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Rhône River 2014 Home Passengers The River Cruise Experience Story Watching the World Go By

Versailles:  Part One

Story written by Rick Archer
May 2014

Rick Archer's Note: At the end of Marla's 2014 Rhone River cruise along France's Rhône and Saône, we made a stop in Paris.

On our second day, we made a visit to Versailles, the former capital of France until the French Revolution.  Part One covers the story of our trip to Versailles as well as some of the history behind the Palace.  Part Two is the incredible story of Marie Antoinette


Rick and Marla's Trip to Versailles

Rick's Note:  I have seen Paradise.

And its name is Versailles.

On April 22, the final day of our 2014 Rhone River Cruise, Marla and I visited Versailles.

This visit was beyond a doubt my favorite moment of this adventure-filled, action-packed river cruise vacation.

The land for the Palace of Versailles was bought by French King Louis XIII. The Palace was built by French King Louis XIV. It resides in a forest 9 miles southwest of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

When the château was first built, Versailles was a country village. Today it is a wealthy suburb of Paris.

The court of Versailles became the center of political power in France in 1682 when Louis XIV moved his entourage from Paris out to this new Palace in the country.

Versailles served as the Royal Palace until October 1789 when the royal family was forced to return to the capital after the beginning of the French Revolution.

In this picture, we are looking at the Palace of Versailles from the back.  In front, you can see the Paris suburb of Versailles.  Far in the distance is Paris itself 9 miles away.

The first part of our bike journey took place on a country road marked by the red arrow.

Today Versailles is famous not only as a building and a fascinating place to visit, but as a lasting symbol of the now despised system of absolute monarchy in the 'Ancien Régime'.

It is almost impossible to list all the things I liked about our trip to Versailles, but I will take a stab nevertheless.  I will be writing both about our experience and throw in a generous amount of 18th century French history for good measure. 

It was Marla who came up with the idea.  She did some research and came up with an interesting tour of Versailles that involved bicycles. Over the past year, Marla and I had been intentionally walking an hour a day just so we could get in shape for an all-day activity like this.

When Marla brought up the idea of using a bike tour to cross the grounds of what was described on the Internet as an "unusually large estate", I was immediately on board.

Using a company called "Flat Tire", oops change that to "Fat Tire", Marla noticed the office was within walking distance of our Concorde Opéra Hotel next to Gare Saint Lazare train station.

So on the final morning of our trip, Marla and I started our 3 mile journey through the streets of Paris. 

Along the way we crossed the Champs-Élysées, one of the most famous streets in the world.

Marla at a park near Champs-Élysées

I hope the Hop On - Hop Off people don't mind if I use their attractive map.  The PURPLE LINE is our walking route from the Concorde Opera Hotel next to the train station to the Fat Tire office.

I had a favorite street. Its name was Avenue Montaigne, home base to some of the most famous brands in the world. Along the way we passed the entrances to Dior, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Prada, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Givenchy, Armani, Escada… and these were just the names I recognized. Marla knew many of the other names as well. It was fun to be surrounded by these icons of the fashion industry.

We crossed the Seine River and walked right past the enormous Eiffel Tower.

Everywhere we looked we were surrounded by statues, landmarks, famous buildings, exquisite architecture, and beautiful landscaping. It was a marvelous adventure… and just the start of things to come.

From the Fat Tire office, we walked another half mile and hopped on the Metro subway train which whisked us to Versailles.

After a quick 20 minute ride, we were at the town of Versailles.

Then we took a short ten minute walk to pick up our bikes in an office next to a giant cathedral. By chance, I noticed an abandoned nerf ball stuck under a parked car, so I kicked it onto the cathedral square.

I had just gotten my bike, so while I was waiting for the other people to get their bikes, I looked up.

I grinned when I saw a tiny terrier had discovered the ball.  The dog was happy beyond happy as he strutted around the square showing off his prized possession. 

I could not believe that dog had the nerve to think he owned that ball.  Hey, dog, that's MY BALL!  I had seen that ball first, so I went over to reclaim my trophy.

Wrong. That dog wouldn't let me anywhere near that ball.  I never even came close, but I didn't care.

At first the poor French lady who owned the dog was perplexed by my behavior.  Judging by her expression, I am sure she was worried I was going to hurt her poor little dog.  But once she saw I had absolutely no chance of catching the shifty little dog, she began to grin instead.  I suspect she enjoyed seeing her dog put 'le crazy Americaine' in his place.

The two of us played a delightful game of keepaway complete with my demands to "give me the ball!" and the cute dog's growls of "come and get it, slowpoke!" 

The dog won. He was really quick!  

Of course long ago when I was a boy, my entire life revolved around my bike and my dog.  I may be 64 now, but somewhere in the back of my mind I still think I'm a kid.

Gosh I had fun playing with that dog! 

Now it was time to hop on my bike and head off with the pack. What a joy it was to be on a bike again! I rode my bicycle to school for six solid years rain or shine back when I was a kid… which is exactly what I felt like riding this fat-tired, three-speed clunker. It was practically the same bike I had grown up with!

Our next move was a stroke of pure genius. The Flat Tire Versailles experience would include a picnic lunch in the afternoon. Even better, we got to select our own meal!

We rode our bike to a huge farmer's market. There on three of the four corners we found fresh fruit, recently picked vegetables, cheese, bread and pastry, wine… every kind of food imaginable. Costigan, our guide, told us to roam around and pick out what we wanted for a picnic lunch.

Costigan gave us a secret word - goûter - which meant "to taste". He said the merchants would be more than happy to let us sample the food because it usually led to a sale.

Marla and I had a delightful time strolling around the market place. Now I came upon the grapes. Which ones to buy, green or red? I decided to use my secret word. "goûter, goûter!!"

The guy just stared at me in disgust. Finally, shaking his head the whole time, he handed me all of two grapes… one red, one green. Mind you, there were hundreds of loose grapes laying around wherever the eye could see, but I got all of two free grapes.

Based on my highly limited sample, I chose the green grapes. However, I was very disappointed at how poorly my goûter trick had worked out for me.

Finally Marla and I finished our shopping spree with a bottle of white wine. I couldn't help but notice the total of 20 euros, wine and all, had added up to the least expensive meal we had purchased all week. Interesting.

So now we reconvened at our meeting place. I asked Costigan what I done wrong with the grapes. Costigan laughed and said my pronunciation was so terrible, surely the merchant was too offended to be generous. Gee, thanks a lot!

I had time to wash off my grapes. Then I carefully placed our goodies in the bike basket I had been given to carry our picnic lunch. This whole picnic idea was just too cool.

While I waited for the rest of the pack, I noticed a young lady working with our bikes.  I imagined this pretty girl had to be extremely lonely, so I went over to chat with her.  Her name was Claudia.  She was putting air in our tires to make sure the Fat Tire didn't turn into the Flat tire.

I found out that Claudia was one of the tour guides as well. She said she had been trained by Costigan and raved about his sense of humor.  I had also thought he was funny until he made fun of my French pronunciation.  Now I didn't like him anymore.

I asked Claudia where she was from.  It turns out Claudia came from Cuba of all places.  I raised an eyebrow.  I told her I had never met anyone from Cuba before.

Claudia smiled and nodded.  She said lots of people tell her that.  Her father was a diplomat who decided to take his family with him on a trip to Ecuador when Claudia was very young.

Her Dad liked Ecuador so much, he decided to stay.  Claudia added her father still doesn't known why the officials ever dreamed of allowing the entire family to travel together.  To this day, that lucky break remains the "Great Family Mystery".

Now we headed over to the Palace grounds.  You may notice there are no other bikes in the picture on the right.  That's because I was the last one there.  I had stayed behind to take one more picture, so that put me at the back of the pack.

Costigan had taught us to spread out and use the entire half of the street to prevent any cars from even thinking of going around us.  He termed this technique "Domination" of the road.

Well, being the last person in the group, a car came up right on my back wheel and suddenly honked its horn.  I swear I almost fell over from fright.  The sound took me totally off guard. So I pulled aside and let the car through.  It made a right turn at the corner.  I estimate the car saved 10 seconds in the process.

Later I admitted to Costigan my shame at letting a car dominate me instead.  He shook his head in chagrin. "There's always one slow buffalo in every herd.  We lose more customers that way."

I think he was kidding.  Maybe not.  Now I didn't like him anymore.

We rode our bikes down a lovely dirt country road with wooden fences.

The Palace grounds were nothing short of Paradise. There were tall majestic trees, wide fields with horses, goats, and sheep, rolling hills on the perimeter, and thick green grass in every direction. And don't let me forget to mention the spring wild flowers. It was so peaceful!

After half an hour of riding around the grounds, Costigan pulled us over for a long chat under the trees. We put our bikes down, sat on the grass in the shade and listened as Costigan proceeded to share the history of Versailles.

In 1575, the domain of Versailles was bought by Albert de Gondi, a wealthy merchant from Italy. Gondi invited King Louis XIII on several hunting trips in the forests surrounding Versailles. 

Noting the forest was teeming with game and pleased with the location, Louis ordered the construction of his own hunting lodge in 1624. 

Eight years later, Louis XIII obtained the domain of Versailles from the Gondi family for himself.  Now he began to make a few enlargements to the château. This structure would become the spot where the new palace would be built.

