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A CRUISE FOR ROMANTICS
Gerald W. Bracey
Gerald W. Bracey is an independent educational researcher and writer who also writes about food and travel. He lives in Alexandria, VA.
My wife wanted to cruise down the Seine at night. I was not exactly opposed, but I wasnít enthusiastic, either. It smacked of a bus tour on water. And I worried about the food. Except for the night that we dropped a bundle at Guy Savoy and the night we had eaten at a Thai restaurant (we needed something cleansing after four and a half hours of gluttony at Savoy), our ten dinners in Paris had been mostly expensive ($80-110 each night) and disappointing. In comparison to earlier Parisian repasts and in comparison to what one can get today in any major American city for the same money, Paris is passe. A couple of meals had actually been dreadful.
At the going exchange rate of about 5.6 francs to the dollar, a dinner cruise would cost almost precisely $100 each. That figured to be about 2/3 of a dinner at top-ranked Taillevent if I didnít rummage too deeply in its legendary wine cellar. There was also a concern about comfort. I presumed that the boat had adequate heating for normal weather, but now in late November we were running 15 degrees below normal, the daily highs barely cracking the freezing mark. "Paris Sur Glace" (Paris On Ice) was a headline in France Soir the day we left.
But I gave in. Maybe it was my wifeís enthusiasm. Maybe it was regret over the gondola ride we never took in Venice. Maybe it was the knowledge that once in Taillevent I would want to explore the wines more than my budget allowed. In any case, around 8 p.m. on our last night in Paris, we walked to a quay near the Eiffel Tower and boarded a boat operated by Bateaux Parisiens.
Now the question is, given a choice between another meal at Guy Savoy or Taillevent and another cruise, which would I take? It would be a tough choice. Iíd probably go for the meal because I canít imagine that a second cruise could be as goofily, wonderfully, ecstatically romantic as the first one. It is one thing to have your wife swoon over the white truffle risotto and a luscious bottle of Condrieu at Guy Savoy. It is another to see her eyes fill with tears as the boat glides past Notre Dame. As a way of topping off a Parisian holiday, I can't imagine anything comparable.
The food was much better than Iíd anticipated. Donít look for Bateaux Parisiens to show up in the Guide Michelin, or even a Zagat survey, but itís not bad, not bad at all. They begin by softening you up with Champagne, of course. A decent blanc de blancs made into a fruity aperitif with some black currant liqueur, Kir.
All three courses provided five choices. Among the starters were prawns in an "aromatic broth", scallops in puff pastry, smoked salmon parfait with spiced artichokes, asparagus with a truffle remoulade, and, my choice, duck foie gras with thinly sliced pears and a fig marmalade. From among the main courses, I bypassed duck breast, quail breast, salmon, and steak for an herb-crusted rack of lamb with a layered eggplant "cake". The desserts that followed the array of cheeses were the least interesting course, a cherry souffle in a raspberry coulis being the most intriguing.
My wife is a vegetarian and we had not had much luck with that in Paris (guidebooks warned us to seek out Indian restaurants). In an earlier trip driving around Provence, ordering an "assiette des legumes" (plate of vegetables) had often produced the most interesting dishes of the evening. Provencal chefs seemed to take it as a challenge. Not their Parisian peers. Mostly Paris consisted of green salads and (overcooked) pastas and most places assumed that even vegetarians are comfortable with fish.
Bateaux Parisiens rose to the occasion with a wide variety of differently prepared vegetables--haricots verts, gratineed potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms and so on (when later I asked my wife about the details, she said, "I was so emotional the whole evening I donít remember anything).
The food was accompanied by decent wines, a crisp, fruity Sancerre and a soft St. Emilion. The bottles were for two tables, but since no one sat at the adjacent table, our cups ranneth over. If the wines that come with the meal donít sufficiently please, Bateaux offers about 30 Bordeaux, Burgundies and Rhones you can pay extra for. The charges, except for the Champagnes which were pricey, were mostly under what you would find in an American restaurant.
There is also music, every romantic song you ever heard, mostly concerning Paris. Some are played solely on the largely electronic one-man band, others are sung by one of two soloists. In any other setting, it would get very sappy very soon. Here, it works. After dinner, there is dancing.
The boat itself is wide and flat and, of course, mostly glass. The interior is elegant simplicity, with white table cloths, burgundy chairs and flowers on every table, yellow mums at this point in the season [NOTE: I HAVE PICS]. The refined effect is enhanced by subdued lighting. The city, after all, is the real setting. Spot lighting keeps the tables brightly lit but the surroundings dim and soft.
We were lucky with the weather too. Although frosty, it was clear. No wonder they call it the City of Light. Passing in the placid silence of a boat all of those noisy, trafficky avenues of the day seemed like a dream.
Maybe itís just the different perspective, but there is something inexplicably exciting about going under the Pont Alexandre III (the most ornate of all bridges crossing the Seine) with Invalides on the right and the Grand and Petit palaces on the left. There is something startling about having the brightly lit Musee díOrsay on the right and the dark, massive Louvre just up river on the left. Viewed from the river, the frenzied Place de la Concorde seemed almost tranquil. Maybe it was just sitting comfortably and looking at and reviewing in our minds all of the places we had walked around during the preceding 10 days.
The boat slips along the river until it widens into an industrial harbor, then turns around and heads back, passing on the opposite sides of the Isle St. Louis and Isle de la Cite as on the way out. In all, the trip occupies almost three glorious hours. And your wife loves you.
Bateaux Parisiens. Port de la Bourdonnais, 7507 Paris. Tel. 011 01 44 11 33 44. Boats board at 8, depart at 8:30, return around 11. The cost of 560 francs (as of December, 1998) includes dinner, wine, live music, and dancing. There are also luncheon cruises for 350 francs. Reservations are required.
© 1999 Gerald Bracey|
Last updated April 13, 1999
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