Call me a philistine but, presented with the choice of an inclusive insider tour to the Louvre, or to the food stores of Paris, and there's no hesitation. Croissants or canvasses, pastries or paintings? My tastebuds are already tingling and, besides, the food tour confines itself to the historic Marais, a gorgeous district of buttery limestone buildings and hipster hangouts, worth a wander even if you aren't a glutton. Culinary walking tour it is, then.
I'm in Paris on the last day of an APT Seine River cruise. As AmaLegro sails into the city I feel disappointed the end of my cruise is almost nigh, but couldn't be more thrilled that we dock within sight of the Eiffel Tower. Tonight we'll say farewell in a flurry of feathers and high kicks at the Moulin Rouge. Meanwhile, our insider tour of Paris awaits – always, in my opinion, a better idea than a general tour of the main sights, which are so easy to see by yourself.
Our small-group guide is Flavia, who is Belgian but has lived in Paris for years. "Food is like an art here, and you're never done learning," she says. "All these years in Paris and I'm not sure I even know the basics to be a good cook."
We clamber from our coach on the Rue du Rivoli, the district's central thoroughfare and one of Paris' most renowned streets, lined with handsome architecture. We make our first foodie call at A L'Olivier, which has been selling olive oils since 1822, and more lately walnut, sesame and other oils too. You can buy them in bottles or straight out of stainless-steel vats; we run through a tasting from tiny plastic goblets.
Drinking olive oil neat is a peculiar but not unpleasant experience, and Flavia quickly runs through the various tastes and potential uses of each oil. An oil from the Nice region has pear and pepper flavours; another from Corsica is lemony. "At first you think the French are too pernickety about food, then all of a sudden you have five different olive oils in your cupboard as well," she laughs.
There are other delicacies in the shop: honey from Provence, jams, sardines. "I used to think only British students ate out of tins, but here you see sardines in a fancy deli!" says Flavia. There are jars of dainty vinegar pearls that you put in your salad so they burst in your mouth: who thinks of these things?
There's nothing like food to get people comfortable with each other, and already our small group is buzzing with conversational joshing. Soon we're heading up Rue Cloche-Perce, a graffiti-scribbled alley dating back to 1250, where Flavia points out a lopsided building, one of the few medieval buildings left in Paris.
Turning into Rue Francois-Miron, the smell of hot bread reaches us long before we arrive at the neighbourhood bakery, Au Petit Versailles du Marais. The baker here, Christian Vabert, is a "meilleur ouvrier de France", a prestigious government award for France's best craftsmen in their field. The interior is crammed with locals buying their baguettes and rum babas.
"Boulangerie is a special institution in France, the bread must be all fresh with no freezing, and nothing brought in from a factory, all made on the premises," says Flavia. "Chains here like Paul aren't allowed to call themselves boulangerie. In 1998 the government passed a law saying you can go to prison for two years for flouting the rules on how to make bread."
Further along the street we pause to admire the Hôtel de Beauvais, a 1660 mansion with an elegant courtyard. There's an even headier aroma at our next stop, Fromagerie Laurent Dubois on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, where Monsieur Dubois has also bagged a "meilleur ouvrier de France" label. This narrow shop has shelves crammed with aged comté, sheep's cheese from the Pyrenees, a 100-day-old Sainte-Maure de Tourraine reeking of goat and nuttiness. There are cheeses in white pyramids, in small rounds bathed in oil; cheeses with soft centres oozing from orange outer crusts, and unusual, limited-edition cheeses such as the alpine Bleu de Termignon.
Shop assistant Julien, dressed in chic head-to-toe black, brings out a cheese tasting plate, advising us that we should start with the mild St-Nectaire with its dusty white skin, before moving on to the raw sheep's cheese Le Petit Bée, which is creamy and mildly earthy. We finish with pungent orange-rind Trou du Cru, which Julien unexpectedly says is best served with a New Zealand dry white. Later he shows me some of the shop's in-house specialties: St-Félicien soft cheese with truffles, Roquefort blue cheese layered with quince paste, goat's cheese rolled in chives and mild chilli, and a camembert stuffed with Calvados-soaked apples and marscapone.
Just as we think temptations can get no richer, we're stopping by Aux Ducs de Gascogne on the Rue Saint-Antoine. The foie-gras shop gets much of its produce from a farm in south-west France; it also carried delicacies such as duck mousse, salmon or rabbit terrine, quail, specialty mustards and the types of sweet wines that best accompany foie gras.
But it isn't just the shops that indulge the senses: the architecture of the Marais is equally seductive. We walk through the courtyards of the Renaissance-era Hôtel de Sully and into the Place des Vosges, perhaps the most beautiful corner of all Paris.
The early-17th-century public square features a central garden surrounded by grand arcaded houses, one of which houses Café Carette. This is our final stop for a coffee amid Empire mirrors, bowls of roses and pink marble-topped tables. The café's chocolate éclairs were once voted the best in Paris, but I make do with a modest salted-caramel macaroon. Maybe you can, after all, have too much of a good thing.
A foodie tour in Paris is only one of many gourmet experiences on European river cruises, with plenty more to sink your teeth into across the continent.
A journey along these two French rivers might include Burgundy wine-tasting in Beaune, or a visit to a factory to learn about the history and manufacturing of Dijon mustard. APT also offers a culinary walk through Lyon, taking in some gourmet stores and fresh-food markets in the French gastronomic capital. And in Arles, passengers have the option of visiting an olive mill and farm in the Provence countryside.
A float in a boat through this famous wine region of France provides plenty of opportunities to tipple. A visit to Château Smith Haut Lafitte provides a tasting of world-famous sauternes dessert wines, while a visit to Château de Cognac includes a tour of the storehouse and a tasting at this cognac producer, founded in 1795. There's also a caviar-tasting option in Libourne.
The southern German stretches of this river pass close to the Black Forest, visited on shore excursions for the chance not just to see its rolling scenery, but taste the original Black Forest cake. Cologne is another great port of call for the sweet of tooth: river-cruise ships dock close to the Chocolate Museum, which details the history of chocolate and its manufacture, and has a giant chocolate fountain for dipping waffles.
This tributary of the Rhine provides the opportunity to pedal along its vine-clad riverbanks. Schlagkamp Winery & Wine Museum near Cochem has one of the world's largest collections of viticulture tools and, of course, a wine-tasting of Moselle wines is a must. Cruises then head up the Rhine into the Netherlands; passengers can indulge in a Michelin-starred lunch at Château Neercanne, and enjoy a cheese-making demonstration at Zaanse Schans.
The northern Portuguese river is another wine-dense region. Take an APT cruise and shore-excursion options include wine tasting at Quinta do Seixo, a country estate with an interactive wine museum, and an evening meal with wine-tasting at a country villa near Pinhão. At Entre-os-Rios passengers can enjoy a traditional home-cooked meal at Alpendurada Monastery; a glass of port wine on the terrace provides beautiful river views.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of APT. Follow him on facebook.com/rivercruiseinsight
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14.5 hours) with onward connections to Paris (7.5 hours). Phone 1300 303 777, see www.emirates.com/au
APT's eight-day "Romanic Seine" cruise on AmaLegro is priced from $5295pp, twin share, including all meals, complimentary beverages, shore excursions, transfers, port charges and tipping. The "Culinary Walking Tour" in Paris is an APT sightseeing option at no additional cost; alternatives are a visit to the Louvre or Montmartre. Phone 1300 196 420. See www.aptouring.com.au.