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If you’re unsure what to expect from an Avalon river cruise, delve into a typical day on-board Avalon Tapestry II. HOT writer, Anna Sarjeant, details a day spent in France, as part of Avalon’s Paris to Normandy Beach Landings itinerary.
Day six: Conflans - Auvers-Sur Oise
Standing before the gravestone of Vincent van Gogh, Sandrine (our tour guide) has her audience totally enthralled. It’s spitting, the weather is bleak and the ambience is pensive, which she is using to great effect. We’ve already been told of Vincent’s blighted childhood, his mother’s troubling neurosis and his own crippling fears of failure. And now, before us, Vincent’s head stone writhes its way up through a bed of tangled ivy. There’s a secondary gravestone to Vincent’s left, where his younger brother, Theo, is also buried.
“Theo died just one year after his brother, Vincent.” Explains Sandrine (in the thickest, almost theatrical, French accent).
“He died of a broken heart. Devastated by his brother’s death. Consumed by grief.”
We bow our heads. Somebody at the back of the group weeps. Then there’s a long, solemn pause, before Sandrine clears her throat again.
“He also had the syphilis.”
Well, that’ll do it.
She nonchalantly waves her hand and tells us it’s time to leave, before skipping off down the path towards the auberge where Gogh once lived. I’m not sure which brother I feel most sorry for, the one who shot himself in the chest, or the one with a far less poetic death - heartbroken you say?
Paris to Normandy’s beaches
The Van Gogh tour (and accompanying revelations) is part of Avalon Cruises’ Paris to Normandy’s Landing Beaches itinerary - a deluxe seven night cruise from the city of lights to some of the most haunting imprints left from WWII. But it’s not all war-related. Departing Paris, Avalon's ship winds its way up the Seine, passing through numerous French villages that flank its pretty banks. From Les Andeleys to Giverny: Monet’s old stomping ground, this is as much about the region’s phenomenal artists as it is a turbulent past.
Deathbeds and pastries
Van Gogh’s little town of Auvers-Sur Oise is one of the quaintest we explored, which I admire while leaning against one of its beautifully time-worn walls - complete with raspberry tart bought from the town’s most popular patisserie. I queued alongside 20 French locals for a solid 15 minutes. But it was worth the wait, and having just stood in the very room Van Gogh lived (and later died) which is as utterly hopeless as all the pictures depict, I was in need of a little pick-me-up. It always pays to go to a boulangerie where the locals frequent. If the French are prepared to queue, you know it’s going to be a belter.
As part of Avalon's Auvers-Sur Oise morning tour, you’ll also visit Van Gogh’s room number 5 in the Auberge Ravoux. Unchanged since he bled out from a fatal gunshot in 1890, it’s instantly recognisable for its lone wooden chair. There’s also a 12 minute film depicting Van Gogh’s time spent in the village, including his paintings of the area and letters exchanged between himself and Theo.
Back on board
By lunchtime I’m back on the Avalon Ship: The Tapestry II. Just one year off the production line, it’s as immaculate as you’d expect from a boat built in 2015 – and a far cry from Vincent’s shabby abode. Avalon boast the youngest fleet of ships on the block; they’re the youngest on the European waterways and significantly younger than the industry average. So if you’re after shiny, go with Avalon.
We’re Paris bound. The majority of Avalon’s guests are tucking into their buffet lunch, but I’m outside on the deck (it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the good looking deckhand also being here, seeing to his daily chores). But it is where I find the complimentary coffee and cookies that guests can help themselves to 24/7. Of which I do. Only the night before I crept out for a piece of fudge brownie at midnight. I was in absolutely no way on the hunt lookout for a good looking deckhand.
Four cookies down - as we glide into Paris and past a never-ending stream of opulent houseboats - I can’t help but think of poor old Vincent. A man who, while alive, made a grand total of 500 francs. He died thinking he was a failure; his number one greatest fear. And yet his paintings now sell for millions. In 1990 The Portrait of Dr. Gachet went for US$82,500,000 – at the time, it was the most expensive painting in the world.
And then there’s Theo, his grief-stricken brother who died from a broken heart.
Oh stop it, I know what you’re thinking.
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