Autumn on the Seine

Rouen to Paris on Peter Deilmann’s Cezanne

By: Ana Figueroa

I knew the Seine. Or, so I thought, after countless trips to Paris since my college days. But a river cruise through France’s Normandy region showed me that the Seine has many different stories to tell. And they’re best learned in the fall, when warm autumn colors and soft light bathes the banks of the famous river.

Our seven-night cruise from Rouen to Paris on Peter Deilmann’s Cezanne was a multi-national affair. The elegant 100-passenger vessel featured an equal number of American, British and German guests, and one erstwhile cruise director named Claudia. She nearly grew hoarse making announcements in German, English and also in French.

But she remained professional, cheerful and helpful throughout the cruise.

The five-star Cezanne is luxurious but not stuffy, tastefully decorated with fine artworks, and polished woods. Cabins feature marble double sinks in the bathrooms a nice change from large cruise ships. Cezanne’s public areas include a bar and spacious lounge, where passengers congregated for afternoon tea and after-dinner drinks.

Seating in the dining room was pre-assigned, and our dining partners included two retired ladies from Northern California, plus a lively British couple who had their own particular view of all things French. The Normandy setting, and visits to ports such as Honfleur, produced unexpected stories about World War II from our dinner companions, making the journey particularly fascinating.

We began our cruise in Rouen, famous of course, for the trial of Joan of Arc. A large bronze cross marks the spot where she was burned at the stake. It’s a few minutes walk from Rouen’s cathedral, immortalized in the famous series by Claude Monet. Rouen holds countless other museums and historic points of interest, but a man dressed in a cow costume with a bell dangling around his neck caught our attention, instead.

Normandy, it seems, is well known for its dairy products.

“We serve butter with butter on the side,” explained the bovine-attired merchant, proudly showing off an array of creams, cheeses and even bath products made from milk.

It was the first of many encounters with Normandy’s gastronomic specialties during the week.
One stop included a visit to the 7th-century Abbey of Saint-Wandrille. The resident Benedictine monks maintain a vow of silence. But they manage to bake the world’s best shortbread, which they sell at their popular gift shop. Another day, we boarded a motorcoach for a tour through farmland dotted with apple orchards. We arrived at the lovely Chateau du Breuil, home of a Calvados distillery that has been in the same family for generations. We warded off the chill from the dank distillery by sampling various versions of the strong apple brandy.

Devotees of river cruising cite proximity to town as its strongest appeal. That’s something we took frequent advantage of. Just a few steps from the Cezanne, and we were wandering into quaint villages along the Seine, scoping out the best chocolate shops. Even in the tiniest towns, shopkeepers displayed goblins and jack-o-lanterns in the window, another sign that American-style Halloween had crept into French culture. It made us chuckle.

Some stops, on the other hand, were distinctly melancholy. In Villequier, we strolled along the banks of the Seine to the home where one of France’s national heroes, Victor Hugo, summered with his family. Tragically, it is also the same spot in the river where his beloved daughter and her husband drowned in 1843.

Another stop was almost as poignant. We spent an afternoon at Giverny, the small town where the great Impressionist Claude Monet lived with his family. Today, Monet’s home and famous garden is a tourist magnet, drawing visitors from around the world. But, during Monet’s time, he endured the scorn of the local townspeople. It seems they didn’t approve of his complicated personal life and seemingly frivolous penchant for painting things like water lilies.

Our journey nearing an end, we floated on toward Paris, spending afternoons on the Cezanne’s sundeck. When the weather became chilly, we huddled under blankets so as not to miss the view of beautiful half-timbered homes set amid gorgeous oak groves. After an overnight stay in Paris, we headed back to the states, richer for all the Seine had shown us.


The Cezanne sails the Seine from March through November 2007.