Canal Cruising in France

“If I shout ‘Duck’! It doesn’t mean look out for wildlife: it means hit the deck – now”!   This was Captain Julian speaking, during instruction in safety etiquette on board the converted eight-passenger Dutch barge ANJODI, our home for the next six days as we cruised the tree-lined Canal du Midi in France.

The Anjodi Barge
The Anjodi Barge

The reference to ducks and wildlife was timely, for shortly after leaving our embarkation point of La Somail, a delightful little village just 45 minutes from Montpelier, our boat was surrounded by friendly ducks and drakes with their ducklings, as sleek coypus swam close to the willow-hung banks, and grey and white geese scolded us from the tow-path.

But a warning is a warning and we were careful to keep a look out for low bridges as we cruised along this, the oldest canal in France, designed by Pierre-Paul Riquet to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.  He spent much of his fortune on the project but sadly, he didn’t live to see this magnificent feat of engineering, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, completed in 1681.

Canal du Midi, France

Shop on the Canal du Midi
Shop on the Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi is 240 Kilometres long and runs from the city of Toulouse to the Lagoon at Thau on the Mediterranean Sea.  On our six-day trip we covered only part of this fascinating waterway in which the landscape changes from pasture to vineyards and from grain crops to rice paddi as it nears the Camargue.

We soon found out what the captain meant by “duck” as we met bridges so low that even the tiller had to be removed at times – and we marvelled at the skill with which he and the crew took the barge through narrow locks just wide enough to accommodate it.   The ‘ladder-lock’ at Fonserannes, a staircase of seven locks took 45 minutes to negotiate and watching this was as engrossing an experience as I’ve ever had.

Stone-bridge-with-Almost-Bl

The plane trees that line the Canal du Midi giving shade to the boats and barges that use the waterways were just coming into leaf, their delicate pale green leaves a perfect contrast to the bright blue skies as we journeyed further south. The banks yielded up wild irises, white snowflake flowers, primroses and poppies, and the houses we passed were already displaying geraniums, crocus and, most surprisingly, peonies.  Relaxing on deck with a Kir Royale or a glass of something bubbly, watching the passing panorama and admiring the churches and chateaux silhouetted on the hillsides, was total bliss after days hunched over a computer in a stuffy office.  Often it was with great reluctance that we left the comfortable chairs on the deck for our meals as there was always a feeling that there might be something exciting just around the next bend.

Camargue Wild Life

Wild Horses of the Camargue
Wild Horses of the Camargue

And one day there was.  Standing on the bank contemplating us with curiosity were some of the wild horses of the Camargue.   Storks flew overhead and off in the distance we could just see a flock of flamingos.   Too excited to grab for the cameras we just revelled in the sight of the birds as they huddled together in the lagoon devouring the shellfish that gives them their pink colour.

There were major sight-seeing jaunts in the barge’s mini-bus each morning, leaving the afternoons free for relaxing, walking or cycling along the towpath on one of the onboard cycles, and exploring the pretty villages along the way.  We would catch up with the boat at the next mooring or lock – and as we always knew just how far the distance was between locks it made planning easy.

Cathar Country, Carcassonne, Minerve and Narbonne

Carcassonne, France
Carcassonne, France

Our barge sailed through Cathar country, a land where the memory of the massacres that occurred during the Albigensian wars is preserved like a fly in amber in the minds of the villagers.  The most famous massacre may have happened in 1210, but to the people of the Languedoc, it is as though it happened yesterday.  Visits to fortified hill towns like Carcassonne with its dungeons and fairy-tale like turrets that soars into the sky, to the UNESCO protected town of  Minerve,

Minerve, well fortified and perched high on a cliff.
Minerve, well fortified and perched high on a cliff.

perched on a limestone plateau between the gorges of the Briant and Cesse rivers,  and to Narbonne with its well-preserved Roman Road, were constant reminders of the bloody wars fought over this land.

