Staying Afloat in Paris
By Betty Reed
Photography By Bob Reed
o you're going to Paris and need a place to stay. Forget the Hotel Crillon. Ignore the Hilton. Don't even think about a chic bed and breakfast.
The hottest address in Paris is at the Port de Suffren on the Quai Branly, less than a block from the Eiffel Tower. There you will find the Bateau Simpatico, a floating example of luxurious living riding comfortably on the Seine. From the outside it fits in with any of the 400-some boats of various descriptions docked along the river, slightly scruffy, with the paint not as fresh as it might be. But pass the potted pink rose bush, cross over the gangplank, open the forward hatch, descend the short flight of stairs, unlock the stout but handsome wood door and you step into the entry of a magnificent apartment.
Simpatico owner Bob Abrams says that, as far as he knows, there are only two barges on the Seine that are available for rent - and the other one is several miles away. All the rest of the scores of water-craft moored along the quai are either private domiciles or working boats. But, he cautions, on Bastille Day the Seine and everything around it belongs to tout le monde (more about that later.)
Built in the Netherlands in 1916, the barge carried cargoes of steel, coal and grain over the inland waterways. In the '50s her owners converted to diesel power [from sail] and she travelled further throughout northern Europe and the Rhine Basin. Eventually the railways made river traffic largely obsolete [in France] and in the early 70's Simpatico was outfitted as a residence. The barge is, however, still seaworthy and Abrams does occasionally take it through parts of the extensive European waterways. More recently, he completely revamped the interior, making an apartment forward for rental and a second living space aft for himself. He did it all from plumbing to carpentry to decorating and finally was ready in 1998 for his first guests. He did a masterful job.
The apartment offers appoximately 800 square feet of sybaritic living. Handsome orientals cover the floor. Massive armoires provide storage space. A desk with many drawers is perfect for organizing your tour books and papers. On the opposite bulkhead a wood-backed daybed converts into two very comfy single beds, perfect for guests or grandchildren. In the salon, a leather loveseat and two matching chairs surround a glass-topped coffee table and make comfortable seating for watching the television or listening to the stereo. A round table with four chairs fits easily into the dining area. Other small tables and cabinets with numerous drawers keep your accumulation of mementos and "things" readily at hand.
The bedroom and galley are amidships, making a midnight snack far too accessible. Both can be seperated from the main living area by shoji-like screens. A very pretty dressing table is conveniently placed next to the built-in dresser on one side of the king-size bed. For the early riser, it takes but a turn of the head to catch the sight of the sun's first rays transforming the Beaux Arts buildings of Passy across the river to walls of gold.
If you insist on cooking, the galley is beautifully equiped. The full-sized refrigerator has a good freezing compartment and the stove has a large oven. Above the stove, surrounding the ventilation hood, there is an inventory of herbs that makes you wonder just what has been cooked in this galley. There is also a microwave, a toaster and a coffee maker. Underneath the counter is a good supply of china and enough glassware of differing shapes and sizes to make it possible to give a rousing party.
The bathroom (nautically, the "head") is forward and up a short flight of stairs. There is a lovely surprise awaiting you in there - a really efficient washing machine - and a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. One endearing feature is the cold water faucet at the sink which must be turned off and then turned on slightly to stop the water from running - a bow to the renowned eccentricity of French plumbing. But it's always reassuring amid such perfection to find at least one item to criticize.
We found Simpatico to be extremely comfortable, convenient and great fun. Just steps away are stations for the RER (Champs de Mars station) and the Metro (Bir-Hakeim.) A bit further along on the Boulevard de Grenelle at Poilâne you can buy the best pain au noix (walnut bread) in Paris to go with the highly aromatic but delicious cheeses for purchase on the Rue de Lourmel. The Monoprix (the French answer to Wal-Mart) at the corner of BDG and Rue de Commerce is close enough to walk to or you can take the Metro to the door. (A decent bottle of Muscadet was priced at 3.37 euros versus $8 in Vero Beach.)
On Wednesday and Sunday mornings the space for several blocks under the elevated Metro turns into an open-air market. The wares are unbelievable and the personality of the market is different both days. On Wednesday there must have been at least a dozen different fish-mongers and another dozen vegetable stands. Some of these were replaced by clothing and furniture sellers on Sunday. There are so many goods offered that it is difficult to make a decision and everything, everything, looks fresh and tempting. It is best to have made up a shopping list and try to stick to it.
The true highlight of our sojourn was being on the barge, in Paris, on Bastille Day. The day dawned with a bleak looking sky which did little to daunt the thousands who lined the Champs Elysées for the morning parade. It was quite an event, with representatives of the New York Fire Department as honored guests. There was even a fire truck with NYFD and the US flag painted on the side with Americans as riders, but it was in fact, a Citroën. And to do the USA proud there was also a contingent of cadets from the US Military Academy marching in the parade. It was not untill long afterwards that many who were watching learned of the failed attempt on the life of President Jacques Chirac.
For us it was a day full of surprises. All the stores were open, much to our delight. We were expecting other people to join us for dinner on the barge and they were staying for the fireworks. On foot, it took two trips to the wine merchant to get enough supplies for the evening (dinner was already laid on.) By mid-afternoon we were prepared.
We were not prepared, however, for the problem of getting our guests through the guards who stood stalwartly at the entrance to the quai. We did not realize that on this occasion all the dignitairies, politicians, etc. who were in residence in Paris were to be seated beneath the Eiffel Tower and many of them were to enter through "our road." There were dozens of vans with the French equivalent of the National Guard screening anyone who wanted entry to the quai. We finally stationed our granddaughter at the head of the quai with the keys to the barge as proof of residency so that she could identify our guests and gain their entry.
Once having dispensed with dinner, we went topside. Bob Abrams was right - the Seine belonged to everyone that night and other barges, boats and floating restaurants began to "raft up" alongside Simpatico. By the end of dusk and the beginning of dark one could have almost walked across the Seine from deck to deck. Some people asked for permission to come aboard and cross to another boat, others just jumped on the bow and leaped across the breach onto the next deck.
In back of us, along the Bir-Hakeim Bridge, we could see people who had brought their chairs for comfort. All along the river banks there were hundreds on blankets or perched wherever they could find a flat surface.
We were all waiting for the same thing - the fireworks. Close to 11 p.m., only 20 minutes late (so practically on time for the French as someone remarked,) the lights on the Eiffel Tower were extinguished slowly from top to bottom. At the same time people in the apartments along the river turned their lights out. Paris, the beautiful City of Light, was in darkness. Then there was a universal gasp as the show began suddenly with light everywhere. For the next half-hour the sky above the Trocadero was awash in lights, music and the most incredible pyrotechnic display imaginable.
The ceremony was dedicated to Victor Hugo and the narrator, whose amplified voice resonated over the river, paid tribute to France's beloved author. We didn't recognize all the music played, but we did catch snatches from Les Miz. The display was so lavish that we kept thinking each segment must be the last. When the finale did come it was obvious and a huge roar of applause arose from the river and its' banks. Then the other boats quietly glided away and the people on the bridges gathered their blankets and they all went home. Except us.
If you are interested in more information on Bateau Simpatico, Abrams' web page can be found at http://quai48parisvacation.com and includes an email address should you wish to make reservations. However, if you are contemplating staying on the Bateau Simpatico for Bastille Day 2003, forget it. It's already booked. But if you are in Paris that day, do come by and have a glass of champagne with us.