of course, to no avail.
These thoughts flitted through my mind as the Marco Polo turned to head back upstream soon after noon. A magnificent visual smorgasbord was about to unfold on both sides and so, braving the still unrelenting rain, I resumed station in the hot tub at the top of the ship.
And what a vantage spot! I forgot the rain as a fabulous vista of lush, sodden fields and valleys unfolded on both sides of us. Chateaux and ancient monasteries peeped out from among the foliage for seconds before disappearing again. Behind me, the wake of the Marco Polo cut a swathe along the steel grey Seine, sending the propeller wash surging back along both banks.
Flocks of water borne ducks surfed those impromptu rollers. On the banks, herds of lethargic cattle flopped down as if on strike. Coasters and small container ships fussed past the Marco Polo in both directions as we nudged under random, vaulting bridges.
It went on and on. Cars and buses beetled alongside the ship with what seemed like indecent haste. Villages- some of them almost unchanged in five centuries- tumbled down to the river banks on both sides, with Gothic church spires sharp against the gloom. Tidal waves of gossamer spun mist surged down through valleys to the water, before fading in the gloom astern of us. It was a fantastic spectacle that felt like some amazing, slowly playing movie footage from another time and place. Rain or no, I was utterly spellbound.
This gorgeous city has got to be one of the most under rated experiences in Europe, if not the world. The Grand Place is a glut of honey coloured, gingerbread Gothic magnificence, with a staggering town hall and stunning cathedral. Cafes and bars hug the edges of this fabulous formal square, while horse drawn tourist buses clop casually along the winding streets that fan out from this central spot.
The Belgians are as devoted to their local beer as the French are to their wine, and it shows. In fact, drinking and eating well is central to their whole philosophy. Because as much as you might marvel at the famous Rubens House (and you will), real Belgian art these days is in the shape of the world’s best chocolate, and the mouth watering, diet defying waffles that cry out to be smothered in strawberry jam, chocolate sauce, or even both.Once sampled, never forgotten.
Oh yes, the Rubens house. It is actually more like an Italian renaissance palazzo than anything else, with a fabulous, balconied courtyard. Inside, centuries old, cake rich masterpieces frown down on you like some many scowling medieval merchants. It’s breathtaking, and we had way too short a time to get more than a snapshot of the place.
Back in the city, trams snaked along the main arteries as we headed back to the ship. A quayside band serenaded the Marco Polo out into the night as we slipped our ropes for the last time. The next morning would find us safely tied up alongside the landing stage, back in Tilbury.
Impressions: this is a great way to see a few cities in a short amount of time, and the voyage down the Seine was a scenic spectacular that no land based tour could replicate. Pack and unpack once, and the floating hotel moves with you. Marvellous stuff.
Minuses? The ship is pretty busy, so expect lines for getting on and off, and at buffets, etc. A little patience goes a long way. If you want non stop casino action, loads of bars and shows and balcony cabins, then you might want to consider alternatives.
But… this is a ship that oozes sheer class and style. Marco Polo is warm, welcoming and marvellous value. Give her a go. You won’t be disappointed….