Inside the protective battlements of these fortresses are winding alleyways and narrow streets with half-hidden shops selling distinctive local crafts and products.

Cloisters of Bishop's Palace at Narbonne
Cloisters of Bishop’s Palace at Narbonne

Visits to these and other towns, like Pézanas, the birthplace of Moliere, and Villeneuve-les-Beziers, alternated with wine tastings at prestigious chateaux and a very special wine-tasting at the home of one of France’s top female sommeliers, Mdme. Jackie Bonnet.

Moliere, Pezanas
Moliere, Pezanas

Food on Board the Barge

The Holy Trinity of the French table is wine, cheese and bread, and although our barge cruise was not solely about food and wine, it played a large part in our daily life.  I’d cruised with European Waterways before and knew that the chefs and captains of the barges were chosen as much for their knowledge of regional specialities and produce as for their professional skills.  Every day we sampled exquisite and unknown wines, often the product of a small single vineyard, alongside premium Crus of the great houses, and we ate the best locally sourced food available as Chef Lauren matched food to wine and cheeses to what had gone before with a skill that owed much to her knowledge of the countryside and its produce.

Chef Lauren and hostess Alex prepare pre-dinner drinks.
Chef Lauren and hostess Alex prepare pre-dinner drinks.

Leaving the barge at our last stop for the drive back to Montpelier, was a wrench.   The Anjodi offered peace and tranquillity and a stress-free environment with the ambience of an upmarket family hotel.  At the same time. we had been given the opportunity to make trips to the major cities along the route, we enjoyed wine tastings at famous vineyards and had even lunched out at a superb restaurant on one occasion.  And all this while sailing through some of France’s most quintessential countryside.  It can’t ever be better than that.

Fresh fruit always available.
Fresh fruit always available.

FACTFILE:

The cruise is fully inclusive of gourmet meals aboard and ashore, fine wines, champagne reception, all day open bar, all excursions and admission fees, use of cycles, spa pool, and transfers to and from embarkation point.  Crews are British or French but all speak perfect English and double as tour guides and drivers.  Because this is a converted Dutch barge, not all of the rooms are spacious but they are all very comfortable and have air-conditioning and central heating.  The lounge is elegant and comfortable, and the deck – on which meals can be taken – is equipped with deck-chairs, dining table and seating for eight.

http://www.gobarging.com   European Waterways, The Barn, Riding Court Road, Datchet, Berks, SL3 9JT.

Tel: 01753 598555:    Fax: 01753 598550

Curaçao – More than Just a Liqueur

I was tempted to use this Post as part of the Orange photo challenge, thinking Dutch/Orange, Williamstad/William of Orange, Curaçao/Orange liqueur, but I thought that might be considered an anology too far!

Entering Harbour at Williamstad
Entering Harbour at Williamstad

The ABC of the Caribbean    

Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, the ABC of the Dutch Antilles, located in the southern Caribbean Sea just off the Venezuelan coast, are 3 of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean   Not only are they physically beautiful but the people themselves are among the friendliest and most welcoming in the Caribbean, something to do with the Netherland’s good governance of the islands it is said.

Williamstad, Capital of Curacao
Williamstad, Capital of Curacao

Imagine a tropical Amsterdam if you will and you have Curaçao.  Williamstad, the capital, is a town of tidy Dutch-style streets with tall narrow houses in pastel colours of blue, green and pink lining the quayside, interspersed with emerald green swathes of grass and former warehouses now seerving as Museums.  Prosperous and clean shops and delightful open-air bars and cafés give cheering evidence of the good husbandry of the former Dutch owners.  A perfect town in which to wander, safely it must be mentioned, there are some superb restaurants and plenty of budget ones as well, great retail experiences in the Duty Free shops which stock everything from designer clothes to gold jewellery and Havana cigars, Curaçao has it all.

