To travel to Normandy along the Seine is to take it by stealth, writes Larissa Dubecki, who ventured forth in search of châteaux and Calvados.
Up close, the Seine is the pale, uneasy green of military-grade khaki. Further out, it deepens to a shade of olive that may have provided the inspiration for plain cigarette packaging. Only in the distance does it transform beyond the prosaic. It undergoes a silvering, its undulations tightly ribbed, almost platinum. The Seine is not a river to induce paroxysms of poetry like the Volga, or music like the Danube. It is a dogged river. For thousands of years it has been a conduit of conflict and commerce, mainlining pillage and profit for a who's who of Europe's fiercest tribes (the Celts and the Gauls, the Romans and the Vikings, to name just the headline acts).
View from the AmaLegro.
An artery through the heart of Normandy, the Seine loops from Paris to meet the English Channel at Le Havre and Honfleur, a 315-kilometre stretch of waterway cutting through a region that plays its cards differently from the rest of France. It's a place of cider, not wine. Of rough-hewn farmhouse jambon rather than extravagant charcuterie. And cheese. The pied Normande cows with their distinctive lunettes, or spectacles, dotting the fabled lush fields - bred from a variety brought by Norse invaders in the 10th century, spawning a millennium's worth of jokes about the Viking preference for cows over women - are a reminder of Camembert, Livarot, Neufchâtel and Pont-l'Évêque, the four Norman cheeses to rule them all.
"So quietly flows the Seine that one hardly notices its presence," wrote Henry Miller. (He also wrote, "to know Paris is to know a great deal", which proves his keen eye for aphorism.) When it comes to the river, he is at once completely correct and uncharacteristically understated. To travel to Normandy along the Seine is to take it by stealth, like the pillagers who once crept along this watery highway. "Now the invaders, they come by riverboat," says our guide, Anna, as she surveys APT's lined up beside two competitors - an act of on-water cooperation that allows guests to cross three conjoined lobbies to reach land.
This floating five-star hotel is soon to be decommissioned after a 10-year run, but for now it's home to Champagne breakfasts and chef's-table dégustations, window walls and WiFi. Most of its cruising is done at night while guests sleep, lulled by the quiet throb of the engines and the gentle slap of the water. It's a smooth journey. A nip of wormwood wine, the 19th-century French prophylactic against river-sickness, is redundant. It's a marvel to pull back the curtains each morning and see a new town, always with the soaring spire of its resident cathedral puncturing the sky.
River cruising is the travel equivalent of the Slow Food movement. These broad, typically triple-tiered vessels are a sure means to beat the madness of the boulevards, gliding at a queenly maximum speed of 20 kilometres an hour. A train or coach to the city of Vernon, 75 kilometres west of Paris, would take about 45 minutes. By ship it takes all night and a good chunk of the morning to hug the Seine's serpentine bends. By the time we arrive the sun has long risen over moody green cliffs with pale limestone erosions impacted like molars, and smug medieval villages of half-timbered houses and Gothic châteaux. If the scenery isn't reason enough to linger over coffee on deck, negotiating the 19th-century locks is a ritual guaranteed to lure a dozen guests (mostly men, the record ought to note) from the comfort of their cabins to scratch their chins and pontificate over humankind's achievements, and its tragedies. The national hero Victor Hugo was a leading voice in favour of taming the Seine after his 19-year-old daughter Léopoldine and her husband drowned in its waters near Villequier in 1843.
The abundance of local fauna is another good reason to travel by river rather than road. Every year more than 20,000 road accidents in France are attributed to wild animals, the main culprits being deer and the rapidly escalating population of wild boar. Both of these creatures are known to terrorise the grand 18th-century estate of Bizy, the first stop on our eight-day cruise. Dubbed the Versailles of Normandy for its sculpted fountains, this is a place around which the marquee names of French history - Bonaparte and various Kings Louis - flutter like butterflies. The château's ornate Regency interiors are now open to the public, partly to offset the ruinous cost of heating. (The 83-year-old current owner, a descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, is a very soigné lady, Anna confides, "still in high heels and jewels", but, alas, we do not spot her.)
During The Terror the château's owner, a grandson of Louis XIV, escaped the guillotine thanks to his charitable deeds, but there's murderous intent on display in the estate's orangerie, where the heads of snarling boars and sad-eyed deer are mounted along a wall, the most recent addition a 148-kilogram monster, porcine features frozen in displeasure at his fate.