However, it would be his son Louis XIV who decided to turn the land into one of the largest palaces in the world.  Once it was finished, the entire French court was invited to come live with Louis XIV either in the Palace itself or in the surrounding neighborhood.  This was the new seat of government.

Louis XIII and Louis IV, Father and Son

Despite his mean tendency to have fun at my expense, I quickly realized Costigan was an extremely gifted tour guide. There's a chance his actual name is "David Costigan", but he preferred to have us call him 'Costigan', so we did.

I learned Costigan came to Paris from New Zealand to be with his girlfriend, a French girl he had met in New Zealand. Costigan may just have been the best tour guide I have ever had.  I could have listened to him for hours. Hmm, now that I think of it, I did listen to him for hours.

Costigan explained that Louis XIII had left France in pretty good shape.  France had dominated Germany in the Thirty Years War and had gained vast new territory in the New World as well.

Costigan said that Louis himself wasn't really that great a king. Instead he was quite fortunate to have Cardinal Richelieu to run the affairs of state so Louis could go hunting instead.

Apparently the classic novel The Three Musketeers took place in these times. Louis XIII, his wife Anne, and Cardinal Richelieu all became central figures in Alexandre Dumas' famous novel. The book depicts Louis as a man willing to have Richelieu as a powerful advisor but aware of his scheming; Louis is portrayed as a bored and sour man, dwarfed by Richelieu's intellect.

These were great times for France which was at the height of its power.  However there was one big problem - no heir.

Four babies in a row had been stillborn.  Much blame was heaped upon Queen Anne for her failure.  Suddenly after 19 years of failure, a child was born.  It was a boy!!

The country went wild with joy.  Finally there was a successor.  After 19 years of trying, this good fortune was so improbable  that it was compared to the Virgin Birth of Christ.  All thanks were directed to the Virgin Mary for her divine intervention in creating this wonderful and quite unexpected miracle.

The cynics said otherwise.  Louis XIII, a suspected homosexual, was more likely the problem.  Those in the know suspected Anne had decided to change the person shooting the bullets.

No matter.  Louis XIII was happy, so that's all that mattered.  From this point on, the son Louis XIV had every possible gift and permission heaped upon him.  The boy grew up believing he could have anything in the world he desired.  The young man was so spoiled he assumed the world revolved around him.

Costigan began to smile. He said the extravagance of Versailles was unimaginable. He explained the cost to build the place was so great that the entire population of France was heavily taxed in order to pay the bills. He added the State treasury was virtually empty once it was done. 

That didn't bother Louis XIV a bit.  He was called the 'Sun King' because he assumed the entire word revolved around him.  He was so heavily insulated from the people he had no idea that people suffered so he could build his trophy home.  Or if he did know, he didn't care.

"I am the Sun King.  I can do anything."

No one knows the exact cost to build Versailles, but it has been estimated that it would cost over $2 billion to build in modern times. I didn't particularly care for the Palace itself because it was so crowded thanks to the Easter weekend, but based on what I did see, I can easily believe the price tag.

Indeed, Louis XIV, the fabled Sun King, felt like he was God on Earth. The world revolved around him; he believed whatever he wanted, he could have. Unfortunately, he nearly broke France's back in building Versailles, an act that sowed the preliminary seeds for the French Rebellion.

The master at work.  Costigan had me spellbound.


Louis XIII (1601-1643), House of Bourbon

Cardinal Richelieu, right hand man to Louis XIII


France was at the height of its powers under Louis XIII.  That would change swiftly.  The next two kids were definite bad boys.


Louis XIV (1638-1715), House of Bourbon

Louis XV (1710-1774), House of Bourbon


Grand Trianon


After Louis XIV finished building his Palace, he "invited" all the nobles to follow him out to Versailles. 

In other words, if these nobles wanted to continue to be important, they had little choice but move out there themselves.

It was said that Peter the Great of Russia pulled the identical trick.  After the completion of the grand city of Saint Petersburg, Peter ordered all the nobles to move out of Moscow "or else".

Peter the Great had built a splendid palace of his own on the banks of the Gulf of Finland.  The first visitors gasped at its beauty and spaciousness. 

Then one world traveler made an interesting observation.  "It looks just like Versailles. What a coincidence!"

Indeed, this new "Peterhof" did look a lot like that palace at Versailles.  A friend quickly suggested the man keep his thoughts to himself.

This was no accident. Peterhof was a deliberate copy of the Palace of Versailles.  And why was that? 

In this picture, Louis XIV is depicted as a Roman God along with the members of his family.
It must be nice to have such a healthy self-esteem

Here is Peter the Great's Peterhof.  Some say it is even prettier than Versailles.  I kind of agree.  But Peter had the advantage of copying the finest Palace ever built.  I think elevating the Peterhof Palace was a great idea.  It made everything - the fountains, the statues and Peter's version of the Grand Canal even more impressive.


When Peter the Great (1672-1725) came to power, it was his goal to force 'modernization' onto Russia.  However, he needed ideas, so in 1697 he embarked on an 18-month scouting mission. Peter wanted to see the latest developments in Western Europe and perhaps copy them back home.

One country fascinated him in particular: France.  He wasn't alone.  Everyone in Russia was infatuated with France and its sophistication and culture.  However, a sudden rebellion took place back home.  Rushing back immediately, Peter's greatest disappointment had been missing his chance to see France.

The stated reason for Peter's 1717 visit to France was diplomacy.  The Regent sought closer Franco-Russian ties. However, Peter had an important additional agenda in mind.
Construction on Peterhof, Peter's own estate, had begun on a modest scale in 1714.  However, before building his own Grand Palace, Peter wanted to take a close look at Versailles first.

Versailles was at the top of Peter's list of places to see. In June 1717, Peter was put up in the Trianon-sous-bois, a wing of the Grand Trianon for a week's stay.  Some girls were provided for his pleasure.  How thoughtful!  Taking sketches in the daytime and studying curves at night, Peter is said to have had the time of his life.  Seeing how France and Russia had warm relations from that point on, Peter's trip to Versailles was a success.

When Peter returned home, he had plenty of suggestions for his architect.  Now construction on Peterhof began in earnest.  (I wrote a story about Peterhof in 2012 complete with pictures).

So what was this "Grand Trianon"?

Grand Trianon was an afterthought of Louis XIV, the Sun King.  After all the important people of Paris followed his suggestion and moved to Versailles, Louis XIV realized he wasn't lonely any more. In fact, he had more company than he could stand.  He had wanted his court to be close, but not this close.

Louis IV began to crave a little privacy.  So in 1668 he purchased the small village of Trianon about a mile and a half away and had it demolished.  In this spot, Louis built yet ANOTHER PALACE and made it his private estate. 

Truly, if no one had shown me the Grand Palace first, the Grand Trianon Palace would have easily fooled me into thinking it was the main event.  It is quite "Grand" in its own way.

Grand Trianon




So what did Louis IV have in mind with Grand Trianon?  The King had built a love nest here.  Louis installed one of the most famous mistresses of all time, Francois Athénaïs de Montespan, better known Madame de Montespan.

In this day and age, a mistress had no need to hide.  Indeed, there was even a position in high court for such a woman.

It is sad to point out that in French history, the mistresses were usually much more interesting than the wives.  The main role of the Queens was to provide babies, 'heirs' if you prefer.  Typically the Queen was chosen for the King; he had little or no say so in the matter.  If a warmth developed, excellent, but all that really mattered was to have children.

A mistress, on the other hand, was someone chosen by the King.  This is where his heart... or passion ... really lay.  Typically the King was far more interested in his mistress than his wife.

Madame de Montespan became the celebrated 'maîtresse en titre' (mistress of title) of King Louis XIV of France, by whom she had seven children.

Born into one of the oldest noble families of France, Madame de Montespan led a very eventful and colorful life.  She was considered the true Queen of France by some due to the pervasiveness of her influence at court during that time.

Married herself to the Marquess de Montespan, she bore the man two children. Apparently the couple had gotten right to work after the wedding. She soon became pregnant with her first child Christine.  Two weeks after her daughter's birth she danced in a Court Ballet. A year later her second child was born.

With her child-birthing duties handled, Montespan turned her eyes to bigger game.  She quickly established herself as the "reigning beauty of the court". Beauty was only one of Madame de Montespan's many charms. She was a cultured and amusing conversationalist. In addition, she kept abreast of political events. This had the effect of making her even more appealing to men of intellect and power. Montespan was courted by a number of high-born suitors.

By 1666, two years after the birth of her second child, Madame de Montespan was busy trying to take the place of Louise de La Vallière, Louis XIV's current mistress.  Using her wit and charm, Montespan sought to ingratiate herself with the king.

Her so-called "reign" began in 1667, when she first danced with Louis XIV at a ball hosted by the king's younger brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, at the Louvre Palace.  Montespan was a bit conspicuous in her attempts to make an impression.

Louis XIV and Louise de La Vallière knew full well that Montespan was trying to conquer the King's heart. Louis simply laughed at her miserably excessive effort and Louise thought the woman a clown.  However the young mistress Louise had definitely underestimated this new rival.

Montespan managed to become friends with both Louise and French Queen Maria Teresa.  At a time when both the Queen and Louise were pregnant, they requested that Madame de Montespan help them entertain the King during private dinners.

