Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the deliberate pace of French weddings and baptisms, even when I’m clearly the American outsider. If you’re patient, after all the formal speeches, blessings and champagne toasts, you can meet enough people and hear enough tales to feel like you really do know the family. Even when it’s the Schmitters – Alsatian siblings Patrick, Philippe, Christian and Anne-Marie, who own and operate Europe’s largest river cruise company, CroisiEurope.
In late March, I travelled to Strasbourg to cover the christening of their company’s newest river cruise ship, the four-star premium MS Lafayette, and two new “péniches” – the French word for the smaller canal barges. Unsatisfied by the clunky English term, a colleague dubbed the bright blue barges as floating auberges, or “au-barges.” The metaphor actually works well for the company’s philosophy, as the day felt far more hands-on and personal than corporately orchestrated.
I arrived early to the industrial waterway parallel to the Rhine where CroisiEurope docks several of its 36 vessels during winter. The parking lot was hopping with nautically attired ship personnel, while Alsatian brass band members clad in red vests and flat black hats serenaded a small crowd that would swell to 300 guests by mid-morning. Some were foreign journalists from as far as Japan; others were tour operators, travel agents, local politicians, and friends who’ve known the Schmitters since their late father Gérard started the business 38 years ago.
If there was any doubt of Gérard’s patriarchal influence, it vanished as Christian, the president and youngest brother at 48, addressed the crowd from a tree-shaded podium. Looking skyward, his voice cracked slightly when he said his father, who had handed the reins to his children 15 years ago, passed away in 2012 but still found a way to order the gloriously sunny day. Moments later, Christian gave the microphone to oldest brother Patrick, adding a robust one-arm hug and kiss on the top of his silver locks.
I was curious to learn more of their father’s blueprint, but of course, formalities took precedent. Patrick, head of boat construction, and other family members took turns thanking local engineers, carpenters and fabric designers involved in creating these newest vessels that would leisurely tour the Rhine and France’s canals from April to October.
And of course, Father Patrick Koehler didn’t drive up the nearby Mount St. Odile abbey just as a guest. Shaking the prayer and hymnal leaflet over his head to encourage participation, the rector officiated the religious ceremony, before sprinkling baptismal water along the Lafayette’s main deck. Finally, Mary Rose Reade, wife of the American Consul General in Strasbourg, played her part as the Lafayette’s godmother. In tandem with French godfather Jean-Pierre Mas, she cut the ribbon to launch the christening champagne bottle — and with that, the party started.
While guests were free to peek into the 161-square foot staterooms with ceiling-to-floor or large picture windows, many flooded the Lafayette’s spacious bar and lounge. The tasteful purple and silver décor I’d admired earlier was hardly discernible in the mirrored ceilings, which now reflected a lively crowd sipping champagne or Alsatian beer and nibbling canapés and large bretzels. Before an elegant four-course lunch for 100 in the Lafayette and another ship’s dining rooms, I managed to find Gérard’s widow, Jeanine in the airy reception area, where (as on many of the boats) one of her husband’s still life paintings of sunflowers hung prominently.
“He was a man, we would say, who had three ideas a minute,” she said, pointing to the couple’s small portrait on the front desk.
Born to a family of potters who specialized in the blue-and-grey Betschdorf variety popular in Alsace since the 1700s, Gérard studied arts and decoration in Limoges before working in pottery. But after two years, he switched to jobs in plastics and glass factories, then opened a small amusement park, and finally in 1976, a waterfront restaurant in the town of Plobsheim, 10 miles south of Strasbourg.
“We had a lot of people, but not so much in winter,” Jeanine said. “So Gérard thought to get a boat, and we brought clients from Strasbourg.”
Packaged as an afternoon of dancing aboard the small ship with lunch at the restaurant, the idea grew into France’s most successful river cruise business. With more than 1,000 employees and 127 million euros in sales in 2012, CroisiEurope’s non-French customer base has also risen to 45 percent, with a recent push to attract Anglophones on both sides of the Atlantic for voyages throughout Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa.
So it’s no coincidence the Lafayette was named in honour of the Marquis of Lafayette Gilbert du Motier, a young French general who crossed the ocean to help the American cause in the Revolutionary War. “We had Americans in mind when we designed the Lafayette, with fewer, but bigger rooms,” Christian said.
With its nine-day itinerary along the Rhine showcasing some of the most picturesque scenery of four countries from Basel to Amsterdam, the 295-foot long and 32-foot wide Lafayette can accommodate 84 passengers in 40 double and four single cabins. Highlights include outward facing-staterooms with large flat-screen televisions; slightly bigger en-suite bathrooms; three-course lunches and dinners prepared by an award-winning French chef; plus a new open bar policy throughout all ships (not including Champagne, special wines or fine brandies).
Yet, I was seduced even more by the intimacy of the 24-passenger péniches, which feature Jacuzzis, sleek and modern decor, inviting sun decks, and bicycles for guests to explore trails and villages during stops. Named after the youngest sibling and clad in lush peach, cream and taupe fabrics, the Anne-Marie will cruise the canals of Provence. Navigating the canals of Alsace, the Madeleine bears the name of the children’s biological mother, who had died at 44 – when they were 9 to 22 years old.
In addition to choosing fabrics to coordinate with her favourite yellow, the siblings commissioned an Alsatian graffiti artist to create a contemporary piece for the barge, combining Madeleine’s likeness, their names, and a tender letter she had written to her mother in German, the language she grew up with during WWII. Hanging prominently above the bar, it’s both bold and touching – and showcases family loyalty.
“Our father made sure we were all involved and learning, since we were young, there was no question,” Christian said. “And our children, they’re studying right now at university so that they can enter the business soon.”
“It’s like the classic American success story,” I said. “Is there a similar term in French?”
“Une belle histoire?” Christian said with a shrug. “No, I like ‘success story’ better. An Alsatian success story!”
Susie Woodhams is co-author of The Expat’s Guide to Southern Alsace