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
But she remained professional, cheerful and helpful throughout the
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
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
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.