Both women quickly regretted their request as Montespan entertained Louis perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.

To conceal his new relationship, Louis placed the two ladies in rooms connected to his.  This gave the King access to both. Able to compare the women in every way imaginable, Louis chose Montespan.  Humiliated, Louise joined a convent, the typical place of refuge in France for jilted women.

The spotlight now belonged to Athenais de Montespan, 25.  Montespan proceeded to become the ultimate baby machine.

To make a long story short, Louis tried to have his children by Montespan legitimized.  This brought the Roman Catholic Church into the picture.  Due to her role in royal adultery, the Roman Catholic Church soon became her adversary. In 1675, the priest Lécuyer refused to give her absolution, which was necessary for her to take Easter communion, a requisite for all Catholics.

Father Lécuyer raged, "Is this the Madame that scandalizes all of France?  Go abandon your shocking life and then come throw yourself at the feet of the ministers of Jesus Christ."

During this time, there were clear indications that Louis XIV was losing interest in Montespan.  A legion of serious contenders were being auditioned by Louis in his so-called "Pleasure Palace" at Grand Trianon.

Montespan wasn't pleased. Legend suggests Montespan resorted to black magic in order to get the King back to her bed.

Le Affaire des Poisons erupted in September 1677.  This sordid tale  was the beginning of the end of the reign of La Montespan. The scandal began when a woman on the fringe of French court admitted she had poisoned her father and two brothers in order to inherit their estate.  The sensational trial drew attention to a number of other mysterious deaths.  This started some wild rumors of rampant use of poison. Prominent people, including Louis XIV, became alarmed that they might also be poisoned.

The police were given permission to cast a wide net to get to the bottom of these rumors.  At one point, the police interrogated a confessed poisoner Marie Bosse who pointed the finger at another poisoner La Voison who in turn pointed her nasty finger at none other than Madame de Montespan.

Before La Voison was beheaded in 1680, the convicted witch exclaimed vehemently that Montespan had bought aphrodisiacs and performed black masses with her in order to regain the king's favor over rival lovers.  Scandalous!!

Once Montespan was accused of consorting with the notorious La Voison, even more rumors starting flying. One rumor stated a police investigation uncovered the remains of 2,500 infants in La Voisin's garden. Unbelievable.  Another rumor had Montespan stripped naked while conducting a black mass ritual to make her more desirable.  Whatever the truth, the Affair of the Poisons placed murder, infanticide, and satanism right at the doorstep of the Court of Louis XIV. 

In the end, the Affair of the Poisons caused much hysteria.  In that regard, it is sometimes compared to Salem Village.  The Poison Affair implicated 442 suspects.  367 orders of arrests were issued, of which 218 were carried out. Of the condemned, 36 were executed; five were sentenced to the galleys; and 23 forced into exile.  It was a very serious matter.

Owing to her position, Montespan was never charged.  However, from this point on she was always under suspicion. Now something strange happened - a woman in court died suddenly. Due to the circumstances, this death made people believe even more that Madame de Montespan was capable of murder. 

The King's eye had strayed to another beauty, the Duchess of Fontanges.  Marie Angélique de Scorailles was said to be the newest most beautiful woman in the French court.

Marie was quite the trophy indeed.  The moment Marie's family realized their daughter was a real prize, they decided to capitalize.  Using the asset of her great beauty, they raised enough money to send her to court.  If Marie could make it to the royal bed, this was their best chance to replenish the family coffers.  Therefore when Marie caught the biggest fish of all, her parents were so proud their gamble had worked like a charm.

Yes, indeed, Marie had become Louis' latest Mistress du jour.

Now Madame de Montespan was relegated to the position of superintendent of the Queen's household.  Big step down! 

When it became known the Duchess Marie was pregnant, this brought matters to a head.  Montespan was heard to say she was going to kill the..., well, fill in the blank.

Before any more developments in her rival's romance could occur, Mlle de Fontanges died suddenly in 1681.  The poor girl was only 20 at the time.  Members of the French Court immediately suspected the young woman had been poisoned by Montespan.  Poison had been around for a long time, but proving its use was difficult.  There were two methods of detection: autopsy or obtaining a confession by torture.

Interestingly, the King forbade an autopsy. And no one was going to torture Montespan without the King's consent.  Consequently Montespan was never charged.  It was suggested that perhaps Louis had obstructed any investigation to avoid bringing scandal to his court.  

Now another rumor arose that Montespan had even been poisoning the King.  One would think that particular rumor would make it a little tough for Montespan to hang on to her lover.  Not Montespan.  Maybe she did have mysterious powers!

Despite all the rumors and the scandal which had forced Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan publicly apart, the king continued to visit her daily in her room at the Grand Palace. 

Apparently her brilliance, charm, and spirited conversation were more than enough to overcome her reduced status as a discarded mistress.

Montespan had originally come to prominence by overtaking a rival who underestimated her.  Curiously, the same thing happened to her.  Françoise d'Aubigné was about to leave town to put her life back together when she met Montespan.  On the spot, Montespan hired Françoise to become her nanny. 

Over the next eight years, Louis came to respect the job Françoise had done raising his army of illegitimate children.  Then he fell in love with the woman... Montespan was out of favor due to the Mistress Code: Live by the bed, die by the bed.

Madame de Montespan


Louis XIV's Pleasure Palace included a swimming pool


The lovely Round Room at Grand Trianon


Montespan - the things some girls will do to hang on to their man


Marie Angélique de Scorailles, better known as the Duchess of Fontanges


Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon

She was introduced to court by none other than Montespan who stared in horror when her friend turned into another rival.  Obviously the position of 'mistress' in Louis' court was a precarious post indeed.

Maintenon not only became first a Royal Mistress of Louis IV, she eventually became his second wife... except that she was poor.  So Louis and Maintenon kept their marriage a secret.


Rick's Note:
During our visit to Versailles, Costigan alluded to some pretty strange events at the "Pleasure Palace".  However he admitted his hands were tied by the presence of a 16 year old girl in our midst.  There was some stuff he just couldn't talk about openly.

I asked a couple questions, but all Costigan said was, "When you get home, remember to Google 'Grand Trianon'.  You won't believe some of the stuff that comes up." 

He was right, I did have a hard time believing a lot of the stuff I read.  The main impression I came away with is that rumors had great power in France of the middle ages.  In the Court of Louis IV, there were almost as many rumors as there were mistresses.

I had another question for Costigan.  I asked him if he knew how large France is compared to some of the states in America.

He replied, "France is almost identical in size to your state of Texas."

I laughed. "How did you know I was from Texas?"

He grinned and pointed to the Houston Rockets pullover I was wearing.  "Isn't Houston a city in Texas?"

Hmm. Good point. I felt sheepish that I hadn't figured that one out myself.

Costigan and I were clearly kindred spirits.  The things that interested him interested me.  Plus he had a similar teasing sense of humor.

For example, just when we had finished getting our bikes and were ready to take off, some lady realized she had left a bag in a nearby park area.  As we waited in the Cathedral Square for her to retrieve her bag, it was obvious some people were impatient with her forgetfulness.

Costigan said, "Well, it looks like we have a couple extra moments here in case any of you would like go over and say confession (he gestured towards the church about 30 yards away).  Oops, maybe not.  Judging from the guilty looks on your faces, we don't have two hours to spare."

Indeed, a couple people had clearly blanched at his first suggestion.  A guilty conscience perhaps?  I don't think they appreciated his comeback either.  But I did.  It is so much easier to appreciate good humor when the teasing is directed at someone besides me, the 'slowest buffalo'.


Louis XV



When it came to philandering, Louis XV was far worse than his father.  Not only that, but at least Louis XIV had some talent as a King. Not his son Louis XV. He had none.

Louis XV was good at only one thing, womanizing and luxury.

Costigan suggested Louis XV spent most of his time over at the "Pleasure Palace" on the edge of the Versailles estate with his legion of mistresses and various wives of members of the court.

Costigan smiled and explained that back in those days it was a real break to have one's wife selected for the King's bed since it promised many favors to come.  He implied that since the royal bed was seen as a stepping stone to more exalted positions in society, husbands were more open-minded about this activity than our astonished group might have guessed.

If a couple wished to be a member of Louis XV's Royal Court, the entrance fee was typically a night with the King.

"O Yes, King, certainly, please sleep with my wife.

Thank you so much!  What an honor this is for our family to see you take my wife into your bed!  It is my hope that you enjoy her charms thoroughly.  We are so completely grateful, Sire, for this grand privilege."

The popularity of Louis XV was threatened by the public exposure of his marital infidelities.  After all, his wife Queen Marie Leszczynska was highly respected and much loved by the French people.  The Queen refused all cliques and acted above board in every way... in stark contrast to her philandering husband.  The average French citizen would have been appalled at how their gracious Queen Marie was treated by Louis.

However, Louis was upset at her failure to produce a good supply of male children (only one male child, the Dauphin Louis, survived among her many offspring).

This was a pretty mean thing to say.  After all, the woman had tried as hard she could. Marie had borne Louis 10 children! 

At some point the queen simply gave up trying to please the man and sought refuge in religion and charities.  The king could have cared less. He took mistresses, a recognized practice at the time.

The designation 'maîtresse-en-titre' ("official mistress") was an elevated court position that was sometimes retained even after the king and mistress ceased being lovers.

