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

Cruising: The Verdict.

In my last post I wondered if cruising was all it’s cracked up to me.  Well, I have now returned from a my Caribbean cruise and have reached a verdict.  No, it’s not.

Lifeboat and Sea
Lifeboat and Sea

Mind you, I went with my viewpoint on the subject of cruising already half-formed.  My interaction with regular cruisers had not always been positive as I had found most of them to have little interest in the countries they visited: they spoke of “seeing” the city when they had spent a mere six hours there.  No harm there you may well say and I agree: we don’t all have to like the same thing.   But I felt that cruising took away the real adventure and excitement of travel, of discovering new things and being surprised by sights and sounds.

Big Ship in the Harbour
Big Ship in Harbour – Probably Celebrity Cruises

What I also hadn’t realised was the sheer competitiveness of the cruising lifestyle.  Those who had cruised most often talked about their Platinum status with certain lines, their Diamond status with others and their Gold cards, all of which entitled them to various bonus events and favours, champagne in the cabin, extra captain’s cocktail party, an upgrade (the only worthwhile bonus in my opinion) and early booking rights.  I listened in awe at the dinner table to the cut and thrust of the conversation and tried to work out if 4 Cunard trips equalled 3 P. & O and how many P & O’s or Celebrity Cruises would one have to do to have equal par with someone who’d done a trip on the Queen Mary.  It was a world I’d never known before, one fraught with social dangers.

Swimming in St. Vincent's in the Caribbean
Swimming in St. Vincent’s in the Caribbean

Then there were the back-to-backs, those who stayed on the ship and continued with the next voyage, sometimes 3 voyages all together.  Many of these people didn’t even bother getting off the ship when it docked, saying “Oh, we’ve been here before and it doesn’t change much!”  Well no, it probably didn’t, but don’t we all change with the years and what appealed last year might not this year so isn’t a town or city worth another look

The Azoes and Street Art

Amazing Street Art in Porta Delgado in the Azores

.But then I love my casually shod feet on the ground as I roam the streets and alleyways of foreign ports.  I love evenings sitting at wayside cafes and restaurants, watching the world go by as I sip a coffee or something stronger.  I love the strange smells that waft from the kitchens, the sounds of foreign languages, the frisson of excitement as one tries to remember the warnings from friends of the dangers of certain places.  And there’s none of that on a cruise.

I got off at every port, I went on some trips into the interior, but I don’t think for a moment that I experienced the Caribbean.  I saw beautiful landscapes and seascapes through the window of a coach, I managed a walk along a beach once or twice, and sampled Creole cooking on one occasion, but we never interacted with the locals.  I walked through the towns where we docked listening to the cries of the vendors, being hustled to take a taxi, buy a necklace, try some rum, but all the time aware that the ship would sail without me if I wasn’t back in time.  Even on the one day I managed to have lunch in the town it wasn’t possible to meet any local characters as I normally do.  I was an obvious visitor from the ship (two ships unloading over 5,000 people into a small town skews everything out of kilter).

Tropical Blooms in Martinique
Tropical Blooms in the island of Martinique in the Caribbean

So, I shall return to land holidays with maybe the occasional cargo-ship trip (these I don’t class like cruise ships – they are so different).  A week trekking in the hills in my own country, or walking in Austria or Switzerland, lazing on an Asian beach and attending a religious festival in the evening, or jazzing it up in New Orleans is more my style.

Is Cruising all It’s Cracked up to Be?

Wash from the Ship
Wash from the Ship

Now that Christmas is over I can finally turn my thoughts to holidays again.  I am lucky to live on an island where the summer months are delightful, the waters are warm (usually) and sailing, swimming, and surfing are all popular pastimes, so I usually creep away somewhere warmer during the winter.

This year, for the first time, I have opted to try cruising    I am not sure if I’m going to like it as I’m an inveterate people watcher from cafe tables in Southern Spain and Italy, bistros in France and Konditori in Denmark and Sweden, but I feel it’s time I had a change.

Williamstad Harbour

Not only am I going on a cruise-ship but I’m going to the Spice Islands of the Caribbean so I shall not have the usual pleasure of traipsing around ruins and wrecked churches, guide-book in hand, feet encased is stolid walking shoes.   But everyone tells me I will love it, so I’m giving it a go.

I have travelled the ocean before, but always on a cargo ship, one of the big ones that are the length of 3 football pitches, around which a walk makes a perfect workout before, or after a meal.  I have always enjoyed them, but then feeling part of a working ship seems so much better than being a passenger on a cruise ship.

