A Saga river cruise through France yields unexpected delights, discovers Pat Richardson

Paris and the Seine at night. Credit: AWL Images
Paris and the Seine at night. Credit: AWL Images

It has been a gloriously hot day in Paris, and now evening spreads a warm velvet cloak over the city. Against its soft darkness, and reflected in the rippling ribbon of the Seine, lights from bridges, buildings and the Eiffel Tower sparkle like scattered jewels.

Locals and tourists are out in force all along the banks of the river, spilling out of wine bars and restaurants, strolling along bridges and in the gardens at Quai Saint-Bernard, and waving at us from the crowded top decks of dinner-cruise boats.

We wave back from our top deck, which isn’t at all crowded. Like them, we are enjoying a Paris-by-night cruise, with commentary. Unlike them, we haven’t joined a standing-room-only scrum up top, or fought through traffic jams to board our vessel, Anacoluthe. We were already on board, and making ourselves at home for the next six nights. Our dinner was served as we made our leisurely way from a mooring in the suburbs to the city centre. Our guide, who points out landmarks and relates the city’s story as we sail, will be with us throughout the cruise. As we sail through the City of Light that, on this particular evening, is living up to that description in superb style, we feel very privileged. Our lounge and bar, library and dining room are just downstairs, as are our bedrooms.

Anacoluthe is appealingly intimate, with just 25 cabins and 50 passengers at most. There’s air conditioning and central heating, but no lift – all decks are accessed by stairs. Complimentary wifi is available in the lounge, bar and the library – although, as on any cruise vessel, connectivity is not a given at all times.

All cabins are compact but lack none of the essentials. Beds are comfortable, with large drawers, luggage storage space below and reading lights above. There’s a small bedside table, a stool, wardrobe, full length mirror and a bookshelf. Bathrooms have a walk-in shower and shelves for toiletries. Hair dryers are provided and a laundry service is available.

One deck up are the open seating dining room, the invitingly comfortable lounge and bar, the library with additional sofas and armchairs plus a good selection of books and an assortment of puzzles and board games, and a small sunroom for those seeking a quieter space. Outdoors at the bow, there’s limited seating, an exercise bike and a hot tub.

Uppermost is the spacious sundeck, with its exercise bike, chairs and tables. One advantage of cruising on Anacoluthe is that much of the scenery you pass is south of Paris, on the upper reaches of the Seine and along some of its quiet tributaries.

At our first port of call, Melun, we board our coach for my favourite Seine excursion, to the beautiful baroque Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte. Built in the mid-1600s for Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s wealthy Finance Minister, it was France’s first ensemble chateau – one with architecture and landscape designed in perfect harmony. An elaborate party, hosted by Louis XIV, was held at the chateau to celebrate its completion; but Fouquet’s moment of glory didn’t last very long. Three weeks later, the envious King ordered his arrest on a charge of embezzlement. Although his innocence was later established, Fouquet spent the rest of his life in jail. Meanwhile, Louis XIV, the Sun King, instructed the same architect, landscape designer and painter-decorator to transform a small royal hunting lodge into something equally magnificent – the Palace of Versailles.

The Bridge of Moret in 1893 by Alfred Sisley. Credit Corbis Images
The Bridge of Moret in 1893 by Alfred Sisley. Credit Corbis Images

The next morning, we sail to the village of St Mammès, which sits at the confluence of the Seine and the serene Loing, and went to admire the walled medieval town of Moret-sur-Loing. Posters showing paintings of the town by the Impressionist Alfred Sisley, who lived there for the last 10 years of his life, are displayed in a riverside park. I found seeing them in this way a satisfying experience, akin to putting a face to a name. Later we sailed on to Montereau where another tributary, the Yonne, meets the Seine.

From there, next morning we followed the placid Yonne to Sens, one of the oldest cities in France. We walked to its ancient cathedral, the rebuilding of which – as one of the first Gothic cathedrals, began in 1135. It was here that Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury later murdered by supporters of King Henry II of England, took refuge in 1164.

By now, we were in Burgundy, sailing through a picture book landscape of golden wheatfields, deep green forests and soft rolling hills. We switched to coach, but were still surrounded by stunning scenery, for the drive to Joigny to view its wealth of medieval buildings and, in an atmospheric cellar, taste local wines accompanied by a delicious savoury Burgundy speciality – gougère, choux pastry and cheese puffs.

The grand exterior of Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy
The grand exterior of Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy

For many, the highlight of a cruise on Anacoluthe is not where the captain takes you, but what its chefs put on your plate. For an old vessel with a tiny galley, Anacoluthe punches far above its weight when it comes to food and wine.

Breakfast is a simple but satisfying continental buffet. Lunch consists of a hot entrée, such as quiche Lorraine, plus three salads, perhaps artichoke, none of which ever make a second appearance. Dessert might be, for example, pineapple carpaccio with sorbet or chocolate tart. Dinner is four courses: a starter – vegetable tarte tatin or asparagus soup; a main – perhaps slow roasted duck leg with orange sauce and potatoes, or fillet of sea bass with white wine sauce, cauliflower and green beans. Next come three different cheeses – again, none repeated, and fully described by a specialist server. Desserts such as crème brûlée, île flottante and raspberry gateau complete the meal. Complimentary wines – selected and introduced by the sommelier, and different every time, are served with lunch and dinner. It is a gastronomic feast.

The equally grand interior of Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte
The equally grand interior of Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte

We spent our penultimate day on board sailing back to St Mammès, via several locks and narrow canals. A talk on the history and development of inland navigation, given by our onboard French guide, brought this stage of the journey into sharp and fascinating focus for us. It was the last of many interesting talks, covering French history, the Impressionist painters and our route, which greatly enriched our river cruise experience.

Afterwards we had the quiet river to ourselves, and our prow pushed gentle folds into its dark surface as we whispered past small villages that tumbled towards the water’s edge. We, it seemed, had slipped into another century.

Getting there: Saga offers a no-fly six-night Hidden Waterways of France cruise departing 17 September 2016 from £1,449pp, including return Eurostar travel and transfers plus all meals on board, and excursions. To book go to saga.co.uk/rivers or call 0800 300 400.

You can read a review of a Saga cruise in the Baltic on board Saga’s Pearl II at cruise-international.com/baltic-cruise-on-the-saga-pearl-ii

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