On a personal note, I found myself squirming at these revelations. American society has a totally different attitude towards marriage and fidelity. It made me uncomfortable at hearing this foreign approach to sensitive matters as these.

However, at the same time, I was interested to learn how a society such as France had once dealt with these issues. By studying different cultures and different attitudes, I broaden my perspective accordingly.  It is called 'worldliness'. 

I was dying to ask Costigan if he thought if the so-called open-minded French attitudes towards sexual matters could be traced directly to the behavior of their royals centuries ago.  However, I never got the chance.

As for Louis XV, one of history's greatest libertines, he made very good use of his Pleasure Palace. In the 1730s, Louis began a series of love affairs with four sisters of the Mailly-Nesle family. Costigan didn't say whether it was one sister at a time or all 4 at once.

Then there was Madame du Barry, Madame de Pompadour, and also Marie-Louise O'Murphy de Boisfaily. All these women were highly prominent in French society. And these are just some of the names. There were plenty more.  The King felt he could do whatever he liked whether French society approved or not

The sixty year reign of Louis took place back in the days when the salons of Versailles were filled with beautiful women and society was just now freeing itself of the moral constraints of the previous century.

At first I was judgmental, but then I remembered a period of history here in America known as the Swinging Seventies.  If America could experiment with its own sexual revolution, then this was France's 18th Century version of the same thing.

As a leader, Louis was popular enough until he led France into the disastrous Seven Year War with Britain. Rather than pay attention as his Empire dwindled and his treasury emptied, Louis amused himself with a series of scandalous love affairs. 

The enemies of Louis decided the easiest way to hurt him would be to reveal his debauchery with rumors.  My, how the tongues twittered when it was revealed the King had set up his own private brothel in the gardens of his palace and bedded four sisters from the same aristocratic family.  Tsk tsk tsk.

Louis fathered at least 30 illegitimate children in addition to his 10 legitimate children.  He even had the nerve to bring his favorite mistress - the glamorous and brilliant Madame Pompadour - into sharing the power of government.

What is weird about reading the stories of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, and Louis V is that their wives get so little mention.  It seems like the mistresses got more publicity than the wives. 

Had Louis XV done anything of note to advance France, perhaps his infidelities might have been overlooked. But Louis XV didn't accomplish much of anything.

Costigan said, "Historians have depicted Louis XV as one of the weakest of the Bourbon dynasty, a do-nothing king who left affairs of state to ministers while indulging in his hobbies of gaming and womanizing.  Louie spent years and years hunting for deers and dears."

Costigan added that it was on his watch that Prussia made huge gains in Europe while Louis XV did little to keep this dangerous nation in check when he had the opportunity. It's tough to worry about military matters when you can't even roll out of bed.

While Costigan continued, I listened to the young man with unabashed joy. For the past ten days, I had listened to one female guide after another.  No questions about it, these lady guides were quite talented. I know the ladies in our river cruise group clearly loved them because they told me so.

However, I have to confess they left me a bit bored at times. It was clearly a Mars and Venus thing.  There were times I simply could not fake further interest in the exact curve of a particular cornice or listening to a description of a King's attire in 1303.

Not Costigan. He was pure Mars.

He talked about boy stuff… politics, wars, balance of power, murder, womanizing, scandals, bedroom gossip, palace intrigue, social unrest, execution, and the historical impact of each ruler involved with Versailles.

I listened to the young man's every word with an excitement that bordered upon hero worship.  As a history buff, I was fascinated all day long.  Can you tell?

Maria Leszczynska, Queen of Louis XV 
She was widely admired by the people and greatly neglected by the King

Madame Pompadour

Louis XV, the parasite who would be King, appearing at the
 side of his mistress, the voluptuous Madame Du Barry,
a woman said to thoroughly enjoy pleasure

Another look at Madame Du Barry


Petite Trianon


At the end of his story about Marie Antoinette, Costigan pointed to a nearby ditch.  I was well aware of this ditch, having fed a piece of bread to a duck wandering over from the shallow water.

Costigan explained that this ditch was in a reality a moat of sorts.  It was not meant as a defensive barrier since it would be fairly easy for anyone in our group to cross if they cared to. 

Instead it was meant as a symbolic separation between Petite Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s private cottage retreat, and the massive Grand Palace a mile away.

Now Costigan smiled and asked us to study the trees on either side of the ditch. He asked if anyone noticed a difference.  Once he pointed it out, the difference was obvious to all of us.  

On the Palace side, the majestic trees were lined in a perfect row along the country road.  They had been pruned in a highly distinctive manner and stood at attention like identical soldiers under review. 

Costigan said this orderly design was the French way of demonstrating man’s mastery over nature.  Considering I had seen this exact same design on many streets of Paris and other parts of France during the trip, I came to understand that this elaborate trimming of trees to an exact pattern was actually a well-established French custom.

Now Costigan turned our attention to the trees on the other side of the ditch/moat.  They were very lovely, but none of us noticed anything special about them.  Then someone said they didn’t match.  And they weren’t planted in a row.  Costigan nodded.  Exactly.  These trees had been planted as a show of rebellion on Marie Antoinette’s part.

When Louis XIV had given her this small slice of the vast estate to do as she pleased, Antoinette’s first inclination was to plant her trees in the English “natural style”.  In other words, the trees had a “deliberate randomness” to them. 

Now Costigan smiled and apologized for the use of the odd phrase “deliberate randomness” with a straight face.   I grinned.  This guy had a great sense of humor.

In other words, Marie Antoinette was sick and tired of being told how to do things the “French Way”.  She had actually used her non-linear landscaping as a way to thumb her nose at the French court in Versailles.   

Costigan shared an anecdote.  One day as Antoinette walked the grounds, she noticed two trees growing side by side.  Antoinette was immediately suspicious.  Had someone deliberately planted these trees in an orderly way? 

Upon questioning, the gardener explained that both trees were “volunteers”, having sprouted up from the seeds of a nearby tree. 

Unconvinced, Antoinette ordered that one of two trees be cut down immediately.  She simply could not bear the thought of any court noble believing there was even the slightest hint of order in her trees.

Costigan added, “For her impertinence, Antoinette was roundly criticized.  Her landscaping efforts were singled out as unusually ugly by anyone who stopped along this road to critique how the grounds were constructed.” 

Then with a grin, he added,

“Can you imagine someone’s gardening preferences becoming a scandal?  Antoinette could not win.  No matter what she did, someone was bound to criticize her. 

Antoinette would always be seen as an uncouth foreigner, a spendthrift and some would say an Austrian spy as well.  I am surprised her disorganized trees weren’t added to the reasons at her trial to be off with her head.”

And with that, we got back on our bikes and rode for a mile to the other side of the Trianon compound. 

Now Marla and I were given the privilege of seeing Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. This area sits right next to Grand Triannon, aka the notorious Pleasure Palace.   

The moment we entered, we both gasped.  This was the most beautiful spot we had ever seen.  The natural beauty of the landscape was extraordinary. 

A huge lake fed by a little stream was home to ducks, beavers, and lily pads.  It was so full of fish I could have caught one with my bare hands.  The lake was surrounded by several quaint cottages, one of which had an ancient water wheel. 

There were wooden bridges perfect for viewing the lake from every angle.  The trees surrounding the compound were so thick that complete privacy was guaranteed. 

Compared to the obscene luxury of the Main Palace itself, it was a joy to visit this lovely private area.  Marla and I couldn’t help it; we were simply too bourgeois to appreciate the overbearing wealth of the Palace.  We would be perfectly happy to live here at this charming château instead.

Costigan gave us the history of Petit Trianon.  It was designed by the order of Louis XV for his long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour.  Construction took place between 1762 and 1768.

However Madame de Pompadour died four years before its completion, so it was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry, instead.

Upon his accession to the throne in 1774, the 20-year-old Louis XVI gave the château and its surrounding park to his 19-year-old Queen Marie Antoinette for her exclusive use and enjoyment.  It was a blessing of the highest magnitude. 

Marie longed to escape both Louis and the pressures of the snobs that infested his court.  As Costigan put it, Louis had just given her “the perfect retreat to retreat”.  I smiled again; Costigan was such a clever guy.

 Marie Antoinette thought of the Petit Trianon as a 'sacred place'; she never had visitors.  Someone in our group asked if her husband had ever visited.  Costigan shook his head.  He said Antoinette had invited him twice and both times he turned her down.

Swiss guards, gardeners, and maids never followed her there. They knew she had no interest in seeing them, so they left her alone.  Here is what Costigan said.

“Privacy was a huge issue for Marie Antoinette. 

When she first came to Versailles, she was under considerable pressure and judgment from both her family and the court.  They told her how to dress, how to wear her hair, what makeup to use, what to say in what situation, which fork to use, when to laugh. 

Antoinette soon developed the curious habit of spending hours at a time in the toilet.  At the time, no one guessed the reason.  What was she doing in there?   They later realized she had discovered this was only place she could go and not be on display.

Once Louis gave her the château, she began to regain her sanity from being told what to do all the time.  She would come to the Petit Trianon not only to escape the formality of court life, but also to shake off the burden of her royal responsibilities. 

This was her garden, her sanctuary.  She would dress up in peasant clothes and pretend to be back in Austria enjoying the simple life she had known there. 

