For an art lover, Canal & Company’s seven-day autumn riverboat cruise on France’s Oise River may be the perfect getaway for viewing the quaint villages and tranquil landscapes of France. It’s a relaxing way to become immersed in the creations of the Impressionist artists, who glorified nature’s light and color.
Palettes of red and gold foliage set the stage on the October Sunday we left the port of Compiegne (about an hour’s drive north of Paris). With a group of 45 Americans, Brits and Canadians onboard, the MS Anacoluthe’s Captain Willy piloted our riverboat down the Oise River towards St. Mammes on the Seine River (about an hour’s drive south of Paris). The itinerary includes a magical passage during which we steamed right through the heart of Paris.
Along the way, we passed miles of peaceful scenery dappled by sunlight peeking through sun-burnt oaks laced with mistletoe. Abundant claret-colored Virginia creepers reached towards walls while yellowing underbrush and leafless twigs trumpeted the mellowing season. Robust, time-tested locks and bridges guarded the waterways as sailors and traders went about their chores. These same bucolic vistas may have inspired the Impressionists, whose artistic visions — once ridiculed — now grace Paris’ Musee d’Orsay and other world-class museums.
On "The Impressionists’ Route" itinerary, we explored the havens where three brilliant Impressionists drew inspiration for their paintings: Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny; Vincent Van Gogh’s favorite church and wheat fields in Auver-sur-Oise; and Alfred Sisley’s favorite haunts in Moret-sur-Loing.
At Monet’s Giverny, the symphony of colors created by the geraniums, dahlias, fuchsias and roses reminded me of beauty contestants vying for attention. In the water-garden, weeping willows and wisteria framed the bridge and water-lily pond that Monet so affectionately immortalized.
Auvers-sur-Oise offered a wider perspective than Monet’s garden. Just as Van Gogh fell for the "typical and picturesque" town (as the artist described to his brother Theo), so our group was impressed by the tiny church that inspired his painting, "Church of Auvers-sur-Oise." We were equally enamored by the expansive wheat fields that spurred 100 of the artist’s works. The cemetery where Vincent and his devoted brother Theo now rest in ivy-covered graves faces those same wheat fields. Sadly, the serene town was where the tormented artist took his own life on July 29, 1890 at the age of 37.
British-born Sisley’s masterpiece, "The Bridge of Moret" (on display at the Musee d’Orsay), along with his 400 other landscapes of the town, is a testament to the artist’s fascination with Moret-sur-Loing. Centuries before him, Francois I and Henry IV were also drawn to the panoramic town bordering the luxuriant forest of Fontainebleau and the Loing River.
In addition to the Impressionists’ towns, the MS Anacoluthe moored near three of France’s most treasured chateaux: Compiegne, Chantilly and Vaux le Vicomte. The castles are treasure-troves of precious paintings, porcelain, tapestries and period furnishings; while the gardens are showcases for artful topiaries, hedges, statuary, fountains and ponds.
Louis XV first met Marie Antoinette, the future wife of his grandson Louis XVI, at the neoclassical castle at Compiegne. It was also the site where Napoleon I first dined with his second wife, Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise. Likewise, it was the setting for Napoleon III and wife Eugenie’s legendary "Autumn Series" balls and banquets for other royals.
So, as expected in a residence fit for kings, stunning opulence and extravagance prevailed: there were gildings, heavy draperies, colorful tapestries, oversized chandeliers, exquisite porcelain, multitudes of paintings and other treasures. Years after the fall from power of Napoleon III, the palace became a state museum, which houses exotic vehicles including la Jamais Contente, the first car to exceed 100 km per hour— and it was battery-powered, no less!
At Chantilly, we saw no lace nor did we taste any of the crème that has put the town on the map since the 17th century. However, we marveled at the chateau and its Prince de Condé Museum. Second only to the Louvre, the palace boasts a vast art collection including 1,000 paintings, 2,500 drawings and 2,500 engravings. Lucky is the French Institute that inherited the place from Henri d’Orléans, the Duke of Aumale, upon his death in 1897.
Works by the great masters, including Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Poussin, Ingres, Delacroix, Watteau and Corot, compete for museum space. Meanwhile, the library houses 30,000 books including, notably, the celebrated Limbourg brothers’ 15th century "Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry" illustrated prayer books with their exquisite miniature season paintings.
