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Barging Through France
By Mike Thiel

Travel to Europe to see beautiful countryside and medieval villages from your own floating accommodation. Enjoy a relaxing, intimate vacation with your family and friends while cruising down the Canal du Midi in France. Join Hideaways Founder Mike Thiel as he brings the family together on a Nichols cruise for a long-awaited, stress-free vacation. You don't need previous boating experience to run a barge; it only takes a quick lesson before you're cruising into the sunset. Buy fresh ingredients from local markets and enjoy the freedom of a vacation rental as you cook your own meals onboard. Or just dock the barge and dine in quaint villages along the way. Learn what places of interest not to miss, wines to try, and other activities worthy of leaving your new (floating) home. If you're a first-timer, get insight on the ins and outs of a self-hire, crewed charter, and hotel barge.

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My younger son, Andrew, had been pitching for some time for a family reunion, preferably on a yacht charter in the Caribbean or some other sunny clime. As with most of us whose children have grown, geographic distance, differing schedules, and everyday responsibilities had hindered us all from getting together for more than a hectic holiday. In fact, Andrew and his older brother, Michael, had seen little of each other through their twenties, a situation that needed remedying.

I love sailing, but as I pondered a group vacation, I recalled a self-captained barging escapade with good friends some six years ago, when we ate, sipped, and laughed our way through Alsace, that very Germanic corner of France. It was one of our most memorable trips, and we vowed then that we'd do it again.

Barging would be perfect for this occasion. It would promote a sense of togetherness and be active yet stress-free. After all, canals go only two ways, which means fewer decisions. We'd have no navigation, shoals, or reefs to worry about, and bad weather couldn't become a safety issue. And, you can't get seasick (one of Gail's afflictions) on a tranquil canal. Besides, my boys had not been to Europe since they were toddlers.

And so it was arranged. We all flew into Paris from different directions—Andrew from Miami, Michael and his girlfriend, Bekky, from Montana, Gail and I from Boston. An apartment on the Left Bank was the perfect base for this group rendezvous. It was fun introducing a bunch of novitiates to the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a city Gail and I have fallen in love with.

Three days later, on a beautiful mid-October morn, we boarded the TGV for southwest France. We wanted the best shot at sunny, warm weather; in fall, that meant plying the Canal du Midi.

Riquet's Fantasy—the Canal du Midi

The idea of a commercial canal linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic—thus eliminating passage around the Iberian Peninsula—was first conceived at the beginning of the 16th century. However, the cost and difficulty of finding an adequate water supply between ocean and sea proved insurmountable until 1663, when an ingenious local salt-tax collector named Pierre Paul Riquet convinced Louis XIV that he had the solution. Riquet devoted much of his own wealth and career to planning and engineering the ambitious project; unfortunately, he died just six months before his dream was realized, in 1680.

Riquet's legacy, the Canal du Midi, is a gorgeous, tree-lined waterway flowing through some of France's most beautiful and prolific wine regions, past quaint farm villages and walled medieval cities, all the way to the Garonne and the city of Bordeaux. Though the canal is no longer commercially important, it is popular for barge vacations.

We were renting from Nicols, Hideaways' longtime barging partner, and had made arrangements with them to be met by taxi at the Narbonne train station. Nicols' base—15 minutes from Narbonne, in the ancient village of Le Somail—is a simple office in a vintage warehouse with a couple-dozen boats docked stern-to along the natural bank at a wide spot in the canal. The town is no more than a couple of canal-side restaurants, a B&B, a few ancient houses, and an arched bridge—the kind of place where the ducks and geese outnumber the people.

Though Le Somail lacked much in the way of facilities, it did have a very modern supermarket. We arranged for the taxi to take us shopping, after doing the rudimentary paperwork necessary to sign out our barge, the Bandol. Our plan for day one was simply to provision the boat, learn what we needed to about running it, and relax at our berth in Le Somail.

Our troop descended on the market like the Huns. My interests were primarily in the native products: deliciously fruity green olives, local pates, sausages, cheeses, cured ham and, of course, wine. Others in the group (who shall remain nameless) went for the usual American junk food: Coke, s'mores, Hostess cupcakes. With our halting French and frenetic activity, we must have been the amusement du jour for the locals. Amazingly, our hefty purchases—including lots of wine—cost only about $125. The market even took credit cards.