This was the only time she was ever really happy.”

Tale of two trees.  On the left are the French trees standing in perfect order on either side of the footpath.  On the other side of the moat are Marie Antoinette's trees allowed to grow any way they wish as long as it wasn't side by side.

Costigan told a story.  When Marie Antoinette's favorite oak tree was blown down in a storm, American school children heard about it and sent the officials at Trianon a box of acorns as a sympathetic gesture.  French officials had the acorns eliminated for fear they would contaminate French trees.  Please note I have not been able to confirm this story on the Internet, but you are welcome to try.

Antoinette would hide in this cottage, put on Austrian peasant clothes and pretend to back in the Austrian province of Tyrol.  She may have been a lightweight, but she never deserved the ugliness she was subjected to by the French people.


The Grand Canal


Eventually Costigan said it was time to go. Neither Marla nor I wanted to leave this amazing place.  Petite Trianon felt like a sanctuary.  It was obvious why Marie Antoinette chose to spend as much time there as she possibly could.

Almost against our will, we forced ourselves back on our bikes.

To my surprise, our next stop was even better!

The highlight of the day turned out to be the picnic. Costigan had us ride our bikes through the forest to the Grand Canal. Our picnic spot gave us a perfect view of two giant canals that intersected to form what seemed to be a cross.

I noticed there were many small gondola-style rowing boats with couples taking a romantic spin out on the water. As Costigan confirmed, these boats had been rented on the grounds. I wanted to rent one of those boats so badly!

In front were the crossing canals, behind us I noticed a dense forest full of joggers and cyclists using the many trails. What a thrill it must be for the citizens of Versailles to come and exercise in this heavenly place.

Costigan made me laugh when he said in the winter those canals ice over. Hundreds of people can be seen skating across the frozen water. What a spectacle that must be!

Well, now it was Omar Khayyam time. Back a million eons ago when I was a hippie in college with hair down to my shoulders, a highly romantic phrase from Khayyam's Rubiayat was in vogue… "a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou."

As Marla and I found an isolated corner of grass in the shade, we took our feast out of the bike basket. A bottle of Chardonnay, brie cheese, green grapes, and several pastries and the gorgeous setting imaginable made for a perfect afternoon picnic. We even had a soft breeze to cool us.

While I ate my grapes and cheese and sipped my wine (Marla was more interested in the pastries), I wondered why she and I don't do this more often. So I asked her what she thought.

Marla replied, "Three reasons. Heat, bugs, and no place remotely as beautiful as this place back in Houston."

I winced at her reply. Ouch. I was forced to admit she had a good point.

After our meal, we made a head rest out of my jacket and laid back to watch the boats on the two canals. Now a series of swans came floating by, so I tossed them some bread and watched them dive for it.

Now was the time. I put my arm around Marla and hugged her. I made a point to thank her for both the trip and for today.

My heart was full of gratitude. Not only had she planned this incredible trip to France, she had discovered this bike tour that had brought me such infinite pleasure today.

And now she was here beside me to help me enjoy one of the happiest days of my life.

Our friendship means so much to be on these trips. I knew that this moment would never have been as special if I had not had Marla alongside.

A jug of wine, a loaf of wine, and thee

As for Versailles, I think the only way to appreciate just how vast this estate is would be to view it from the sky.  This Google Earth picture shows the unusual cross shape of the canals.

The picture also gives us a perspective on the immense size of the Grand Canals.

As for Marie Antoinette's Trianon, it is located a mile and a quarter from the Palace of Versailles

It is said that Peter the Great modeled his Peterhof estate on Versailles after visiting it.  My only regret from visiting Peterhof is that they didn't allow us to walk the grounds like they did in France. 

I have never seen a more beautifully landscaped place than Versailles.  It was simply wonderful.


The Palace of Versailles is quite spectacular.  The Hall of Mirrors above is one of the most famous rooms in the world.  Countless important events have taken place here such as crowning of the German Emperor in 1871 and the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.  From what I gather, both events were closely linked.  The first event was held to irritate the French. 

The choice of to use this room to end World War I was no accident.  The second event was held as payback to the Germans.


My day at Versailles was my favorite moment of our 2014 Rhone River Cruise, but it was hardly the only adventure.

The day prior had been exquisite in its own way with a walk through the statue-filled Garden of the Tuilleries, a five hour stroll through the Louvre Museum, and a two-hour ride on a Hop On-Hop Off Bus that showed us the endless highlights of Paris.

Those Hop On buses are fun. I laughed as my friend Eileen told me at breakfast how much she had enjoyed the Hop On bus. Eileen said she had done four different routes one the first day! And then she went back and did them again the second day as well.

There's never enough time for a place like Paris. Marla had spent the past four years moaning about how we missed the Louvre on our first trip to France in 2010. So when Marla's friend Fran told her about seeing all the impressionist paintings in another museum titled Musee d'Orsay - Manet, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh - Marla immediately went nuts with envy. Overwhelmed with disappointment, I could see her brain calculating how long she had to wait until her next trip to Paris.

You may have noticed I haven't said a word about our river cruise. Don't for a moment read anything negative into that. It only means I haven't gotten to it yet.

As I said earlier, this river cruise along the Rhône and Saône rivers delivered everything exactly as promised.

For seven days, Marla and I sat on the deck viewing the tree-lined banks of the rivers, the magnificent Alps in the distance, the rolling hills, vineyards, chateaus, cathedrals, ancient castles, modern million-dollar estates… there was not a single stretch of the entire seven day span of the two rivers that was not beautiful.

The history of France was fascinating. 

I have to admit I developed a profound appreciation for the Roman Empire on this trip. Of course the Romans were cruel despots who enslaved countless millions to build their temples and die in their arenas. And yet at the same time, their engineering ability was out of this world! In every town I visited, I saw fabulous structures those Roman engineers had built two thousand years ago that were not only still standing, some like the arena in Arles or the theater in Vienne were still being used!

I also developed a healthy respect for the Catholic Church. All I ever hear about in America are the scandals. Not so in France. France allowed me to see first-hand the importance of the church. France is a very religious country with a deep love for the Church.  I came away with a real appreciation for the civilizing influence of the Church throughout the country. I have to believe France became a nation that valued laws and knowledge way in advance of its neighbors thanks to the Roman presence, then to the presence of the Roman Catholic Church that followed.

Avignon… what a city!  Lyon… what a city!

There was so much that happened, so much I learned about France. And of course there were friendships. We had a table of friends at dinner every night. We drank wine, we toasted, we solved family problems, we hugged, we laughed, you name it. Not one night went by without someone crying of happiness or release.

Marla gave me one of my favorite moments at dinner. She had deprived herself of bread for an entire year just so she could eat all the bread and all the croissants she wanted on this trip WITHOUT GUILT.

Sure enough, I had to grin on the first night when Marla emptied the bread basket, added butter, and began eating. Without realizing, she started to moan with pleasure. Mmmmm!! It got so bad I had to elbow the girl when people started looking over.

Is it possible to have too much fun??

Indeed, this was the first cruise I have ever been on where I had to hide in my room because I could not take ANY MORE FUN! On the last full day of the trip, while Marla and the Gang headed over to a lovely abbey in the countryside, I simply stayed in bed and played computer chess. I just couldn't take it anymore. I was actually too overwhelmed by all the events of the trip to see something new that day.

Let me add that no trip has ever taken me longer to bounce back from. It took me an entire week after coming home to finally discover a hop in my step. Up till then, I had been going through the motions. This trip completely wore me out… physically, mentally, emotionally.

So is this a criticism of the trip? Absolutely not. Marla's Rhone River Cruise was a slam dunk success of the first magnitude.

Mind you, not one thing went wrong. Nothing. I didn't lose a thing, I didn't make any mistakes, I didn't do or say anything stupid. In addition, Marla's organization was so complete that there was not a single transportation snafu.

My exhaustion had nothing to do with problems. I just ran out of steam, that's all. I never realized till this trip that could actually be is a "limit" to how much fun I can have on a trip. Once I exceeded my fun limit, I had to shut down. Please, no more fun today! Don't torture me with any more fun; I can't take it!

Of course no one has given me a bit of sympathy. Not a single person back here in Houston seems to understand that a person can overdose on "fun".

And you know what? We are going to do it all again same time next year on Germany's 2015 Rhine River Cruise.

Truthfully, I have never anticipated a trip with more excitement than this one… The Swiss Alps, the mighty Rhine River, the Black Forest, the beautiful French town of Strasbourg, Castles on the Rhine, the ominous Rhine Gorge with mist and Lorelei mermaids, Beerfest and Polka Dancing to German Oompah bands in Rudesheim, plus windmills, tulips and canals in Amsterdam.

Normally, I would say "gosh, I can't wait!" But in this case, I am secretly happy I have a full year to recover from the Rhone River Cruise.  My only fear is that this trip has the terrifying threat of "fun exhaustion" written over it as well. 

My body and spirit simply cannot handle this much exquisite fun without a serious rest in between. 

