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City of Nights
Savoring Paris on a Seine Dinner Cruise

By Gerald W. Bracey
The Washington Post
Sunday, April 11, 1999; Page E01

My wife wanted to cruise down the Seine at night. I wasn't exactly opposed, but I wasn't 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 on a memorable meal at Guy Savoy, and another evening when we dined cheaply and well at a Thai restaurant near the Louvre, our 10 dinners in Paris had been mostly expensive and disappointing. A couple of meals had actually been dreadful.

Not only would a dinner cruise be even more expensive--about $185 for the two of us--it might also be freezing. It was autumn, and the temperature was running 15 degrees below normal, the daily highs barely cracking the freezing mark. "Paris on Ice" was the headline in France Soir the day we left.

But I gave in. Maybe it was my wife's enthusiasm. Maybe it was regret over the gondola ride we never took in Venice. In any case, around 8 o'clock on our last night in Paris, we walked to a quay near the Eiffel Tower and boarded a boat operated by Bateaux Parisiens.

Now that I've done it, would I do it again? No way--because I can't imagine that a second cruise would be as goofily, wonderfully, ecstatically romantic as the first one. It's 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.

As for the food, it was much better than I'd anticipated. Don't look for Bateaux Parisiens to show up in the Guide Michelin, or even a Zagat survey--but it's not bad, not bad at all. They begin by softening you up with champagne--a decent blanc de blancs made into a fruity aperitif with some black currant liqueur.

Among the starters were prawns in "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. For a main course, I bypassed duck breast, quail breast, salmon and steak for an herb-crusted rack of lamb with a layered eggplant "cake." There was an array of cheeses and desserts, including a cherry souffle in raspberry coulis.

My wife is a vegetarian, and we hadn't had much luck with that in Paris (guidebooks warned us to seek out Indian restaurants). But Bateaux Parisiens rose to the occasion with a wide variety of differently prepared vegetables--haricots verts, gratineed potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms and so on. The food was accompanied by decent wines: a crisp, fruity Sancerre and a soft St. Emilion.

There was also music--every romantic song you ever heard, most concerning Paris. Some were played on the largely electronic one-man band, others sung by one of two soloists. After dinner, there was dancing. In any other setting, it would have been sappy. Here, it worked.

The boat was wide and flat and, of course, mostly glass. The interior was elegantly simple, with white tablecloths, burgundy chairs and flowers on every table. The effect was enhanced by subdued lighting. The city, after all, was the real setting.

We were lucky with the weather. Although frosty, the night was clear. Passing all those noisy, trafficky avenues of the day in the placid silence of a boat at night seemed like a dream.

Maybe it was just the different perspective, but it was thrilling to pass under the Pont Alexandre III, the most ornate of all the bridges crossing the Seine, with the imposing Les Invalides on the right and the Grand and Petit palaces on the left. We passed the brightly lit Musee d'Orsay on the right and the massive Louvre just up river on the left. Viewed from the river, the frenzied Place de la Concorde seemed almost tranquil. We glided by, reviewing in our minds all of the places we had walked around during the preceding 10 days.

The boat slipped along the Seine until the river widened into an industrial harbor, then turned around and headed back, rounding the Ile St. Louis and Ile de la Cite.

In all, the trip takes almost three glorious hours. And your wife loves you.

Cruises on Bateaux Parisiens (Port de la Bourdonnais, 7507 Paris, telephone 011-33-1-44-11-33-44, board at 8 p.m., depart at 8:30 and return around 11. The cost of $93 per person includes dinner, wine, live music and dancing. Luncheon cruises also are available. Bateaux-Mouches (Pont de l'Alma, 011-33-1-40-76-99-99, also offers meal cruises; dinner starts at $83 per person.

Gerald W. Bracey last wrote for Travel about Paris's small museums.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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