Beaches, Seas and Aquasports

White Beaches and Turquoise Seas
White Beaches and Turquoise Seas

Fascinating though the town is, the beaches and the tremendous amount of water sports on offer, exercise a pull on even the most dedicated of shoppers.  There are 35 fantastic beaches with white sands that are really blazingly, blindingly white and with the background of the turquoise sea (yes really turquoise) this is a picture postcard tropical idyll.  Swimming, snorkelling, diving or merely floating lazily on the seas around Curaçao is something everyone should do once in their lives.

Williamstad, Curacao, Habour.
Williamstad, Curacao, Habour.

I’m no diver – I’m not even a swimmer – but I was nearly tempted into taking lessons from one of the many diving schools we visited, so enticing were the waters.  ‘Rubber suits aren’t necessary’ Piet said persuasively.  ‘The water is very warm, between 70ᵒ and 85ᵒ’.  But I shied off and now I wish I hadn’t.

The Town of Williamstad, Curacao
The Town of Williamstad, Curacao

My partner however, sampled some of the over 65 varied dive sites including spectacularly located shipwrecks, and raved about waters with 100 foot visibility, the gentle drop offs and walls blanketed by magnificent coral formations.  And I’ll swear he hasn’t been the same since he swam underwater with the turtles and the multi-coloured fish, an experience he likened to a psychedelic dream.

House in Curacao
House in Curacao

And it’s not just swimming, snorkelling and diving.  The Marine Park and Underwater Nature Reserve offer other experiences, the best of which for most people is the Curasub, the mini-submarine which takes passengers 320 metres below the sea and which is a boon for those who, for whatever reason, cannot dive.  The journey last about one and a half hours and is a delight from start to finish.  It is also safe as the internal pressure means that the sub can surface much more quickly than can a diver.

National Parks and Museums

There are experiences of a different king at the Christoffel Park, a naturally laid out wildlife preserve covering 4,500 acres, flanked by hills and shadowed by the majestic mount Christoffel.  The park is home to rare sabal palms and orchids, iguanas, several species of birds and the shy Curaçao deer.  Horseback riding and mountain biking are available and driving, hiking or strolling is easy and pleasurable.

Houses in Curacao
Houses in Curacao

Surprised by the varied number of Museums on Curaçao, ranging from an Antique Furniture Museum to the Jewish Historical Museum housed in the oldest continuously operating Synagogue in the Western Hemisphere (since AD 732) I had my work cut out to fit even a few of them in.  Once you’ve ticked off the museums you want to see you can then start on the many elegant Plantation Houses on the island.  The Caribbean as a whole is not short of Plantation Houses but the ones on Curaçao are in a class of their own and well worth a visit.

Getting round the island

Buses are a cost-effective way of getting around the island and a useful way of meeting the friendly locals, but taxi are cheap and plentiful.  For touring downtown Williamstad and to reach the Seaquarium there is an old time trolley bus with aircon at the front and fresh air in the back!

‘You must have a free ferry ride with the locals’ my hotel porter told me.  ‘It operates at least 30 times a day when the Queen Emma Bridge opens to let ships pass through’.  So I did, and it was fun.

Williamstad
Williamstad
Williamstad, Curacao
Williamstad, Curacao

Curaçao was discovered by one of Columbus’s lieutenants, Alonso de Ojela.  It’s a pity the good Señor never had a chance to try the ice-cold beer, the only lager in the world brewed from seawater, or even ‘a sticky’, the sweet, syrupy Orange or Blue Curaçao.  I think he’d have liked them.

Photo Challenge: ORANGE

Been looking through my photographs to see what I could find that would fit this week’s challenge.  Quite surprised to find very little.  I thought I had an orange sunset at Wadi Rum but that turned out to be golden, and my terracotta roofs in Italy had taken on a brownish tinge by the time I blew them up.  But I found a few, so herewith my selection from Spain, Italy, Thailand and Sweden.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Freshly squeezed juices at every corner in Palermo, Sicily
Freshly squeezed juices at every corner in Palermo, Sicily