Rick Archer
May 2014

On top of the world in Vienne.  Velma, Emily, Marla, Rick, Susanne, Deanne, Judy Bonnie
Eileen, Ann, Linda, Paula, Meredith, Tom, Mike, Sarah, Roz, Larry


For the Continuation of the Versailles Article: 
Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution


The River Cruise Experience


Written by Rick Archer
May 2013

When Marla told me she was thinking about scheduling our first-ever river cruise, I thought she was reading my mind.  I had recently caught myself drooling with envy every time the Viking River Cruise ad flashed on the TV screen. 

I laughed when Marla admitted that ad had the exact same effect on her.

With our first-ever River Cruise scheduled to take place one year from now, I was curious to learn about some of the differences between an ocean cruise and a river cruise. 

So I asked a friend who had been on a river cruise before to explain the difference.

Russell's 2012 River Cruise to Russia

Rick's 2012 Ocean Cruise to Russia

The Tale of Two Maps

By chance, my friend Russell Orr had visited Russia last year about the same time that Marla and I took our Russia 2012 Cruise

Naturally every time I saw Russell, I would ask him about the river cruise he took to Russia.  Truth be told, as we compared notes, I found myself having a hard time controlling my envy. 

Please don't misunderstand.  My cruise to Russia was an unforgettable highlight tour.  In particular, I loved Stockholm and I loved Tallinn.  It was a great trip. 

But what I really wanted to do was to see more of St. Petersburg.  I spent nine hours in St. Petersburg.  Russell spent three days.  I spent no time in Moscow.  Russell spent three days. 

Need I say more??

An ocean cruise gives you a wonderful look at the Big Picture, but will frustrate you if there's a place you prefer to concentrate on.  A river cruise allows a person the luxury to focus directly on a region.

One evening I asked Russell to talk about what it is like to be on one of the long boats they use on the river. Russell's eyes lit up like Christmas candles.  I could see the delight in his big smile.

Russell started his reply by saying I could not even begin to imagine the joy of his trip.  Russell grinned as a memory flashed across his mind and then he began to tell me a story. I may get the details a little mixed up, but here is the gist of it.

Russell said his favorite moment was a particular "enchanted evening" spent dancing with his beautiful lady friend Pat. 

Russell explained that the ship had hired some Russian college students during the summer to help run the show.  This was a great way for the young people to pay for their education.

Russell said he had no idea "Russians" could be so friendly.

He concluded that unlike the dour old-timers who still bear the scars of the Communist era, the young actually know how to laugh and smile. 

Russell said among the enthusiastic college kids were two musicians who played every instrument under the sun. 

Each night the duo would play their music and each night Russell and Pat would get out and dance under the stars.  Russell added they were the only guests who actually danced.

Apparently there was a closed circuit camera that was focused on the music area.  This camera sent a feed to every cabin so people could listen to the music in their rooms if they wanted to. 

Russell explained that the dance floor was situated right in front of the musicians and their array of instruments.  Apparently the camera's eye included both the musicians and the dance floor as well. 

One night as Russell and Pat danced the night away, the camera caught their every move… and neither of them had any idea they were putting on an 90 minute show for the entire ship!

The next morning one guest after another came by to thank them for providing such wonderful entertainment!  In fact, one guest asked Russell if they were planning to do it again.  They were the hit of the cruise!

I am sure Russell and Pat were a little embarrassed that their special moment was captured on camera, but deep down I think they were tickled by the praise as well.  I asked Russell if the camera caught any smooching.  He grinned and blushed a little, then politely declined to answer. 

I probably have no business sharing such an intimate story, but it is so cute that I could not help myself.  'Tis better to share and ask forgiveness later!!

I have no doubt that Russell and Pat made every guest on that ship wish they could dance too.  I always tell men they should learn the fine art of romantic dancing.  Chances like this river cruise come along too rarely in life as it is.  Why not make the moment perfect?  

I always say that Slow Dance and Romance go hand in hand.  Indeed, something pretty special happened on that river cruise.  When the couple returned to Houston, Russell asked her to marry him... and Pat said yes.


A Very Select Group

From what I gather, the river cruise adventure has many features that separate it from our ocean experience.  Just for starters, you are swapping a massive ship that carries anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 passengers for a slender ship that carries a maximum of 190 very privileged guests. 

If you are comfortable with crowds and don't mind waiting in lines, then trips on monster ships such as the one pictured might be fun. 

However, I will confess that at my age I feel more at ease with the intimate setting. 

I like a small group.  I get to see these same people every day and I have an entire week to get to know them.  I might even make a friend for life with an opportunity like this.

They say a cruise ship is like a floating hotel.  I say a river boat is closer to a floating inn.  Or maybe a very large yacht! 

Another major difference between a river cruise and an ocean cruise is the view.

On an ocean cruise, you spend countless hours staring out at the sea.  For people stuck in the city for most of their lives, this is a welcome sight.  That said, seeing the same vista day in and day out grows old very quickly.  You soon find yourself glancing at the water from time to time, but that's about it.

On a river cruise, there is actually something to look at it.  You will literally float through the most beautiful countryside imaginable.  You will gasp at one precious sight after another.

Not only can you dine out on deck, every cabin has a river view.  Be it forests and vineyards, farms and chateaus, there will be always be something new to capture your fascination.

No matter where you are on the long ship, you can just sit there watching the world go by.  Sip your wine and enjoy one of the happiest moments of your life as rolling hills and the ever-present green countryside moves across your eyes in an endless tableau of pastoral beauty.  


Tender Mercies

There are no days at sea when you sail down the river.  Each day brings you to one quaint town or precious little village after another.  Each day takes you to a new adventure.  

The Rhône River has served as the "Mississippi" of France for centuries.  Local farmers have used the river to transport their goods to market for centuries.  Furthermore, ships from all the Mediterranean countries have long used its waters to trade with Northern France. 

Consequently, there are existing docks at every town where our longboat can pull up and drop you off instantly.  At each stop the boat will dock right in the center of the town. 

It takes all of one minute to get on or off the ship.  You can stroll through the town in the morning, come back to the ship for lunch, then head back out and explore some more.  You come and go as you please.  This is the right way to see the world!

Now compare that to the tedious "tendering" process common to the large cruise ships.  On every other trip I have taken, there is at least one port that requires a smaller boat known as a "tender" to ferry you onshore. 

If you are given seven hours at a port, two of those hours are completely wasted.  For example, we recently used a tender in Belize on our Mariner 2013 trip.  Our ship was parked over a mile off shore. I estimate we burned at least an hour and a half traveling back and forth.

We always use a tender at Cayman.  The huge lines mean at least one hour in each direction.  Tendering means you get to wait in line for half an hour to get on the boat.  Then you waste another half hour getting there to the island.  Then you have to turn around and do it again in the evening. 

There is no time wasted on a river cruise.  You don't spend half your trip at sea and you don't spend half your day on a tender. 

In fact, if you wish, on a river cruise you can be busier with sightseeing than practically any trip you have ever taken. 


The Atlantis

No one is going to deny a river cruise is expensive.  As with any premium adventure, you have to pay a price for the privilege of having a truly wonderful experience

In 2010, I visited the water park at Atlantis in the Bahamas for the first time.  On that visit, I made a very unusual discovery.

Prior to the trip, I blanched when Marla said tickets were $130 for a day's visit.  That would $260 for the two of us.  "No way", I said.  But Marla showed me the pictures and persuaded me.

On the night before our cruise ship stopped in Nassau, I asked several of the passengers if they were going to visit Atlantis. Every person said the same thing. "Nah, it's way too expensive."

I estimate only a dozen people out of 200 guests went there that day.  That's a shame because Marla and I ended having the time of our lives.  The rides were incredible and there were hardly any lines.  The place was not crowded at all.

Our favorite ride was the Lazy River.  We had so much fun, we stayed in those tubes for nearly three hours.  Marla and I were alone 80% of the time.  It was an incredible experience to have this remarkable playground all to ourselves. 

That's when it dawned on me.  You get what you pay for.  Pay low prices, get big crowds.  Pay big prices, have more fun.  On a river cruise, you save time, you meet truly interesting people, and you see the world in perhaps the grandest way possible. 

St. Augustine famously said, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page."

During the years I ran my dance studio, I completely ignored the rest of the world.  Then Marla introduced me to travel.  On each trip I learned a new reason why people value travel so much. 

The first time I saw Rome, suddenly the history of the Roman Empire came alive.  When I saw Turkey, I began to think of Noah's Ark and the possibility the Black Sea and the melting waters of the Ice Age could explain the myth of the great flood.

When I visited Scotland, I developed a superior understanding of the struggle between the Scots and the English.  When I went on the Titanic Cruise, I got so deeply in touch with the tragedy that I felt like I practically knew the people who died.

When I saw Barcelona, I discovered just how beautiful a city can be.  When I saw the Panama Canal, I was incredulous at the magnificence of the engineering accomplishment.  Travel helps me learn so much about things I never knew before. 

Another quote about travel I like is from Mark Twain.  "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness... Travel helps us discover we are a family after all."

When I visit other lands, I start to realize exactly what Twain meant.  Race, religion, ethnicity all begin to mean less.  People all want the same thing - peace, safety, health, prosperity.  The world becomes a much smaller place when you travel. 

I am 63 as I write this story.  If you are anywhere near my age, then you understand that time grows more precious every day.  People my age don't have a lot of time to waste any more.

Why waste time if you can afford not to?? 

