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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Le Bateau, and The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre

The centerpiece of our trip to France is river cruising the Seine, Saône, and Rhône Rivers.  Today we board the River Baroness, docked at Port Javel-Bas in the 15th Arrondissement.  This is the southwestern portion of the old city not far from the Trocadero and Eiffel Tower, and we will take a walk around this area later.  But our first order of business this Sunday is getting acquainted with our boat.

Our boat, with the bridge and sun deck structures stowed.
The River Baroness is the oldest and probably the least nice of our cruise line’s fleet.  We have opted for the least expensive staterooms, so we are at the bottom of the boat and our room is mostly below the water line.  This scarcely matters as we will spend little time in its cramped quarters.  There is no place to properly use a computer, and later we will find that Internet connectivity is down for the entire cruise anyway!  There proves to be some persistent difficulty with their satellite up-link.  The crew is much inconvenienced by this problem, too.  Their solution is to make sure we complain vociferously about it.  Request granted!  This will prove to be the only inconvenience of the entire cruise, but, in conjunction with the fact that we are unable to get our computer to connect with wireless networks in other locales that are functioning just fine, means that we experience an unprecedented lack of communications on the entire trip.  My Droid doesn’t work at all, using my spouse’s phone--an unlocked Razor--is prohibitively expensive for calls back to the states, so we are quite fortunate that nothing truly gothic happened while we were away.  Worse, all those I-Phone users who were willing to put up with AT&T are fully connected in Paris!  So the moral of this story is don’t take your Droid to Europe and expect it to work.  This is a real deprivation for me, since I love maps and acutely miss the GPS features.

Our room was exactly like this, except we had a smaller porthole instead of a window and no statue!
The River Baroness is 361 feet long (a little longer than a football field, including the end zones), 35.5 feet wide and has a very shallow draft of 4 feet.  When we stand on the floor of our cabin, that is the hull, so if she hits a rock, we will quickly get wet!  The Seine, has been fully domesticated by the French government, and its depth is mostly controlled by the same system of locks that allow navigation almost all year long.  Paris last flooded in 1910, water seeping up from the river through the extensive sewer system, although the Seine never crested its bank within the city limits.  This made a mess of life for the residents and did about $1.5 billion in damage in contemporary dollars.  The Seine in Paris is 36 meters above sea level.   We will be descending through six locks at various points, so scraping bottom shouldn’t be a problem.  By the time we reach the Norman capital city of Rouen, we will be rising and falling with the tide.  And given that some of the Paris bridges have been in place for many hundreds of years, (Pont Neuf, is hardly ‘new’ anymore--It is now the oldest bridge still in use within the city, built in the time of Shakespeare between 1577 and 1606).  The River Barones’s command center (also commonly referred to as the ‘bridge’ in English), raises and lowers to get under some of the bridges.  The Baroness will not actually be sailing under Pont Neuf this trip, but the first time it sails under Pont Mirabelle, I will have to lower my head slightly as I stand on the sun deck and sip sparkling wine celebrating the beginning of our cruise!  

Paris flooding in 1910
The Baroness is essentially a glamorous barge, and is suitable only for cruising this particular river because of the aforementioned lock and bridge and water level requirements.  We will see lots of similar ships on the busy Seine.  As scenic as the river is, it is an important economic waterway for bringing raw materials up from the industrial and port facilities of Le Havre, particularly building materials, petroleum distillates, and natural gas. 

The Baroness was built in Arnhem, the hull assembled in three complete sections, and then welded together and floated before 14 months of intensive work was done adding the mechanicals, staterooms, galley and fixtures to fit her out for cruising.  With such a shallow draft she is completely un-seaworthy in the open ocean, and had to be sailed into a lock ship, essentially a giant water-borne lock.  The water was then pumped out and the transport ship sailed the modest distance between Arnhem and Le Havre, sea water was pumped  back in and the Baroness sailed out into her new home on the Seine.   After 14 years of operation she is due for a trip back to Arnhem for a complete refit next year.

