One Day in: Le Havre
Updated: Sep 13
Now that I am back on board and working again, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit some old memories and talk a little bit about my work on the cruise ship. Right now, I am on board as a trainer for other employees and as a technical inspector for specific venues. Which honestly sounds much more interesting until I reveal that my job consists of talks with employees, shifting through mountains of documentation and some low-scale industrial climbing. It is mostly an office job, except my office is only a meter over sea level and separated from the elements by only a steel wall (no windows).
Over my time with AIDA, I have visited 114 different ports, many of them more than once. (In fact, I have over 50 calls to my most visited port). Now I would like to share some of the stories I have collected over all the different ports and countries I have visited. To start of this series, I would like to start with an exceptional port, one of my all-time favourite destinations: Le Havre.
Compared to the 54 calls I have amassed at the island of Madeira, the 13 calls to Le Havre seem like an insignificantly small number. In fact, Le Havre is not even one of my top 20 most visited ports. However, plenty of times in life quality and quantity are not linked directly. In the case of this very special port, what I will remember it for is the particular timing of all the calls. Particularly the first call to Le Havre is the story that I would like to share today.
I was stationed on AIDAmar at the time, in what was only my second contract. And the first contract I got around to guiding something other than SUP-Excursions. This particular call happened during our repositioning cruise, leading us from the Baltic, over the Atlantic with a stop in New York all the way down into the Caribbean. We had started our journey in late October and had already experienced freezing temperatures and our first winter storms during the previous Baltic cruises. Now, two sea days after leaving Warnemünde, we arrived in Le Havre to a more than questionable weather forecast.
Now to most of the people on the ship, the weather in Le Havre does not matter at all. Which is quite unusual considering our usual passengers. This is because here in Le Havre long-distance excursions are starting out to Etretat, Honfleur, Mont San Michelle and Paris, where the weather might be different. Only a fraction of the passengers stay in Le Havre. Many of those choose not to leave the ship at all. They probably assume, from the looks of the port, that Le Havre is a City not worth visiting. In fact, many crewmembers do so as well. So many actually, that my image in my head, produced by other tales about the port had been quite a negative one. This conclusion could be forgiven, if you only look from the ship towards the port, you had just gone alongside in. Le Havre’s port is the second biggest industrial port in all of France. Let me just say that it looks the part.
So if the first reason for me to not like the port, at first sight, had been the stories of others, and the second reason had been the actual looks of the seaport there quickly became apparent third one. Because of the height of the tide in the English Channel, our exit would be on deck 5. Which means carrying up all our bikes from deck 3 to 5, and then down towards the pier again. It is incredibly hard work, which needs to be completed incredibly fast, as no passengers can leave the ship before all the bikes are down on the pier. It’s the hustle and bustle with all the higher officers, and sometimes even the captain watching over your operation like hawks. And for this reason, the few deck 5 ports we have around the world are usually far less favoured than the deck three ports, where we have our own gangway, utterly separate from the guests.
After completing our unloading operation without major hiccups, it was time for us to start on our orientation round. Since Le Havre was not part of our usual scheduled cruises, we guides were unfamiliar with the tour. Some of us had guided this one before, but none of them in the past six months. Orientation means to simply ride the entire trip to familiarize yourself with the layout and all the exciting and relevant parts of the track. Now since the ship is only docked for a few hours and the tour with our passengers is on a fixed schedule that leaves us with minimal time for our exploration. In fact, we only had about two hours to ride a track that would take us about four hours with passengers.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, over my many years working with AIDA, I have instead learned to live for these days. These days where you ride your bike close to a hundred kilometres. These days were you are faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, memorizing a completely unfamiliar tour. Those days where your plan falls apart halfway through, as it is impossible to anticipate everything that can occur at an unknown destination. Those days, were, despite the odds, you can provide your guests with an excellent experience.
This particular day was the very first day I ever experienced with these specific set of challenges. It even looked good when we set out. Despite a very tight time limit, we were able to stop at a French bakery, buy some croissants that we carried with us in the backpacks until we reached the top of the cliffs over the city. There, at the remnants of old-world war bunkers, with the Atlantic below our feet, we had time for a small breakfast. We sat there, on the grey concrete, our homes in our back, and in front of us the endless sea, the horizon, and somewhere over the horizon the goal of our cruise: The New World. Sitting there, I felt like an explorer about to set out on an epic quest.
However, we had to return to our ship and start our excursions. I was chosen to guide the Segway group on that particular day and quickly assembled my group. Under grey skies, we set out towards along our planned route. But we did not stay on it for long. Only half an hour after leaving the port the clouds suddenly opened up and unleashed a hellish rainstorm over our heads. And quickly I had to decide on which shelter to take. I choose the church of Saint Joseph. According to my original plans, this would have been the last stop of my tour, and during our exploration round, I had actually completely skipped past the church, as time was running short at that point. And thus it came to pass, that under torrential rains I beheld the church for the first time. It was a welcome shelter at the time, which is probably why I entered it without any prejudices from its outer appearance.
At this point, I probably have to describe the church to you, if only to help you understand why it is safe to assume that almost everybody will enter this building with some prejudices. Seeing it from a distance, it appears a giant, brutalist, grey, concrete structure. The windows, small, rectangular, and almost of the same grey as the walls appear better suited to the staircases of a sentries apartment bock. The towering structure evokes images of a lighthouse, built to brave rough seas or even worse: A giant burial mount. But indeed not of a church. And if you get closer to the church, you will notice the doors. Huge wooden boards, more extensive and broader than any human could ever need. They open into a seemingly dark room. The whole thing looks like it came right out of an eighties dystopian movie.
No, let me just say, that the inside does not compare at all to its outside. Upon entering you first realize that there is no ceiling. Instead, the sky opens up to the full 100 meters of the height of the tower. And the, from the outside, nondescript windows reveal themselves to be shining in a complex arrangement of different colours. The inside of this church makes you feel small and insignificant, which is an emotion many catholic churches try to evoke. And I have never thought it quite this intense in all the churches I have seen. And If you remember, that I have visited 114 different ports, I can tell you that there is a church I have visited as part of an excursion in close to all of those ports. So I hope it carries some weight when I state that Saint Joseph is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever visited.
The shelter that was provided to us by the church somehow left a lasting impression on me. The only pretty much lasting impression I took away from this tour. Because after checking the weather, we realized that this downpour would not stop for the rest of the day. And after some deliberation amongst our group, we decided to make our way back to the ship, as riding a Segway in the rain for long distances is rather unsafe.
So this is pretty much the story of my first time in Le Havre. I returned quite a few times over the coming years, always being drawn towards Saint Joseph. I felt that it was here in this city, in this church, that I genuinely decided on following a career with AIDA. And Le Havre will always be this unique port for me, the last point of uncertainty and familiarity, on the shores of the vast oceans with a new world full of adventures waiting beyond. And I plan unless prohibited by Corona, to revisit this town soon.