SENS, France – Whenever boating is the topic, a hot flash goes through my brain in the form of a vivid oil painting, a piece about the size of Rhode Island, from the brushes of a Frenchman named Jean Louis Andre Theodore Gericault.
I saw it again recently at the Louvre, this 182-year-old canvas titled “The Raft of the Medusa,” and it hasn’t mellowed with age. In somber, cloudy tones, Gericault starkly depicts the 20-or-so survivors of a French ship, Medusa, that sank in 1819 off West Africa. The people are scrunched together miserably on a crude platform of planking, suffering, starving, dying. Their torment is so real that you want to throw them life preservers and box lunches. It’s such a gripping scene that Gericault scored serious money by taking it to England and, for two years, charging admission to look at it.
So, do I want to set foot on a French boat? Well, . . . .
“Don’t be ridiculous,” chided my friend Aurelio. “We’re going on a river, the Yonne, not an ocean like the Medusa. A narrow river for the most part. You could swim ashore, if need be – but there won’t be any need. It’s a very seaworthy passenger barge called L’Art de Vivre, with a very capable captain, Leigh Wooten. An Englishman.”
Captain Smith of the Titanic was an Englishman. I heard Wooten got hung up on a sandbar once.
“Minor inconvenience,” she said. “He’s never sunk.”
That’s what they said about the captain of the Medusa.
Anchors aweigh for L’Art de Vivre plus two companion barges, Impressioniste and Belle Epoque.
Coming aboard at Vincelles at 1:30 a.m., after a 2 1/2-hour drive southeast of Paris, we waved goodbye to a shadowy shore and went to bed.
Life on a touring barge gliding through the Burgundian countryside is not exactly dealing with Captain Bligh on the Bounty, although mutiny has been mentioned.
“The breakfast croissants are so delectable that they’ve spoiled me for anything back home in Seattle,” said Charles Higbe, trying to work up a pout.
Don Benedict responded, “Do you think if we mutinied they’d import Twinkies to make us feel more at home? Also my head is getting sunburned when I snooze on deck.”
“You could wear a hat,” suggested Wooten, who knows how to handle potential mutineers.
Burgundy in its glorious rural greenery floats by, or maybe it’s the other way around. After a couple of days you go into a France trance, a general slowdown. You stow your watch in a drawer, forget about the lunacy of cellphones, and smirk smugly to yourself that you’re out of reach. Throwing a lazy “Bon jour!” at lock-keepers when the barge shifts to the Nivernois Canal, you let them do the heavy cranking to open the aged black iron gates while your blood pressure drops along with the water level.
Small cities and villages appear periodically, then give way to farmers’ fields, forests, pastures, meadows, vineyards. Auxerre is substantial, about 35,000 dwellers. Nice place to walk. A neighborhood of half-timbered 18th-century houses contains the soaring cathedral of St. Etienne and its fetching varicolored glass eye (a sumptuous rose window). A nearby stone archway bearing an impressive clock, 10 feet in diameter, goes back centuries (1672), yet continues to tell time accurately.
One of the dark stories from the Medusa’s raft (only 15 of 150 were alive at rescue) was that desperation drove them to cannibalism.
“That won’t happen here,” promised Wooten. “Not with Sarah Kubacki and Michelle Dalgliesh in the galley. You won’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from.”
“Maybe just that it’s coming,” said Lora Nemrow of Brookline. “They’re feeding us so well that . . . well, how can anybody hold the line? The waistline.”
“You’re in France. It doesn’t matter. Try to be brave, and don’t forget the cheese,” counseled Amanda Rowland, a deckhand and waitress.
“Try to be brave and say no thanks,” smiled Phyllis McGovern, a New Yorker, “but who can be that brave in France?”
Nobody. Not when confronted with the barge’s extraordinary cuisine, the quiche, duck, lamb, fish, salads, desserts, cheeses, fruits, wines.
The only answer is to fight back. Disembark to get the body in some sort of gear. Stroll the bank. Ride one of the boat’s bicycles. Swim (the river is clean, bracing). You can catch up with the leisurely barge, or it’ll wait for you.