We were in category three.  The three assembly sections are the bow forward of the staterooms, center section comprised entirely of staterooms, and the stern with engines and crews quarters.

About 1/3 of her space is devoted to the staterooms.  Except for one suite, these are all the same size, but on the upper deck they afford better views.  Another third is devoted to the lounge, reception dining, ship’s boutique, and a little kitchenette are where coffee, tea and water and ice are available for the passengers.  The remaining third includes the mechanicals, galley, and crews quarters.  On top of all of this is the sun deck that runs the entire length of the ship, with a collapsing covered area that must be taken down when cruising under most bridges, but is quickly erected by the crew when we are docked for any extended period.

The name of the Seine is derived from the Latin world for snake, and that metaphor is well applied to our course.  It is a mature river with lots of bends and ox bows as it winds to the estuary of Le Havre and our westernmost destination of Honfleur.  We will be traveling through a 100-200 meter deep valley carved through chalky limestone, all formed from the skeletons prehistoric sea creatures.  At many points we will see outcrops of this limestone which formed about 167 million years ago in the bed of a shallow sea.  This stone has been quarried for construction for much of the last 2000 years, and it is the building material for many castles, cathedrals, and mundane buildings throughout northern and western France.  It was transported to London to make the White Tower.  We will mostly visit Normandy through the bottom of this valley.  The Seine is connected to the Saône and Rhône, and to the Rhine by a series of canals maintained by the French government, and small pleasure craft and houseboats make extensive use of these connections, but the River Baroness is far too large to navigate these.  When it comes time for us to sail these other rivers, we will need to change boats.

The Seine Valley in the Autumn, near Paris
The general procedure on this cruise will be for the boat to sail during the evening and stop at a port-of-call for most of the day while the passengers go out on various tours.  River Baroness has space for 128 passengers, but we are slightly under-subscribed at 102.  All are Anglophones.  Most come from The United States, but Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Israel are represented.  On the Seine portion of our cruise, none of the passengers are French!  Most are couples between 50 and 80 years of age.  There is only one child.

The crew is of mixed European origin.  The captain and a few senior sailors are French.  The service staff is mostly eastern European, our cruise line has a recruiting program in Hungary.  The chef and purser are Portuguese.  The room attendants are all female, the restaurant staff mixed and the sailors all men.  All the crew work a schedule of two weeks on and one off for the sailing season which lasts from April through December.  In our crew of about 40, there are ten serious couples or marriages from among shipmates.  Clearly this is an unusual and demanding lifestyle.  Perhaps these relationships partially explain the high esprit du corps. Only a minority live in France when not aboard.  They area seasoned team and their customer service skills and morale appear excellent.  The reception and wait staff are very fluent in English, although only one is a native English speaker, our Cruise Director, A J. who is British.  

This is Martin, Assistant Director of the Dining Room.  He thought quality customer service meant pretending to spill coffee in the lap of innocent and unsuspecting guests.  I guess he was correct!  Who knew?  Photo by the victim.
How good is the customer service?  One of our fellow travelers had a medical problem that required a trip to the emergency room.  A J had to drop coordinating all the various tours that were out and broker the passengers’ interactions with the emergency medical personnel.  The emergency was quickly resolved, and rather than drop the passenger and his wife back aboard ship, A J personally served as their tour guide for the morning tour they had missed!  While that is a stand out example, special attention is routinely and graciously provided!

We were most impressed that at every point we were treated like adults.  Examples include no corkage fees for personal alcohol except in the lounge, and very informal policies about coming and going from the ship at its various stops.  You take your boarding pass from reception and just go, and return it when check back in.  No one wound up being left behind on any of our many stops.  Tours operated smoothly, and the modest size of the ship meant that little time was spent queuing and waiting around for activities to commence.  It was a very smooth operation that exemplified hospitality at its finest.   I would only warn away two groups of clients.  The ship would be quite difficult for disabled and handicapped people, with lots of stairs to negotiate.  And the activities were poorly suited to children.  The one on board got lots of extra attention, but activities were not geared to his age level.