There are many ways to shape a European river-cruise experience into a narrative. The focus in Normandy is its history as a theatre of war, particularly during the D-Day landings of World War II, and its earlier, gentler fame as chief muse of the Impressionists. Our cruise explores these two themes, as well as a third based on wine appreciation. If it seems counter-intuitive to take a wine cruise into what is, by virtue of its climate, the least vinous region of France - Upper Normandy, at 12,000-odd square kilometres, is famous for having only one winery of repute - it seems less odd when accompanied by a glass of shiraz made by our cruise's wine ambassador, Sarah Marquis of McLaren Vale winery Mollydooker, or a glass of the white Bordeaux that flows freely on board. Marquis is one of a number of Australian winemakers hosting wine events on select APT cruises, overseeing dinners, tastings and shore excursions.
The dining room at Château de Bizy.
To really go native, take a cue from the French observation that Normandy is home to more than three million people, five million cows, and 10 million apple trees, the fruits of which are transformed into cider, Calvados (apple brandy) and pommeau (a mixture of Calvados and apple juice). The producers are concentrated in the Pays d'Auge region, Normandy's hilly, apple-green heartland, which has Appellation d'Origine Côntrolée (AOC) status. The family-run distillery Pierre Huet, on the area's 40-kilometre Cider Route, is sleepy in summer when we visit; the mammoth task of harvesting and processing 25 hectares' worth of apples takes place in autumn. Rather than taste cider, we head straight for Calvados - not for the faint-hearted so early in the day, although a conspicuous number of cruise guests leave clutching a bottle. Perhaps they have heeded the advice of the distillery's Juliette Chauvet, who asserts that Calvados stimulates the appetite "because in Normandy we need to eat more and more and more". (A small glass of Calvados between courses in a long meal is known as "le trou Normand", or "the Norman hole".)
The cruise is all-inclusive, meaning one can eat three square meals plus snacks, brunch, elevenses, afternoon tea and late-night supper on board. It would be a great shame, however, to miss the pleasures of the region's table, based heavily (very heavily) on cream, butter and cheese. No one here blinks at the idea of putting a curl of cultured butter on andouille sausage.
A conversation linking "innovation" and "Norman cuisine" would generally have the locals falling about clutching their sides, but there are culinary surprises where we least expect them. During a ramble above the port town of Caudebec-en-Caux, we stumble upon Le Manoir de Rétival, an impressively turreted pile dating from the days of the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Owner-chef David Goerne restored the crumbling wreck eight years ago, adding a restaurant named G.a and winning a Michelin star in the process. It makes a jolie tableau this sunny Sunday afternoon. At a vine-shaded table beside us, a wellheeled family, headed by a man who manages to make the combination of pink shorts and blue shirt look chic, enjoys a lazy lunch high above the river. We eat little yellow Sichuan pepper flowers to send the palate into tingling hyperdrive between sips of Champagne; then comes a plate of buttery tagliatelle showered with shaved black truffle - a study in no-expense-spared simplicity.
After another night's sailing, the Seine becomes the road to Rouen, the capital of Normandy and the site of an eye-wateringly ornate cathedral. The landmark has somehow survived more than a thousand years of bad luck, including lightning strikes, a hurricane, random accidents, a fire and various wars. It contains the heart of Richard the Lionheart, the body of William I, and life-sized statues of saints forming a macabre guard of honour - there's poor Saint Jude, patron of lost causes, his face falling into decay, and Saint Adrian, as tall as an African tribesman. Tucked into a quiet corner is as beguiling a set of stairs as has ever been made: three flights of heavily carved limestone balustrade leading to the library.
Rouen is forever linked to another saint, Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake here in 1431. Not more than 50 metres from the spot in Old Market Square is another site of pilgrimage - the restaurant La Couronne where in 1948 Julia Child was introduced to the joys of French cooking with a meal that has similarly gone down in history: six oysters, sole meunière, fromage blanc with berries, and half a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé. The American cookbook writer later recalled it as "the most exciting meal of my life", and the restaurant, which remains as faithful to traditional Norman cooking as when it opened in 1345, still offers "le menu Julia Child".
But we have other Norman fish to fry, figuratively speaking: le canard à la Rouennaise, a gruesomely compelling specialty involving a young Duclair duck that's smothered to death (not bled) and filleted, the carcass pressed to extract the blood and juices for the sauce. The duck is not on le menu Julia Child - at least, Child did not record watching a recently strangled duck being squashed into oblivion tableside as she ate her amuse-bouche. Our maître d', a dapper Peruvian who goes simultaneously by the names Enrique and Jean-François, dons the medallion proving his Master Canardier status before preparing the ritualistic lunch. The theatre of it captivates fellow diners, who watch as flames leap when Cognac and Burgundy are added to the dark, livery sauce.