Based on our Puritan ethic, few of us allow ourselves the risk of high-priced luxury.  We have spent our entire lives denying ourselves the finer things in life so we will have money at the end.  But the cruelty of aging is that despite our frugal ways, we have only a small ten year window where we still have the health to see the world.  Once our health goes, travel will never be the same again.

Life is for living, not passively sitting at home waiting for the end.  Some of you might agree we have reached the point in life where we have earned the right to pamper ourselves.   As they say, there are no pockets in shrouds. You can't take it with you.


Complimentary Wine

While a river cruise is undeniably expensive, there are savings in places we aren't accustomed to.  There are complimentary features that will certainly be appreciated.  For example, there is complimentary wine served at every meal except breakfast.  You can have as many glasses of wine as you wish (if you prefer beer, soda or water, that is served free as well).

When Marla and I sailed aboard the Azamara Journey for our Titanic cruise, the wine was served throughout each meal.  Barriers fell quickly thanks to the magic of the wine. Every night at dinner, the dining room was animated with laughter and talk.

One of my favorite moments on that trip came when my brilliant friend Bob and I talked deep into the night. Bob was an expert on the Titanic.  Thanks to our wine-loosened tongues, Bob opened up. He told me stories and angles I never knew beforeI learned more about the Titanic that night than I ever thought possible.  Bob and I became friends for life.  I could see Bob again and restart the conversation in a flash.  There is something about wine that helps get the party started. 


A Cultural Experience

Complimentary Excursions

A river cruise differs from an ocean cruise in that it gives you a fighting chance to really explore. 

Don't get me wrong… I like ocean cruises.  But if there is one downside, it is the superficial treatment that each port receives.  A river cruise differs from an ocean cruise in that it gives you enough time to walk around and learn.

Like my trip to Paris on our Oslo 2010 cruise, there simply wasn't enough time to even begin to see the city.  We had five hours total to explore.  By the time we reached the Louvre, we didn't have enough time left to go in.

We just stared at the windows of the most famous museum in the world as I screamed with anguish.  This isn't right!!  And then it was time to head back to the bus. 

A river cruise wishes to educate its passengers about the region of the trip.  Therefore, in addition to free lectures on board, each day there are several small-group sightseeing excursions at EVERY port.  You don't pay a dime.  The ship wants you to participate in the learning experience, so these visits are complimentary.

More than likely, you will meet a cheerful, outgoing guide who will escort you through each new town.  In addition to being quite knowledgeable about the region, the guide will learn your name, where you are from and maybe even your favorite type of wine.

Your guide will quickly assess your physical status and be able to give advice on what trips you can handle and what you might do if you need an alternative. 

Best of all, our guide will help immerse us deeply into the culture of the region.  France is steeped in all sorts of fascinating ancient history.  At different times the Franks, the Gauls, the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, and the Moors have fought countless battles for control of this precious farmland. 

The area we will visit was featured in Julius Caesar's Gallia, a book where he told the story of his conquest of Gaul in 58 BC.  You will be amused that in my 8th Grade Latin class, I actually translated some passages from Caesar's Gallia. Believe it or not, I still have the book!

"Gallia est provincia magna in Europa. Gallia est patria agricolarum.  Puellae silvas Galliae amant."

That was from Chapter One.  I bet you can translate it... "Gaul is a large province in Europe.  Gaul is farmland.  Gaul has beautiful trees."

Many of Caesar's battles were fought right along the Rhône River.  For that matter, his greatest victory, the Battle of Alesia, was fought just a few miles north of Chalon where our trip ends.

Avignon, one of our stops, was once the most powerful city in Southern France.  Avignon owes much of its importance to Caesar.  After Caesar conquered it, he made the town his favorite outpost.  Avignon was important because the Rhône was the route taken by Mediterranean sailors wishing to trade with Northern Europe.  Control of the Rhône was vital to the conquest of the entire region.

After Caesar vanquished this city, he ordered an elaborate defense system be built.

Why bother winning it if you aren't going to keep it??

Today Avignon features some of the best preserved ramparts (defensive walls) in France. 

Here is a picture of the Roman ruins in Avignon, France. These are some of the walls built to defend the city.

We will get two chances to visit these Roman ruins.

We will have the entire afternoon of our first day to explore Avignon.

Then on Day Three of our trip, we will visit Avignon again.  On one of these days, we will surely visit this amazing site.

Avignon has much more to offer.  For example, Avignon is called "The City of Popes".  Indeed, there is an amazing castle known as the "Pope's Palace".

Most of us assume that Italy has always had the most influence with the Catholic Church. 

Not so. At one point, the French held sway.  In 1305, a deadlocked conclave finally elected Clement V, a Frenchman, as Pope.

Clement preferred to remain in France, so he declined to move to Rome. In 1309 Clement moved his court to the papal enclave at Avignon. It would remain here for the next 67 years. This absence from Rome is sometimes referred to as the "Babylonian Captivity".

A total of seven popes reigned at Avignon; all were French, and they each increasingly fell under the influence of the French Crown.

Finally, in 1376, new Pope Gregory XI abandoned Avignon and moved his court back to Rome. The Avignon Papacy was over. 

Besides the castle, there's the mysterious "Bridge to Nowhere".  The reason the bridge remains incomplete is pretty amusing. 

Apparently over centuries, erosion has damaged the bridge.  At this point, the remaining part of the bridge has been restored, but now it is too low for a river boat to go under... so rather than raise the bridge, they found it easier to leave the job undone.

Tourism is more valuable to the city than have a complete bridge. So many people are amused by the unfinished bridge that it has become the international symbol of the city.

You didn't know any of this, did you?  Neither did I.  Travel is a dynamic form of education.

I have been on 27 cruise trips so far.  Only twice have I been on a trip that attempted to teach me something about where I was going.  Both trips occurred last year.  The first was our visit to the Panama Canal.  The other experience was the sad Titanic Memorial cruise that sailed to the spot where the Titanic sank.

Other than those two trips, there has never been any attempt whatsoever to educate the passengers on the history and the culture of the places we visit.  Why cut into valuable bingo time?

That will change dramatically on this river cruise.  Our trip through southern France promises to offer one history lesson after another.  We have already discussed Avignon. 

What about Arles??   Arles is a quaint village that became the home of Vincent Van Gogh for about a year and a half towards the end of his life (1888-1889).

A deeply disturbed man, Van Gogh began a steady descent into madness during his time here.  And yet remarkably, Van Gogh was very prolific in his artwork.  During our visit to Arles, you could easily learn more about Vincent Van Gogh than you ever imagined... or maybe even wanted to know.  For example, you will discover this is the town where he cut off his own ear. 


France - A World Leader in Art, Science, Fashion and Culture

France has long been Europe's epicenter of art, science, philosophy, fashion and culture.  This trip is so different that you will have the chance to actually meet the French people in a way that allows for the exchange of ideas and politics. 

You won't have a tour guide that you see today for the only time in your life.  You will actually get to know your guide on a personal basis.  If you ask the right questions, you may learn about France and its people in a way that will far transcend any documentary or book you might read. 

There have been rumors over the years of animosity between the French and the Americans.  We have heard about French rudeness and disdain for our politics.

As a result, we make fun of the French.  For example, 'Q: Why don't they have fireworks at Euro Disney?  A: Because every time they shoot them off, the French try to surrender.'

Yes, it's true that the USA saved France in both World War I and World War II.  Good for us!  But please do not forget that America might not even exist were it not for France. 

It was France's intervention into the Revolutionary War that proved to be the turning point.  Without France, we might be the 50 Colonies today and the Atlantic might still be known as "The Pond". 

And I would like to add that Omaha Beach of D-Day fame is practically hallowed ground to the French.  There is a sign at the national cemetery that says:

"This ground is dedicated in perpetuity to the people of the United States of America for the sacrifice its brave and noble fighting men gave to our country." 

There are 10,000 graves at that cemetery.  It is a very moving sight indeed.  I cannot even look at this picture without tears welling up.  I wish to add the French consider it an honor and a sacred duty to guard and protect this cherished property.

Furthermore, every year French citizens in the Normandy area come out to celebrate D-Day with American flags, parades and a huge outpouring of gratitude.  Americans are absolute heroes to these people. 

To this day, there are people in this area who witnessed the American bravery first-hand.  They watched in horror as young soldiers died trying to liberate them. They wept as helpless soldiers were shot down in their parachutes.  They peeked through their windows to see brave men die in door to door fighting at St. Lo and Caen.  They even helped bury the countless young men who died facing deadly machine guns on the nearby beach at Omaha.

There is no 'French rudeness' in Normandy, only gratitude.  These people remember what happened like it was yesterday.  They saw people they had never met before who sacrificed their lives to save them from Nazi tyranny.  

Their attitude is eternal: We will never forget America.

This rumor about French rudeness is a myth.  Sure, if a tourist behaves poorly, naturally they can expect to be treated in kind.  But that is the exception.  In this world of crazy senseless terrorism, France is thrilled to have our friendship.  France is one of America's truest allies. 

I have visited France twice. Wherever I have gone, Marla and I have been treated with warmth and respect.  All I had to do was wear a smile and I received the kind of welcome accorded to a trusted friend and neighbor. 

Both times I found myself utterly charmed by the beauty and culture.  I welcome the opportunity to learn more about this amazing country.