We ate every breakfast and dinner available on board ship and about half of the available lunches.  Breakfasts and lunch were buffet style, and had a wide range of alternatives and very good food, some of it quite elaborate, eggs Benedict, Black Forest tortes, profiteroles, paella, are examples.  Wine was served at dinner and was free and free-flowing.  The bar was almost always open, but we did not often sample its choices.  Dinners were often in French style, and classics like escargot and rabbit were served and were very good.  I had only one dish I thought was weak:  our Portuguese chef did not seem to understand how to make the arcane American hamburger!  Well, we did not take this cruise for burgers and fries anyway!  All of this constituted a serious hazard to our waistlines, and discussion of the good food and problems of self-restraint was a popular dinner conversation topic!

A particularly photogenic salad.  Photo by the gourmand.

Having ensconced ourselves in our quarters and enjoyed our first lunch, our traveling companions decide we should visit Montmartre, and specifically the Basilique de Sacré Coeur built on this hill overlooking Paris.  So we travel there by cab and spend the afternoon.  It is sunny and hazy, so we do not get lovely pictures of the city, but Sacré Coeur itself is resplendent and pristine in the sunlight.  It’s travertine walls gleam, forever protected from the soot of the industrial revolution by that stone’s property of extruding tiny amounts of calcite, which is white.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Montmartre, Paris

After the French Revolution, the French seem to have had a late 19th century return to religion, as if all those confiscations of church property and defaced statues weighed on their collective conscience.  Paris, Lyon and Marseilles would all have elaborate late 1800’s cathedrals placed on high ground overlooking the cities. All are built in neo-Romanesque style.  Sacrè Coeur was started in 1875 and the sins of the Paris Communards in 1870-71, which included the execution of the Archbishop of Paris, were a specific instigation to the project.  This made its construction a political football between leftists and royalist/Roman Catholic parties in the Chamber of Deputies.  A bill halting its construction was narrowly passed, then struck down on a technicality, and finally was not reintroduced during the next legislative session, thereby ending efforts to block the project.  George Clemenceau, later President of France during World War I and the ensuing Paris Peace Conference that produced the Treaty of Versailles, was one of the forceful advocates for cancellation of the project.  The Basilica was concentrated in 1919, and by then, the national dialogue shifted somewhat and it became a nationalist symbol and debate has subsided.

A barricade on Montmartre.  The Paris commune arose because of a vacuum of power following Napoleon III's capture in the Battle of Sedan and the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  A testing ground for communism, it was brutally put down by the conservative French government elected immediately after the French had lost on the battlefield.

I liked the outside of this church, with its three lovely tapered domes, better than the inside, which, despite a lovely mosaic, is very dark.  It is possible to take an arduous climb to the central dome and look out upon the Paris landscape from among its subordinate decorative spires.  We did this on our last visit, but none of us is up for the hundreds of steps this time.  Instead we amble down from the peak of Montmartre, and shop along the way.  I buy my spouse some lovely hand-made beaded ear rings that look perfect in her long hair, and we are sufficiently tired when we get to the bottom that we only drive by the infamous Moulin Rouge.  We saw a great show there last time, but this time we will pass up the alternative cabaret performance offered through our cruise provider at the Lido after another couple complained about feeling packed in like sardines and said the show compared unfavorably with the one at the Moulin Rouge.

A view from Montmartre on our walk down the hill.  Photo by the author.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's self-portrait at the Moulin Rouge.  The cabaret is credited with the invention of the infamous Can-Can, which was quite risque in a time when the sight of a well turned ankle was thought to be overpowering.
The Moulin Rouge today.  Montmarte still enjoys a decadent reputation due to its proximity to the Pigale, Paris's infamous red-light district during the late Victorian period.  It is said to be so today, but we did not verify this personally.
Later in the evening, our boat pushes off, and we watch from the sun deck as the suburbs and industrial areas of Paris pass in the golden late afternoon glow before we have dinner. We return later to sip wine as evening closes in and the lights come on to dance on the water against the darkening shores.  Bon soir, indeed!
Another image from Google, but it gives you a good feel for night on the Seine!  For best results, add wine!

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