Back at the boat, we completed the simple checkout and reviewed the Bandol's equipment and operation. Think of the boat as a slow cabin cruiser or floating RV, and you won't be far off. We each had our own private quarters and head with shower. Our common gathering spot was the spacious central salon, which held a table, L-shaped settee, and small kitchen with two-burner stove, sink, small refrigerator, and the basic equipment needed to serve a group of six.

The outside decks weren't as comfortable or well-designed for lounging as I had hoped, but the salon had generous windows for taking in the passing scenery. After reviewing the equipment, we took our new home-sweet-home for a spin under the watchful eye of Nicol's base mechanic. About 15 minutes later, he pronounced us canal-ready.

How the other half lives

We'd received an invitation to dine aboard the Claire de Lune that night, one of the more elegant crewed barges that ply this canal. After our hectic day, it was a pleasure to step aboard this most luxurious and modern charter barge. Its salon was formal, spacious, and inviting, with original art and elegant furnishings. The top deck was expansive, with several lounging areas and comfortable teak furniture.

The Claire de Lune runs with a warm, welcoming, and international crew: Rupert, the English captain; David, the Dutch chef; and Elaine, the hostess from Sweden. All were wonderful company and offered a wealth of information about the area. The dinner—an appetizer of roasted quail salad, a main course sampling of deliciously sauced monkfish with salmon and tuna, and a chocolate mousse dessert—was exquisite and beautifully served.

We did it our way

Though we enjoyed being pampered for an evening, we truly looked forward to crewing our own barge. We had received differing advice about which direction to cruise from Le Somail. Some suggested we head east, toward the towns of Beziers and Agde, a direction with fewer locks and easier cruising. But we considered locking part of the fun, and the west has more scenic villages. The deciding factor was the walled, medieval city of Carcassonne, 50 kilometers to the west, which we made our objective. It would be perfect for a leisurely trip of three days out and three days back.

It didn't take long to get into barging mode. The fall weather was spectacular, with days sunny and warm, evenings cool, and starry nighttime skies. The Canal du Midi is cathedral-like, winding along banks lined with overhanging sycamores or umbrella pines. To each side lie miles of russet and green vineyards—the Minervois region to the north, Corbiere to the south. Sprinkled along each bank are rural, pastel-colored villages and the occasional walled, ancient compound. To the distant south, we glimpsed the hazy blue profile of the Pyrenees as we chugged along at a leisurely five miles an hour, sipping wine and catching up on each other's lives.

It took a while longer, however, to learn the handling characteristics of the barge, and to get our boat routines and teamwork down pat. Our first locking drill went smoothly, but when we arrived at the second, three other boats already occupied it. Could all four of us actually fit into one of those stone vaults? Apparently so—the other bargers were waving us in. Unfortunately, Captain Andrew misjudged the momentum of these heavy barges, and we found ourselves scrambling to fend off another boat and the encroaching side walls, to no avail. Crunch! It sounded worse than it proved to be, as all self-hire barges are reinforced at strategic points and well-protected with rubber fenders.

Among the most picturesque parts of the canal are the ecluses (locks) themselves. On the Canal du Midi, all locks are attended by keepers, which is not the case on all French canals. On our Alsace trip, locks were unattended and semi-automatic; others are manual. On the Midi, some double and even triple sets of locks accommodate particularly large rises and drops in terrain. The lockkeepers' houses are quaint buildings usually surrounded by neatly tended gardens and, in one case, an ersatz collection of carved wooden statuary. Some keepers are jovial, others quite taciturn. The outgoing ones tend to be entrepreneurial. While your barge is rising or falling, you can stock up on local crafts, jams, jellies, and honeys, or replenish your bread and wine supply.

That evening, we docked in the little village of Homps and were met by Peter Scott, who, with his wife, runs the charter barge Sherborne. He gave us a tour of his boat, which is more informal than the Claire de Lune, though character-filled and comfy. More importantly, he introduced us to another attraction of crewed chartering—interesting side trips.

Peter drove us some 15 miles to the fortress hill town of Minerve. As we hiked around, he filled us in on the history of this ancient Roman settlement, which sits high on a limestone promontory at the intersection of two rugged rift valleys. In essence, Minerve hasn't changed much since the 1200s, when it was sacked during the Cathar rebellion.