Parting Thoughts

There are other pleasant surprises about this trip that might not have occurred to you.  For example, there is no such thing as "seasickness" on a long boat.  The rivers are wide and smooth.  There is no such thing as waves and rapids.  The ship simply glides through the calm waters.  If anything, the sailing has less vibration than your average bus ride.  

People might read my story and conclude that I am knocking ocean cruises.  There is an old saying, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you".  I am not disrespecting ocean cruises.  As Marla constantly points out, an ocean cruise is an extremely safe and cost-effective way to see the world. 

There are times when an ocean cruise makes complete sense.  For example, a cruise is the perfect way to see the islands of Hawaii. Ordinarily, to see all the islands of Hawaii would require daily transfers from island to island and new hotels every night.  There would be considered time wasted. 

Since a cruise ship is basically a floating hotel, it is perfect for Hawaii.  Likewise for Alaska and the United Kingdom.  Using the water is a very efficient way to visit these areas.

On the other hand, there are places that are inaccessible by sea that can be reached by river.  Europe is the perfect example. 

To me, a river cruise is simply a more surgical form of an ocean cruise.  For example, a cruise ship might be able to go through the Panama Canal, but only a longboat can sail the Rhine, the Danube and the Volga - and the Rhone and the Seine of France.

Suddenly areas in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary become accessible to one of the most comfortable forms of transportation imaginable.  Who ever thought a cruise trip could take you to the Alps?  Castles and mountains and forests are magically placed right at your fingertips. 

A river cruise allows you far more time to explore a city or a town than you can ever imagine.  You have all morning and all afternoon to tour the place.  Your day can begin as early as 6 am if you actually have the strength to get up at that hour

Here's something else you may not have considered.  Have you ever thought of using a bike to expand your reach?  Marla and I have tried bicycles in several places.  For example, we have used bikes to explore Key West and Martha's Vineyard.  Usually the drawback is time.  We wanted to use bikes in Maine's Acadia National Park, but the stupid ship wasted so much of our time with tendering that we had to scrap our plans.

Not so on a river cruise. As we discovered in Key West, a bicycle is the perfect way to explore a small town.  Since the boat drops you into the center of town, you can rent a bicycle in the plaza and off you go.  Imagine all the ground you will cover.  You can ride through the streets of each village as far as your body will let you.  Then when you get hungry, head back to town, drop the bike off right in front of the ship and hop back onboard.  How could that possibly be easier?

Better yet, you have the evening too!

I suppose it does get dark once in a while.  Actually, now that I think of it, maybe even once a day.   

On an ocean cruise, I don't even think about a port at night.  On a cruise ship, typically you need to get back on board at 4 pm so the ship can sail hundreds of miles to the next port. 

Or perhaps we get back on board early so the gambling casinos can begin to operate again. 

Many times I have wished I could have dinner in town at night and go to a nightclub afterwards. 

A good example would have been St. Petersburg on our 2012 cruise to Russia. 

My word, here we were six thousand miles from home.  How cool would it be to have dinner with Marla and our friends in this amazing historic city?   Let's see what Russian food tastes like and see what Russian nightlife looks like. 

However that never happened.  At 4 pm we were hurriedly whisked back on board the cruise ship.  Poof!  It was here and now it is gone.  One brief taste of the city and we had to leave.

Wouldn't it have been nice to see a performance of the Russian Ballet?  On a river cruise, that's something you can actually do.

Perhaps in France we might take in a show somewhere in town.  Why not see the fabulous French Can Can in person??

A river cruise is totally different.  There is no gambling, so the ship has no reason to rush you back on board.  Furthermore, the ship typically sails in the wee hours of the morning.  After all, the next stop is just down the river.  The entire length of the trip is only about 200 miles from start to finish.  It is 124 miles from Avignon to Lyon.  It is 70 miles from Lyon to Chalon. 

That averages out to about 30 miles per night.  Each night while we sleep, the staff simply gets out their oars. 

They sing 'row, row, row your boat gently down the stream' in French as they merrily paddle away.  Be careful not to join in the singing… they might hand you a paddle.

The consequence of these short distances is startling.  Most evenings, the long ship stays docked right at the pier so you can get off the ship at night and have yet another adventure. 

How about sipping some wine at a sidewalk café with friends? 

Imagine sitting there under the stars with a breeze during a blissful April evening.  Maybe they will play French music while we sit.  Will be the sad "La Vie En Rose" sung by Edith Piaf?  

Or will it be "La Marsellaise", the French national song made famous in Casablanca when the French loyalists defied the Nazi occupiers by singing over the voices of the Germans?

Or perhaps you might
just spend your evening strolling around ancient Roman fountain under the moonlight in the town plaza

It doesn't get any better than this.

Even the caliber of the crew is different.  As Russell explained to me, there is a warmth and savoir faire to the college educated crew that transcends what you might be used to on an ocean cruise. 

At the max, the ship holds 190 guests.  With a staff of 45 people, that creates a startling ratio of one staff person to four guests.  As a result, almost all the crew learn your name, not just the waiter and the room attendant.  For that matter, maybe you will learn some of their names too! 

There are many advantages to this sort of intimacy.  Each waiter and each bar person will know what beverage you desire before your lips even move.  All you have to do is whistle.  Or use sign language if you are too exhausted by all the fun to speak.  I recommend pointing, the Universal language.

If you don't want to go into town, there is entertainment on board every evening. 

Yes, there is a dance floor.  No, it isn't large, so yes, you better brush up on your small floor ballroom dancing.  I definitely suggest you take a refresher course on slow dancing. Incidentally, I happen to know someone who is an expert at teaching small floor dancing in case you need a few tips.

There is another difference that might completely take you off guard.  For example, I was startled when Marla said there is no "Formal Night".  Huh?  I didn't believe her, so I asked again.  Marla shook her head with confidence.  She was sure of what she was talking about.  No Formal Night!  What part of "NO" don't you get, Rick?  

Marla said that on a river cruise, comfort rules over style.  The ship deliberately cultivates a relaxed, resort-casual onboard atmosphere - leave the formal wear at home.

I find that very curious.  If there is any place on earth where people collect who can probably afford to look prosperous, I would guess it is on board one of these long ships.  And yet they de-emphasize the chance to show off.   Very interesting. 

I suppose you can always cheat if you want to.  If you want to look really good, go for it.  They probably won't tell you to go back to your room and wear something less flattering. 

That said, be careful.  Don't overdo it.  It's like a nudist colony… you're either in or you're out.  If I ain't looking good, then you better not be looking good either.  If anyone makes me look bad by over-dressing, I promise to expose your fashion cruelty to the world through bad photographs and snide comments. 

Trust me, after I get through doctoring your photo, you won't be smiling.  Plus I will make you look fat.  That's a promise.  Think Jabba the Pizza Hut.

Speaking of pictures, another thing you might find unusual is that no photographers will interrupt your meal.  No more quick gulps of food so you can force the fake smile. 

Another thing you will surely miss are dancing waiters and loudspeaker announcements at dinner.  This absence worries me a great deal.  Gosh, what we will do?  Without constant interruptions, we could be forced to develop the long lost skills of witty dinnertime repartee.

How foreign is that?   I might have to practice ahead of time. 

Speaking of the lost art of communication, this trip promises to give people an extended chance to get to get acquainted on a much deeper level.

While there is something to be said for the hot tub experience, I don't think "deep conversation" is one of them.  But if you are wandering side by side through the streets of Lyon at night, you might actually open up a little and bare your soul.

While we were on our recent Mariner 2013 cruise, at dinner someone asked Marla what was her favorite cruise.  Her answer surprised me.  She said, "Our river cruise in 2014."

I immediately chided her.  "Marla, you can't pick a trip you have never been on as your favorite."

Marla responded in typical Marla fashion, "Don't tell me what to think.  This trip is something I have dreamed about for a long time. I love everything there is about this trip.  If I say it is my favorite, then just take what I say and accept it."

At this juncture, Marla has already sold fifteen cabins and has several inquiries to follow up on. That is an amazing total when one realizes that Marla's group promises to be somewhere between 16% to 25% of the entire passenger list.

I say this impressive number is a validation of Marla's work.  This is an expensive trip, no doubt.  Therefore to have so many people show this kind of confidence is quite an honor. 

The one thing I can promise is that we will be a family. 

You can count on that. 

Marla and I had this exact experience on the 2012 trip to Russia.  We all shared so much warmth and laughter traveling together.

In Denmark, we stayed at the same hotel. It was there that the girls surrounded Marla with reassurance during my bizarre passport dilemma (yes, I actually lost my passport!)

We shared meals and went strolling through the magical Tivoli Gardens together.  In Finland, we shared lunch in the cellar of an intimate countryside inn.  In St. Petersburg, we drank vodka together in a huge Russian dining hall.  In Estonia, we drank beer together in a dark candlelit German biergarten. 

We grew close.  We had an entire journey filled with special moments like these.  We banded together and became best friends in foreign lands.

Marla and I agreed the friendship is what made the cruise to Russia special.  That will happen again on our river cruise.  We will be side by side packing a lifetime of memories into this journey.  An ocean cruise is still a wonderful way to develop friendships, but the river cruise experience takes it to another level.  This trip promises to be a sublime experience indeed

Rick Archer
June 2013

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