“Follow that swan!” may be the captain’s command to Rupert Pitt, the hand at the wheel. That’s how hectic the pace gets. Pont de Gurgy is a neat village on either side of a blue metal bridge. Red-gulleted moor hens wander aimlessly, scuttling out of the way as you begin a bucolic four-mile walk along an overgrown path that passes fields of corn and hay, stone summer houses with rose gardens, and a lake that was once a gravel pit. Here your swimming companions are ducks, and there’s no point in wearing a suit to impress them.
Locks, lochs, and lox all in the same day, you muse, back on the boat munching smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres.
To make sure doubly none of his passengers is tempted to cannibalism, Wooten pulls into Joigny one day for lunch at La Cote Saint Jacques, a small hotel and restaurant up on the bluff. The Yonne has widened to 300 feet and is crossed by a six-arched stone bridge.
“You’ll be seeing stars with this grub – three of them, to be exact,” the captain says. “The stars who’ve earned those gastronomic stars are the brothers Lorain, Jean-Michel, and Michel.”
Cocktails on the lawn of a balcony overlooking the river are accompanied by smoked salmon and blood pudding with mashed potatoes. Inside, the brothers keep the courses coming, expertly served as elegant silver, china, and crystal gleam: sliced foie gras on leeks with hazelnut oil; roasted Breton scampi in a broth of lemon thyme; rack of lamb with confit of lamb feet and rhubarb; cheeses, salad; a red fruit soup with strawberry juice and farm milk ice cream. The white wine is a premier cru Chablis Voucoupin ’97, the red a Chateau de Monthelie ’96. Coffee.
Amazingly, after such richly divine fare I don’t feel bloated, just starstruck by the Lorains. I mean, at least I can move. However, an evening river swim seems called for at the next stop, Armeau.
Onward then to the small city of 27,000, Sens, distinguished by its pale chalk cliffs and the towering cathedral of St. Etienne, said to be the first of the buttressed Gothic wonders of faith, where saints climb all over the portals. Begun in the 12th century, and sparkling colorfully with exceptional stained glass, it was a hangout of Pope Alexander III for two years following his exile from Rome in 1163 by his German antagonist, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I.
“Not too arduous an exile,” says Dr. Melinda Paul. “French cooking in a pleasant riverside location.” Her cabinmate, Dr. Eddie Paul, agrees. “Much less traffic than Rome, too.”
Another celebrated religious refugee in Sens was the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas a Becket, whose disagreements with English King Henry II led him to flee in 1164. Returning in 1170, Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by henchmen of the king. He should have stayed in Sens, but a set of his now saintly gold-embroidered vestments did, hanging in the fascinating cathedral museum.
The museum covers a lot of ground, and underground. Excavations have unearthed remnants of the Roman period (52 BC to the 5th century AD): baths, sculpture, mosaics, funeral urns. Some of the displays of primitive tools, pottery, and human skeletal remains reach back thousands of years to the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Ages. My daughter, who calls me “Stone Age,” would say, “Sounds like your kind of place.”
I was most taken by the familiar black felt-and-leather campaign hat of Napoleon, seen in countless paintings of triumph – but, in its last wearing, at the debacle of Waterloo. Brimmed only over the ears, it is weather-battered from the torrential downpour on the Belgian battlefield that crushing day, June 18, 1815. Imagine the emperor’s head (that got too big) inside that chapeau, and how he must have wanted to pull it down over his distressed, unbelieving eyes.
It rests in a glass case, forlorn, lonely, exiled to Sens – not even to the Louvre or Napoleon’s Parisian tomb, Invalides – while its owner was shipped off to die on the remote isle of St. Helena. The story is that he sent it back for rehab to the hatmaker in Paris. But, rushed out of town by his British captors, he failed to pick it up. Although the hatter was stiffed for the cleaning fee, a family member from Sens got the hat and gave it to his hometown.
The illustrious woebegone bonnet belongs in the Louvre, near Gericault’s painting, twins in disaster.