Surrounded by history in the capital city of Normandy, Stephanie Holmes discovers the art of French eating.

Famed American chef Julia Child's first meal in France was a good one. "I lifted a forkful of fish in my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly," she wrote in her 2006 autobiography My Life In France. "The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvellously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection."

She found this perfect morsel at La Couronne, an auberge - a French inn or restaurant - that has been in the town square of Rouen since 1345.

Dining at this historic gabled building in early November 1948, Child began with oysters, followed with the "perfect" dover sole and a green salad, a cheese plate and topped it off with coffee and petits fours. She called it "a dining experience of a higher order than any I'd ever had before".

More than 650 years since it first opened its doors - and 69 years since Child's meal - La Couronne is still creating perfection for its diners. The five-storey timber-framed building sits proudly on Rouen's Place du Vieux Marche. World flags fly from its facade, and the crooked building is sandwiched between other restaurants, tourist shops and boutiques. Inside, the dark timber beams and stone walls, low ceilings and large fireplace, plush red tapestry curtains and raspberry tablecloths create a feeling of intimacy and warmth.

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Smartly dressed waiters glide effortlessly between the cosily placed tables, presenting meals under silver-domed serving dishes with a flourish and a "bon appetit", as has no doubt been the tradition for centuries.

But despite its rich history, I'd never heard of La Couronne until my Uniworld Cruise Director Thierry mentioned it during one of his nightly port talks on board the SS Joie de Vivre. This impressive ship is Uniworld's brand new flagship vessel; launched in March, it's on only its third journey up the mighty River Seine when I am lucky enough to be on board.

This ship is a beauty - as it should be, after costing €40 million (NZ$63m) to build - and things are already running smoothly. Luxurious and comfortable, it makes its way along the Seine from Paris, cruising past pretty Normandy countryside up to the northern beaches that saw much bloodshed in World War II's D-Day landings.

History is everywhere we look as we drift slowly and steadily up the river - quaint thatched-roof cottages, chateaux and churches, bright yellow rapeseed fields and blue skies crisscrossed with vapour trails.

Each day we disembark at a different port and - as is the beauty of river cruises - when you step off the ship you are right in the heart of the town and can easily walk to its attractions.

Day three and we're in Rouen, the capital city of Normandy and a place with the kind of history that makes us Antipodeans feel vastly insignificant. Rollo the Viking, who became the first ruler of Normandy; William the Conqueror; Joan of Arc - these names are more than merely legend in this city; they all played a significant part in its past.

The south portal of the Our Lady of Rouen Cathedral. Photo / Sylvain / hemis.fr
The south portal of the Our Lady of Rouen Cathedral. Photo / Sylvain / hemis.fr

The gothic Notre Dame Cathedral dates back to the 11th century and houses the tomb of Richard the Lionheart, once King of England and Duke of Normandy. In later years, impressionist Claude Monet used the cathedral's intricate facade as inspiration for a series of 30 paintings, a study in light and seasons.

Inside the cathedral, dust dances in shafts of light from multi-coloured stained-glass windows. Many were replaced post World War II, after bombing destroyed much of the city as Allies freed it from German occupation. The marks of war still remain - bullet holes adorn many of the city's original buildings.

Meander through the narrow medieval laneways and you'll come across all sorts of delights - timber-beamed houses painted in pretty pastel colours, imposing stone churches, a monument to Monet in a peaceful square.

Not far from La Couronne, Rouen's other great church has fewer years on the clock but is just as worthy of a visit. L'Eglise Jeanne d'Arc - or The Church of St Joan of Arc - was built in 1979 and is famed for its collection of stained glass. It's also the place where Joan was burned at the stake in May 1431. The cross stands in the exact place where she met her ghastly fate, and in the church garden a modest plaque pays tribute to her.

A pamphlet from La Couronne's front desk tells of her last day: "The auberge had an abundance of people on the day of Joan of Arc's judgment ... The windows of La Couronne were illuminated by the funeral pyre."

Thankfully, the view is a lot less dramatic for our visit; just a steady stream of tourists and locals milling about in the chilly April air. Inside, it's warm and cosy. As well as a selection of Uniworld guests scattered around the dining room, there's a contingent of French diners - showing up the trainer and backpack-clad tourists with their effortless style and sophistication.

You can order a set menu that recreates the meal Child enjoyed, but I decide to order from the "Impressionist's Menu" instead.

For €51 I get a three-course meal - Coppa ham and potato croquettes, cod fillet stuffed with crab, and a light, fragrant tarte tatin - washed down with a half-bottle of French rose. It's a decadent lunch, yes, but after just three days on the Joie de Vivre, I've become accustomed to indulging myself.

On board, food is consistently an excellent standard - expansive breakfast and lunch buffets, a la carte menus for dinner that change daily, aperitifs at cocktail hour. From duck a l'orange to prime rib; foie gras to frogs legs, it is an education in the art of French eating.

Back at La Couronne, my fellow cruisers and I watch intently as across the room, the restaurant's signature dish, "the Genuine A La Rouennaise Squeezed Duck", is prepared.

It's an elaborate process, involving a whole duck being filleted at the table, squeezed with red wine through an antique-looking press, marinated in brandy then cooked on a small gas stove - all in front of the expectant diners. It's like theatre and fills the restaurant with a mouth-watering aroma.

Child described her La Couronne experience as "absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life," and the meal became the inspiration for her lifelong passion for French cooking.

Almost 70 years on, the legend continues.

A dish on board the Joie de Vivre. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
A dish on board the Joie de Vivre. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

CHECKLIST

Getting there

Emirates

flies from Auckland to Paris, via their hub in Dubai. Economy Class return tickets start from $1729.

Details
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises' new Super Ship Joie de Vivre on the eight-day 'Paris & Normandy' holiday departs from March to November. The cruise takes in Normandy's countryside, including Richard the Lionheart's Chateau Gaillard, the medieval capital of Rouen and Monet's beloved home in Giverny. Uniworld's 2018 brochure is out now with 10 per cent savings for bookings and payments before June 30.