Beautiful Williamstad, Dutch Antilles Sure, we dressed up in the evening, but so did the crew who changed from oily overalls into pristine whites to mingle with the six passengers in the bar.  No entertainment but we made our own, pockets of conversation with the mixed crew from South Africa, Philippines, Angola, UK and South America, Trivial Pursuit, watching the latest DVDs together, or just spending longer over the magnificent meals: cargo ship food is always good I’ve found without encouraging too much gluttony.

Al Fresco Evenings in the Tropics

The Chef & the Barbie

And then there were the Sunday barbecues on the deck, dress-down for captain and crew when the flamboyant shirts and shorts made an appearance and we all relaxed.

Eddie Does His Thing

I think I shall miss all that as I polish up my hat and smarten my glad rags.  On the other hand I may find it the best thing since sliced bread.  Who knows?

Photos from my last cargo ship trip on display here.

AStreetin CartagenaA Pilot Boat Approaches

Security in Caracas

Luxury Cruising on Burgundy’s Canals

Burgundy is famous for great wines and cheeses but those not exported are a special treat best sampled while cruising in luxury through France on board a canal barge.

A Peaceful Mooring for the Evening

Cruising on the barges of European Waterways definitely falls into the category of luxury, if luxury can be defined as having large air-conditioned bedroom suites (unusual on barging holidays) being pampered, and being served superb food and drink.

The GoBarging company has been cruising European waters since 1974, since when their reputation as canal cruise experts has gone from strength to strength. Unashamedly serving the luxury end of the cruise market they deliver what they promise, food of the highest quality, fine wines, expertly chosen regional cheeses to accompany the dishes, and a crew that pampers and looks after everyone with genuine warmth. The 24-hour open bar carries a wide selection of spirits, wines and liqueurs.

In France GoBarging.com covers different parts of Burgundy, Provence, the South of France, the Rhone and Loire Valleys. Passengers are collected in Paris and driven in comfortable mini buses to the embarkation points.

Approaching a Lock on the Nivernais Canal

Taking just one cruise for instance, one that departs from the  scenic town of Auxerre with its magnificent Gothic style cathedral and streets of half-timbered houses, the barge passes through 45 locks on the Nivernais Canal.   Negotiating the locks (by Captain and crew) gives passengers the opportunity to disembark and walk along the towpath or make use of one of the bicycles carried on board to explore further inland.

Getting to know fellow travellers is facilitated by a champagne reception hosted by the captain. The free-flowing wines and cocktails ensure a lively atmosphere at all times. The wines and cheeses are explained before meals by one of the charming hostesses on board and the chef ascertains guests’ likes and dislikes and offers alternatives if necessary.

Burgundy has some of the most stunning scenery in France. The canal and the River Yonne wind through rolling hills dotted with ancient villages in which every limestone house has pink roses climbing the beige walls and window boxes crammed full of red and pink geraniums. Vineyards, fruit orchards and farms add a variety of colour, and with 3-4 harvests a year in the area, there are always ribbons of green alternating with golden fields of wheat.

Chateau on a Hill seen from the Canal

Barges on the canals sail approximately half a day, the other half being spent at a place of interest.   All members of the crew are well versed in the history of the area and act as guides and drivers. If walking cobbled streets is not to everyone’s liking there is usually an interesting bar from which to people watch, or remaining on the barge with a book and some music from the library is the other option.

Vineyard in Beaune

Few people want to miss the tours of the wine-cellars though, especially in Chablis, the tiny area that produces the coveted vins de luxe Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chablis. French vineyards in Burgundy are frequently small and family-owned specialising in only two grape varieties, the red pinot noir and the white chardonnay. The sparkling wine of the region, the Cremant, is a revelation to some people who have not tried it before.

The towns visited afford time for exploring and shopping, whether Auxerre with its gold sundial clock and quirky statues dotted throughout the maze of pedestrianised streets or Vézelay with the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene where the crusaders converged before setting out for Jerusalem, a centre for artists of all kinds and a perfect place to buy ceramics, paintings, or woven tapestries.

As an alternative to a spa stay, barging is perfect. It is just as relaxing, the food is much better, there is no TV, no “entertainment”, no jolly “mine host” encouraging audience participation, only good food over which to linger with a fine wine or liqueur. Cabins are comfortable and spacious, and the captain, chef and crew are chosen for their friendliness, charm and ability to cope with any emergency.

Many companies on the French canals offer cruises of varying periods, but I’ve only travelled with the company mentioned above, European Waterways.  Having found one that pleases me, why change?  

Reflections