Life on the canal

Being the earliest riser, I made it my job every morning to visit the local boulangerie for breakfast pastries and baguettes for luncheon sandwiches. If we were running low on anything—wine, cheese, ham, pate—we would stop at an epicerie or boucherie later on. These were wonderful opportunities to meet the locals and practice our French.

Invariably, people were friendly and happy to see Americans, and would occasionally strike up a conversation or express sympathy about the events of September 11. We had set out on this trip only a month after the terrorist incidents, and though it was very much in the news, we had no TV, radio, or newspapers (at least, none we could read) to remind us of the turmoil in the world. It actually was relaxing to be out of touch.

Normally, we'd linger over a typically French breakfast of cafe au lait, croissants or baguettes with cheese, local preserves, or savory Jura honey until mid-morning. We felt no need to hurry; our plan called for barging only 15-20 kilometers a day. Allowing time for negotiating locks, that meant about four hours of travel. So eventually we'd cast off our lines, pick up our spikes, and chug, chug, chug—we were on our way, with plenty of time to visit passing villages and vineyards.

The quality and prices of the local wines are amazing—three to six dollars buys a very good wine, ten a fabulous one. We found reds to be the best, but we tasted some excellent dry rosés made with syrah grapes. I even discovered the joys of dessert wine when I found a good, local Muscadet reasonably priced at about seven dollars.

Usually we'd eat lunch under way, but if we hit a lock that was closed for lunch, we'd take advantage of the break with some sandwiches, salads, and the occasional creative fritatta, courtesy of Michael. If we felt the need to work off some calories, we'd bike or jog on the towpath along the canal or head off to a nearby village, meeting up later with the barge.

Traffic on the canal was pretty sparse at that time of year, though on weekends the Midi came alive socially. Locals turned out to stroll, bike, and fish along its banks. They also congregated at the locks or around the quaint arched bridges, where they had plenty of opportunities for a friendly chuckle at those bargers still learning the ropes.

In the evenings, we simply pulled over to the bank near a village, tied up to stakes or a couple of trees, and wandered into town for dinner—invariably at a cozy restaurant or bistro frequented by locals. The menus overflowed with fresh, delicious local fare: duck, lamb, foie gras, game, and cassoulette, the regional specialty. After a wonderful and very social meal, we'd stroll back to the boat under a dark sky sparkling with stars.

Any evening entertainment, beyond dining and star gazing, was simply hanging out on our boat, playing a lively game of penny—make that centime—poker, or one of the board games we'd brought along.

Vive La Cite

The high point of our trip was definitely Carcassonne, a genteel metropolis known for the impressive, medieval walled city from which it sprang. Cruising into Carcassone, we caught a glimpse of the ramparts of ancient La Cite, shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. The canal itself runs right through the more modern city center known as Bastide Saint-Louis, which dates back to 1262. There we docked in the municipal boat basin right downtown, an excellent marina where we enjoyed hot showers and did laundry. The center of the city is attractive, with gracious architecture, tree-shaded plazas, and a nice pedestrian mall.

The first thing the kids did, of course, was head for the McDonald's bordering the main plaza. Meanwhile, Gail and I high-tailed it to catch the sunset at La Cite. This fortress, standing at a strategic intersection of ancient trade routes, dates back to 122 B.C. During its 2000-year history, it has been occupied by Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Franks. The perfectly preserved city that sits within its walls dates to about 1200 and is still occupied. A drawbridge led us through tall, crenellated walls, punctuated by peaked turrets, into what was once a thriving fortress city—a Camelot. We could almost envision knights in armor, their massive steeds clopping through the cobblestone streets. The place is so authentic it has been featured in many movies and ranks as a UNESCO World Heritage town. Of course, La Cite is fairly touristy—shops and stables of yore are now boutiques, restaurants, and galleries—but at this time of year and day we had it practically to ourselves.

In fact, after sundown the ancient city felt somewhat haunted, so we decided to head back to the Bastide Saint-Louis for dinner. It was a good thing, too. Unbeknownst to us, the entire region was celebrating the uncorking of the vin nouveau that night. Place Carnot, the main plaza, and its surrounding streets were one big party—bands playing, young and old dancing, and lots of fresh young wine flowing. We took front-row seats at an outdoor brazzerie in the plaza, ordered bowls of escargot and a couple bottles of the new vintage, and sat back to enjoy the exuberant scene.

