THE MAJESTIC SEINE
Small boating clubs flourish out in the stick sand fishermen are legion. In summer, there are beaches where locals go to swim
My first approach to the Seine was on a calm, hazy September morning. A slow westerly swell rolled in, but otherwise the bay was still. Cap de la Hève gradually took shape to port, with Le Havre beyond it. Ships waited at anchor and a pilot boat buzzed about. The south side of the estuary was a vague smudge curving towards Deauville and Trouville. You feel the majesty of this great river. The essential spirit of France seems to waft out across the wide estuary and its miles of drying banks. The Seine carries not only ships and barges, but also the chequered flux of history on its constant journey past stately family châteaux, elegant parks and the weeping willows of the Impressionists’ brushes.
Once you find the outer buoys, it’s easy to enter between two long training walls. Honfleur lies seven miles up, one of the most picturesque harbours in Normandy. Carrying a fair tide above Honfleur, you pass two high suspension bridges before the Seine curves south-east to leave the sea behind. Now you become an inland traveller through a landscape hardly changed in centuries. There have been barges at Vieux-port, pilots at Caudebec and ferries crossing at Duclair since the days of sail.
Aim to make the 60-mile passage to Rouen in one hop because there are no safe places to stop on the way. In the city you can either lie at a docklands marina in Bassin Saint-gervais, or further up at a halte nautique on the north side of Île Lacroix – an attractive spot facing a barge quay. There’s a fuel berth and it’s not far across Pont Corneille to Rouen’s old quarter, with its maze of cobbled streets and alleys. Although the city was bombed in World War II, many medieval timbered buildings were painstakingly restored. By contrast, the church commemorating Joan of Arc is a spectacular modern design.
A two-hour run above Île Lacroix are the fascinating barge locks at Amfreville, the first of six large locks in the 204km of canalised river to Paris. They are operated from looming control towers and you simply obey the traffic signals after letting any barges in first. The process is smooth and automatic, much easier than locks on smaller canals.
THE CANALISED SEINE
As with most large rivers, you must plan your overnight stops with care. Even though the upper Seine is canalised, a steady current usually runs downstream to keep the waterway uneasy. Wash can make life uncomfortable unless you are lying against a solid quay, a retired barge, or sheltered behind one of the many islands. The guides show several bankside visitor pontoons, though some are rather rickety for larger boats.
About 30km above Amfreville, the Seine glides below towering white cliffs at Les Andelys, where the ruins of Château Gaillard – Richard the Lionheart’s 12th century castle – look across the valley. Les Andelys has a small marina, but depths can be skimpy. Better to carry on to Vernon, where you can moor in rural surroundings near the ruins of a tide mill. This lovely spot is near Claude Monet’s fabulous gardens at Giverny, where the painter lived and worked for over 40 years until his death in 1926.
Try to allow a relaxing three or four days between Vernon and Paris. Useful stops are Port St Louis marina at Carrièressous-poissy and Port Van Gogh at Asnières-sur-seine, which is 25km from Paris marina. Meandering through these middle reaches of the Seine, it’s wonderful just to sit back and watch the vistas unfold. Small boating clubs flourish out in the sticks and fishermen are legion, patiently attached to their lines. In summer there are beaches where locals come down to swim. One highlight is Conflans-sainte-honorine, a lively barge port at the confluence of the Seine and Oise. You’ll see plenty of family barges lining the quays, self-contained working homes often with a car stowed on the aft deck and washing fluttering on a line.
You know Paris is near when the Eiffel Tower appears ahead. Soon you pass Trocadéro Gardens and the white pavilions of Palais de Chaillot. Then the Seine curves east, with the Louvre in the distance. The ornate Pont Alexandre III is an iconic rivermark, with its gleaming gilt figures on four stone columns.
Paris-arsenal marina is four kilometres on from Pont Alexandre. Fringed with plane trees and quayside gardens, Arsenal feels pleasantly cocooned from city hurly-burly and it’s only a short stroll down to the fashionable Paris islands – Île St Louis with its chic shops and bistros, and Île de la Cité, the capital’s medieval heart adorned by Notre-dame cathedral. I want to be there now!
The restful village of Les Andelys. Opposite, Pont Alexandre III, Paris
Artists show their work by the quayside in Honfleur, Normandy
One of the many working barges on the Seine
Once seen never forgotten: the old tide mill at Vernon
Passers-by window shopping on Île St Louis in Paris