Compared with the first two castles we visited, the Chateau Vaux le Vicomte impacted me the most, not only as the apogee of riches and grandeur, but because of the intriguing story of how Nicholas Fouquet, Finance Minister to Louis XIV, incurred the jealous wrath of the king by building one of France’s 17th century architectural splendors.
The Chateau Vaux le Vicomte had been a modest estate until Fouquet purchased it in 1641. The ambitious minister commissioned architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun and landscape architect André Le Nôtre to aggrandize the place into a dazzling Baroque gem with magnificent section-patterned gardens.
Tradition has it that Louis XIV became convinced Fouquet had misappropriated public funds for the luxurious residence. As a result, the king ordered the finance minister’s arrest and life imprisonment, his wife’s exile and the estate’s sequestration. It was speculated that Fouquet was the "man in the iron mask," hiding his shame behind the mask.
Even more interesting is the story that Louis XIV commissioned Fouquet’s architect, interior and landscape designers to subsequently build his own Versailles Palace using Chateau Vaux le Vicomte and its garden as models. Many of Fouquet’s collections and orange trees were moved to the king’s new palace.
Fouquet’s wife and son eventually recovered the estate and used it as their residence until the ex-finance minister’s death, which was followed shortly thereafter by the son’s demise. The property was subsequently sold to diverse private parties over the years until its acquisition by the present owner, Count Patrice de Vogue. Today, it remains a private property, and is listed among France’s historic monuments.
Another interesting chateau tidbit is that the film, "Vatel," about Fouquet’s chef who later worked for Prince de Condé was set here. The movie brought to life the culinary genius who supervised the preparations for an elaborate Louis XIV-attended banquet complete with fireworks. In the chateau’s dining room, a storyboard recounts the chef’s tragic end.
Paris always enchants — and even more so in the evening. Wine flowed at dinner throughout the cruise, adding an extra gleam to our eyes for the magical "Illuminated Paris" portion of the Anacoluthe’s cruise itinerary. If light and shadow in nature fascinated the Impressionists, the Eiffel Tower’s twinkling "diamond dress" mesmerized our group. In its glory, the architectural 1889 World Exhibition wonder seduced even the least adept photographers among us to record one of our fondest memories of the city.
A key to any cruise is the cuisine, and that of Anacoluthe merits applause. The varied regional entrées and wines at midday, and in the evening, did not fail to ignite bon appétit. From the presentation of the freshly made, nutritious salads to the tender meats, poultry and fish that melted in our mouths; from the aromatic artisanal cheeses to the seductive and irresistible desserts, the chef’s efforts were well-appreciated. With just 45 passengers in our group, meals became a convivial cruise highlight.
From the sun-kissed vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy, D’Oc and other French regions hailed a number of full-bodied and light wines, which were cleverly paired with food. One of the best things about cruising on the Anacoluthe is the fact that drinks (except at the bar) are included at no extra cost.
And, of course, responsible for increasing extra dimensions to both our palates and our girths was Chef Laurent, the 27-year-old wizard of cuisine from Chartres whose food styling and strong flair for French regional cooking is already garnering praise. Chef Laurent told us that his mother was his "best teacher," adding that, "I pamper guests with many of her recipes and those learned at the Lycee d’Hotellerie et de Tourisme de Blois."
If "life is a trip," as somebody once said, then the Anacoluthe is an experience that should be part of it. A former tanker, the riverboat’s name literally translates as, "a change in syntax," which some grammarians define as, "an error." However, for some authors, the metaphor translates as, "excitement."
Unquestionably, the charming river steamer, Anacoluthe, with its mini-cruise ship amenities and professional and indulging staff, provided an exciting change from my previous huge ocean-going ship holidays. The boat combines all-inclusive cruising with shore excursions for guests’ cultural familiarization.
Centrally air-conditioned and heated, this vessel, like other barges, has compact cabins that are more than comfortable with en suite facilities and ample storage room. The public areas include a library, a piano bar lounge, a small fitness room and a roomy top deck where guests can stretch out and pleasantly while away the time by reading and watching the swans float by. For warmer weather, the boat is outfitted with an outdoor spa pool.
If the idea of a French holiday is leaving stress behind and enjoying good company, food, wine, and leisurely touring, Canal & Company’s MS Anacoluthe should be right at the top of anyone’s list.