Home again

The return trip was even more mellow and relaxing than the outbound one, if such is possible. As expected, this barge vacation had proven to be an enjoyable way to gather the clan. As the Bandol chugged through the idyllic, hypnotic French countryside, we found plenty of time to share memories, stories about our now very separate lives, even our dreams.

With each passing day, barging became habit-forming. We even began wondering what it would be like spending entire seasons wandering around Europe by barge. That may have been wishful thinking, but as easy, educational, and entertaining as our days on the Midi had been, we found ourselves toasting to the prospect of exploring other canals, if only one week at a time.

Barging . . . Have It Your Way

Well into the 20th century, barges were the workhorses of transportation throughout much of Europe. A network of interconnected canals and rivers spanning France, the low countries, and Germany—all areas with abundant water—once served as the most efficient way to move coal, grain, building supplies, and more. Barge commerce still thrives on many European canals and rivers, but, increasingly, barges have found new life as an escape for vacationers interested in sampling the diverse areas through which they flow.

Today you can explore almost any part of France by canal, but the most popular regions are Burgundy (Canal de Bourgogne and Canal du Nivernais), Champagne (River Marne), the Upper Loire (Canal de Briare), the Loire Valley (River Cher), and the Southwest (Canal du Midi). Most barge trips run a minimum of a week. Several different styles of barging are available, each with its own attractions and pros and cons. Here's a rundown on the options, so you can choose one that's best for you.

Going It Alone

Self-captained barges often are referred to as peniches, though they usually are the smaller, narrower, more vintage form of these vessels. The modern self-hire barge is essentially an under-powered, fiberglass cabin cruiser traveling at best about five m.p.h. It ranges in length from about 27 to 40 feet, has a beam of ten to 12 feet, and can accommodate six to eight people comfortably. In addition to individual cabins, most vessels have a combination lounge and kitchenette with at least a settee and dining table.

Self-captained barging is for the self-reliant who put a premium on independence and privacy. It's a good way to enjoy and explore with like-minded friends. Because it's affordable, it's also great for families, and most kids will find the experience an adventure. It need not be a lot of work if the kitchen is used only for snacking and light meals; that would certainly be our recommendation, as a good selection of interesting local restaurants can almost always be found within walking distance of the canals. Of course, a few chores must be accomplished: handling the boat, docking, locking, straightening up your cabin, and occasionally swabbing the decks.

Experience in handling a boat is helpful, but not essential. The companies renting boats will send you a user's handbook when you reserve and provide instructions on the boat and its handling when you arrive. You'll soon get the feel of it. It does help to be moderately athletic and handy. Guidebooks for all the popular canals give some history of the area and show where locks are located, distances, nearby attractions, and restaurants.

In choosing a boat for barging with friends, make sure you get one with cabins that are as equal as possible and with private baths for each cabin. Other things to look for: space and comfortable seating below; good deck space; and especially important, a good top deck with a comfortable steering station and plenty of seating so friends can join the helmsman.

Self-hire barges are a bargain. Charter rates range from about €500 (about $450) per week in the shoulder seasons for a smaller barge to about €3100 (about $2,800) for a top-of-the-line boat in high season. In October, when we barged, you could rent the Connoisseur Magnifique, a handsome 40-footer that accommodates three couples very comfortably, for about $2,000 per week.

We work with what we think are the two best self-hire barge companies in Europe. Between them, they have bases throughout France and also in Germany, Belgium, England, and Ireland. Nicols, our older partner and outfitter for this trip, provides very good service and has nice, well-maintained boats. But, candidly, we feel that for bigger barges, our newer partner, Connoisseur, is better. Their boats are newer, more spacious, and we like many of their design features. Some even incorporate microwaves, air-conditioning, and radio/CD players that will make your cruising more comfortable and convenient.

Taking It Easy

Crewed charter barges are the flip side of going it alone. Usually independently owned, these are older working vessels that, in their earlier days, carried coal or some other commodity. Today, they've been converted and customized by loving proprietors to carry paying guests. Needless to say, they often have lots of character. These barges range in length from about 60 to 100 feet, and most carry from six to 12 passengers. Cabins usually are the size of a small cruise ship stateroom, and most have private baths.

The level of luxury and service on crewed barges can vary widely. Some are casual and comfortable, others sumptuous. All tend to reflect the tastes and personality of the owner, who is often the operator. The minimum staff is usually two, but many barges run with four or five, including captain, cook, steward, and tour guide. Crews are occasionally multi-national, but most often you'll encounter a British crew, and English is the lingua franca. The majority of barges offer three meals a day aboard, with a formally served dinner. On some barges, the main meal of the day is taken at a nice restaurant ashore, at the expense of the guest.

