Discovering Northern France’s past with a

Lionheart

Wearing heavyweight chainmail armour, replica helmets and carrying weaponry, former soldier and now tour guide, Ben Baillie, loves taking guests back through time during their visit to Normandy in France.

To step back in time and discover the myriad layers of history within the centuries’-old castles and stone streets of cities, is a highlight for many during an exploration of Europe. Having a passionate guide who can bring the tales of the past to life through vivid storytelling, is the key to really unlocking the secrets of some of the world’s most historic and significant locations.

Bringing History to life in Normandy

In the heart of Normandy, guests of Scenic can be transported to the past under the skilful leadership of experienced tour guide, Ben Baillie. For Scenic’s Freechoice activities on the 11-Day Normandy & Gems of the Seine river cruise, Ben leads three walking tours and experiences for guests. These include a walking tour of the medieval laneways of Rouen with the Viking warlord ‘Rollo the walker’; an active walking tour of the town of Les Andelys before venturing up to the medieval castle of Château Gaillard (built in 1196 for Richard the Lionheart); and insights into WWI. While on board Scenic Gem in Rouen, guests have the opportunity to meet the character 'Tommy the soldier’ from WW1 and learn what life was like in the trenches.

ABOVE: Rouen, France

Scenic spoke with Ben Baillie about his unique approach to tour guiding and what he loves about helping travellers discover the history of Normandy.

What motivated you to become a tour guide and what do you love about it?

On a visit to Chateau Gaillard in Rouen, France, I accidently bumped into a group of international tourists from one of the Seine river cruises who were on a walking tour. I was disappointed that their guide was not managing to convey the magnificent story of the castle and its designer and owner Richard the Lionheart. This castle is from the age of Robin Hood, knights in shining armour – and there are enough true events that happened here to make a Hollywood movie.

On seeing the unmotivated tourists return to their ship, I decided that something had to be done and I created the concept for a themed tour. What could be better than hiking up to the castle with none other than Richard the Lionheart himself in authentic arms and armour? I was fortunate that Scenic’s journey designers are always looking for the best experiences for their guests. The best part of my job is meeting the guests and telling them the stories on my tours – it’s the best job in the world.

What tools do you use to bring history alive for your Scenic guests?

‘Authenticity’ is the key here. In all my themed tours I make sure that my costumes and props are as authentic as possible. For the Richard the Lionheart and Rollo ‘the Walker’ Viking tours I wear real heavyweight chainmail armour. This effort is important to make the experience feel as real as possible and bring the history to life. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but nothing beats being able to feel and touch the past.

Seeing Richard the Lionheart or Rollo in the flesh and being able to try on his helmet or handle his arms really brings Scenic guests closer to the story. For my WW1 experience, the uniform buttons, insignia and other equipment are actual, original artifacts from the period. This is a great satisfaction knowing that these pieces are helping to re-tell the story of the events they once participated in. I am also able to use my own military experience as a former soldier to create the WW1 experience which is exclusive only to guests of Scenic Europe river cruises.

BELOW: Ben Baillie, Normandy, France

Can you tell us about Rouen and its medieval highlights?

The city of Rouen is a medieval gem and the beating heart of the Duchy of Normandy. Surrounded by over 2,000 half-timbered medieval houses, once there you will be transported back to the dark days of the Hundred Years’ War where Jeanne d’Arc (known more commonly as Joan of Arc) was burnt to death in the old marketplace.

Thankfully that will not happen on my tour of the city, but you will discover some of the City's secret quarters such a St Ouen and St Maclou. The Cathedral houses the tombs of the Dukes of Normandy and an ancient font used to baptize Viking warlords, including St Olaf of Norway more than a 1,000 years ago.

For those interested in military history, what can they experience in this region?

Speaking as a former soldier and military historian, Normandy is a special region. Romans, Vikings, Normans and the Kings of England and France have all fought to control this region of France for over a millennium. It is probably most famous for the D-Day Landings of the Second World War.

The Duchy (a medieval territory of a duke or duchess) is littered with relics and top-class museums dedicated to this turbulent part of the Duchy’s history. It is also the gateway to the First World War’s ‘Western Front’ and battle of the Somme area only one hours' drive away. A visit to one of the many war grave cemeteries is a very humbling experience and a stark reminder of the sacrifice that so many gave. Normandy really is ‘the land of liberty’.

BELOW: Walking tour, Rouen, France

Based on feedback, what do guests say they most enjoy about your tours and what does that mean to you personally?

Scenic uses a point-based scoring and comment system after every tour for the guests to leave their feedback. This is very important to me to see how I am performing and what I need to improve on. One guest commented from last season: “The tour by Lionheart tours was absolutely outstanding. Our guide was dressed as Richard the Lionheart and did a great job of telling us the history of the area. He was also careful to make sure that the pace of the uphill hike had sufficient rest stops along the way. This was our favorite tour from all of the Scenic cruises we've been on”. Comments like this encourage me to give 110 per cent for every tour.

A very touching moment happened in October 2020. I received a card and bottle of Camden Park wine from New South Wales, Australia. This was sent by Steve a former guest from the Richard the Lionheart tour who wrote:

Dear King Richard, or Ben, Please accept this small gesture of appreciation from 'Down-Under'. It's a bottle of my favourite sauvignon wine from just outside Sydney. I was taken to hospital with Coronavirus last month, lucky to still be here. It was when I was in hospital that I reflected over some of the stories you told us during the walk up to the castle about Richard the Lionheart. His courage gave me the strength to fight this nasty disease. I still have fond memories of that day. By far the best tour of the cruise. Anyway, enough of me. I hope you enjoy the wine and you are always welcome here in NSW.

I must admit this gesture brought a tear to my eye and I was very happy that Steve had recovered. I am very privileged that my job allows me to meet such fantastic people from around the world and I look forward to welcoming them to Normandy again soon.

LET'S GO

Why not experience this for yourself and take advantage of our exclusive offers:

  • Early Payment Discount – Save up to 10%
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  • Includes an exclusive £200pp Double Loyalty Discount

Book by 17 November 2021

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11-Day Normandy & Gems of the Seine


Paris > Paris Departs: Apr - Oct 2022


Was from £3,945 per person

Now from £2,745 per person

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