It's a time-consuming process, so while we're tackling the second course - duck drumsticks, breaded and pan-fried - the cheeseboard is doing the rounds of the rest of the room. It's heaped with more than a dozen varieties, the rich, ripe stink more intoxicating than cologne. A man at the next table who obviously loves his food (he says he suffers from gout yet the previous day enjoyed 17 bottles of wine during a 12-hour lunch with friends) explains that Normans like to debate whether their beloved Neufchâtel is better younger and milder or aged and ripened. His preference sticks with family tradition: "My father always said that the test of a good cheese is if it can move on its own."
Like the souvenir art sold everywhere, however, the food of Normandy is increasingly ersatz. Pockets of resistance to mass production can still be found at places such as Bistro des Artistes in pretty Honfleur, a temple to handmade sourdough, house-cured jambon and the rice pudding known as teurgoule.
With its skinny multicoloured buildings clustered urgently around a watery square, each clinging to its neighbour for support, Honfleur is an artist's exaggerated representation of a port town. Unlike its much larger Channel twin-city Le Havre, which was bombarded during World War II, Honfleur is a well-preserved time capsule from the days when artists such as Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin and Alfred Sisley set out with brushes and easels to tame the famously elusive light.
"The light is magic," says Anne Marie Carneiro, the owner, chef, sommelier and waiter at Bistro des Artistes. She took over the salon 17 years ago from Fernand Herbo, a renowned painter of seascapes. "At times in the morning and evening it transforms the countryside."
Though the cobbled streets of Honfleur seem hectic - with 8,000 residents and three million tourists a year - they're quiet in comparison with Giverny. The riverside town is overrun with pilgrims to Monet's house and garden, both oddly familiar after a century of reproduction. The garden is a riot tended by nine gardeners. Anarchy meets artifice on the sedate Japanese bridge brushed by the tendrils of a weeping willow, where dozens of tourists wait impatiently for their turn to pose amid one of Monet's most famed settings.
After Giverny, the stunning town of Le Petit Andely feels likeInvasion of the Body Snatchers. Half the town's shopkeepers have opted for leisure over commerce and fled to the Mediterranean for the summer, and only three boatloads of tourists are crawling over Château Gaillard, the castle of Richard the Lionheart. In truth it's a ruin held together by little more than memory, but it's worth the hike to catch the view and to stop at the Fort de Thé on the descent. Here, owner Evelyne Castaing serves organic cider that tastes like distilled autumn and shares her views on Normandy's pleasure and pain. "In Normandy the climate is sweet and sunny but a lot of rain," she says. "It is not a fast pace of life. When it's not tourist season it's very sleepy."
And indeed when we disembark in Paris there's a feeling of rejoining a party that's been raging in our absence. There's Champagne, too - a tasting in the stone cellar of Ô Château on Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, at the 17th-century former residence of Madame de Pompadour. The favourite mistress of King Louis XV, she is reputed to have referred to Champagne as "the only drink that leaves a woman still beautiful after drinking it".
Normandy could be on a different planet to Paris, but it nevertheless adds seasoning to the city's cultural life. The quicksilver light of Monet's Giverny, for instance, stars at the Musée de l'Orangerie; and sand from Norman beaches fills Paris Plages, faux beaches created every summer on the Seine.
Swimming was banned, except by special permit, in the Seine in 1923. It's safe to say only the clinically insane would apply, yet Parisians appear to be quite comfortable getting their kit off in the shadow of Notre Dame. On the deckchair next to mine at Paris Plages is Jacques, who arrives in business shirt and pants and insouciantly strips down to baby-blue swimming trunks. Like Henry Miller, Jacques knows Paris and he knows a great deal. "The river, it is important," he says, a flutter of his hand conveying the mutual interdependence of city and Seine. "It is right and left, it is our compass."
During our last night on board, the AmaLegro is docked on the western edge of the city in Quartier Javel, a former industrial area besieged by the forces of gentrification, where a bustling outdoor bar, La Javelle, has colonised a stretch of sandy riverfront near Pont du Garigliano. A local magazine describes La Javelle as "a kind of village square in the Parisian desert" and a bartender explains it in terms that make perfect sense after a week following the ebbs and flows of history: "Paris gets too expensive, so we move on to find our own places."
Like the Plages, La Javelle is an apparition, set to vanish at the end of summer, but for now the place heaves with young Parisians shucking off the working day. Legs dangle over the embankment and drinks flow as freely as the river. The music edges ever louder, until thoughts turn guiltily to apartment dwellers on the opposite bank. Just before the midsummer sun finally dips below the roofs, the Seine seems to erupt in flame.