Crewed charter barging allows you to customize itineraries for your group and offers privacy and independence—though less so than a self-hire barge. On the other hand, this type of barging means total relaxation—no cooking, cleaning, or boat handling—and the advantage of an informed crew to offer you lots of insight into the lifestyle, cuisine, wines, and attractions of the area. A good crew can add a lot to the experience of barging. All crewed charters are accompanied by a van or bus and offer interesting guided side trips to markets, castles, wineries, and local sites.

Plan to spend about $12,500 for a first-class boat accommodating six (e.g. the Sherborne) to about $16,000 for a deluxe boat of the same size (Claire de Lune). Depending on the season and the boat's degree of luxury, figure about $2,000 to $3,500 per person, with rates including all meals, onboard beverages, and side trips. Boats we inspected during our visit to the Canal du Midi included the Sherborne, Fandango, Tango, Claire de Lune, and Avenir. Others available are the Athos, La Tortue, and Anjodi. In conjunction with our partner, The Barge Lady, Hideaways can arrange charters on the most popular canals and rivers of France, Holland, Belgium, England, and Ireland.

Barging by the Cabin

On hotel barges, which also are usually reincarnated working boats, passengers book by the cabin. Canal hotel barges normally carry eight to 24 passengers, their size limited by the length of locks.

Hotel barges offer the same services and comfort levels of charter barges, but with a bit more structure. Of course, you're sailing with strangers, who surely won't be so for long. You may love them and make wonderful new friends—or they could be tourists from hell, and you'll be stuck with them for a week.

Some barges that normally charter also have open dates when they sell individual cabins. Rates on hotel barges run from $2,000 to almost $5,000 per person. Again, Hideaways, through our barging partners, has access to a full range of European hotel barges.

Barging Know-How

Where: Cruising is popular throughout France, which has more than 5,000 kilometers of navigable canals and rivers. Nicols, Hideaways' first self-hire barging partner, operates 16 bases in France, one on the River Elde in eastern Germany, and another in Holland at the gateway to Friesland. Connoisseur, our newest partner, has 20 bases in Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy.

When: The season runs from late March through early November. High season is July to late August. Some rivers flood in springtime, which could affect your plans. We found fall spectacular, but after mid-October, the weather can get iffy in northern regions, and canal-side restaurants and businesses begin to close for the season.

Getting there: Most bases are accessible by a combination of train and taxi. If you are barging for a week or more, don't bother renting a car that will sit at your base and run up parking fees.

Rental Periods: Most rentals run for one week, from 4 p.m. Saturday to 9 a.m. the following Saturday. Mid-week and weekend rentals are also available during low seasons, according to availability.

Costs: Nicols and Connoisseur offer a wide range of barges. For the smallest barges, which accommodate two to three people, Nicols' rates start at €496 (about $450) per week; their largest boats, for ten to 12 passengers, start at €1,850 (about $1,665). Connoisseur, which offers a more luxurious boat, accordingly charges a bit more; rates start at €850 (about $765) for the smallest barge, which accommodates up to three people, and €1,910 (about $1,720) for the largest, which sleeps eight. For both companies, high-season prices run up to 66% higher. Rentals beyond a week are discounted. One-way barge rentals, when available, cost about €100 extra; transfers of car and clients are extra.

What's included: Varies from company to company. What you usually get is a fully equipped boat, bed linens, propane, third-party and boat insurance, and technical support in case of any difficulties. You'll usually have to pay extra for things like bike rental, fuel (about €75-100), parking, pet charges, canal maps, and towels.

Helpful hints: Research the destinations that most interest you before deciding on which river or canal system to explore; take along a good guide book and map to the region. Compatibility with your cruising companions is important; you'll be sharing close quarters, cruising responsibilities, and activities ashore. Where "loop" trips are not possible, a one-way rental combined with rail transport to and from your cruise makes sense. Duffles or soft luggage stow better in boats than rigid suitcases; pack casual clothes, and dress in layers. You also might want to bring extra flashlights and two-way radios to keep in touch with your group should you split up for shore excursions. Reserve at least a couple of months in advance, more for high-season barging.

Spring/Summer 2002

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