A Movable Feast

A barge makes a splendid base from which to visit some of the most scenic parts of France

barge picture

Sitting in the sun and the breeze on the deck of a hotel barge, midway between a good lunch and a good dinner, with a book and a glass of cold Diet Coke? Evian? wine? on the table before you as you survey the scene, you wave hello to an old paysan fishing on the green bank of the canal, admire a pair of swans swimming, and chuckle fondly at a children's kayaking class--could there be any more idyllic way to see France? You've spent the morning tramping around historic sites, and soon the barge will be tying up at a little town where you can go for a walk and buy an ice cream or a newspaper.

Last summer I spent six days floating through the Champagne region on a barge named the Esprit, as a guest of its owners, French Country Waterways, and I was intrigued to note that it seemed to be just a few inches narrower than the locks through which we passed several times a day on canals and rivers. The Esprit, like most of the dozens of hotel barges plying their trade in various regions of France, has been retrofitted with heating and air-conditioning, guest cabins (the Esprit's are very clean and comfortable, though far from sybaritic), a dining room, a bar and lounge, and, out on deck, patio chairs, pots of geraniums, and a rack of bicycles.

Every other mode of transportation within France has limitations and disadvantages vis-à-vis barging. If you restrict yourself to planes and taxis, you are in effect turning your back on the lovely countryside. If you travel by train, you'll have to keep shlepping your bags from the station to the hotel and back. Rent a car and you'll not only have to keep packing and unpacking but also have to drive. Bicycling, too, presents the packing and unpacking problem, and it's a lot of work besides. A cruise ship will limit you to major ports on major waterways. Hotel-barge travel tends to be priced comparably to cruise travel in a nice cabin on a nice ship: about $300 to $500 per person per day, including all excursions, cocktails, meals, and wine. Then again, it is possible to rent a do-it-yourself barge quite inexpensively--say, $1,000 a week for a barge that sleeps four--although doing so will not make for a logistically simple trip. The difference is like that between a good hotel and a rental condo--except, of course, that you never have to pilot a condo or learn the drill for maneuvering it through locks. Because Europe's waterways are mostly ancient (some of the canals date back to the Romans), barging offers one other, minor advantage I hadn't expected: often towns, and grand old buildings, face the water, not the highway.

Many of the barges that now carry travelers once carried freight, but this mode of transportation is no longer particularly economical for hauling commodities around Europe, and an abundance of barges are available for sale cheap. What's more, the pool of travelers whose thinking runs along the same lines as mine is ever widening. Thus hotel barges are a growth industry. I can't prove it, but seemingly so are houseboats. In Paris on the Seine, or in any of the towns where the hotel barges visit, you'll see snug vessels tied up along the quays or the banks, with jungles of houseplants and chic natural-canvas umbrellas on deck. These tend to be owned by French people or foreign retirees, and the owners have tales to tell about their journeys as far afield as Belgium and Germany: continental Europe altogether has more than 6,000 miles of navigable inland waterways.

deck picture The hotel barges are for the most part booked and crewed by Americans and English people. On my trip last summer all thirteen guests were American (the Esprit, which is relatively big for a hotel barge, has space for eighteen guests; some others accommodate no more than six or eight). Five of the six crew members were young and English; the sixth, Sondrine, was young and French. They provided lovely service. One guest couple, evidently more accustomed to five-star hotels than most of us, found their attitude too informal. The couple were displeased, for example, that the crew rarely called us by name. But I was happy not to get responses like "I'm afraid the captain is unavailable just now, Ms. Wallraff." I was told instead, "Ian is showering. Would you like me to give him a message?" In general the effect was of friendly, natural, well-spoken young people doing everything they could think of to please us--and being happy to do it. Every now and then, while we were sitting at dinner, we'd hear the crew burst into song out in the galley. They had perhaps been nipping at what was left of the good wine they'd served us the day before. (The company says that leftover wine and food are given to lockkeepers along the route.)

AH, the wine. And the cheese. At every lunch and every dinner we were served a good French red wine and a good French white, and at the end of the meal a tray of three cheeses was presented. No wine or cheese ever repeated, and each was introduced, or explained, by a member of the crew: where it was from, what the history of its name was, and so on. We all came to look forward to the droll "cheese chats," as the crew called them; we began to call them "cats du fromage." The majority of the wine was from premier- and grand-cru vineyards: better stuff than most of us would order for ourselves day in and day out--especially in France, where a fairly ordinary bottle in a restaurant can easily run to $40. And in a restaurant if you wanted just one more taste of the red to go with your cheese, you'd never call for another bottle. But on the Esprit, whenever anyone wanted, another was cheerfully brought to the table.

Each morning one of the crew went into town to buy bread and an assortment of treats from the best local bakery, and these baked goods, along with cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice, and coffee, made up our breakfast buffet. As for lunch and dinner, I freely admit that we were in the care of an English chef. Ours was a live-wire kid with stiff dyed-blond hair and pants patterned with black-and-white checks the size of floor tiles, and also a kid who knew his way around a galley and knew how to set off to advantage the wonderful local ingredients--mache and morels, raspberries and Charentais melon, locally cured ham and foie gras.

A HOTEL barge offers the traveler France lite. You don't have to eat dinner at eight-thirty or nine to show that you're not some hick foreigner who doesn't know any better: dinner is served at seven-thirty. You don't have to struggle to make yourself understood: the crew speak English as well as French. You've already paid, and so you don't have to keep shelling out francs, day by day, hour by hour. You don't have to puzzle over maps and menus and wine lists. You don't, frankly, have to lift a finger.

balloon picture If, reading this, you are appalled at how much of the "real" France the barge traveler I am describing is missing, you might be a good candidate for renting your own barge--what hotel-barge travelers are in the midst of, after all, is about as real as France gets. You can indeed rent a barge that comes with no crew whatsoever, and what you'll need to know to get through the locks and so on is not too ambitious for adventurous people to learn on vacation. The way to take such a trip, I found from talking to those who have done it, is to plan fanatically; to travel as a group of at least four, including some stouthearted persons who won't mind the manual labor involved in getting through the locks; and to rent a car as well, tailing the barge in it in order to have it available for sightseeing excursions and food shopping.

Be that as it may, the owners of the hotel barges work diligently to get their guests out into France. A large, very comfortable motor coach traveled with the Esprit, sometimes following us or sneaking off to do errands while we all cruised, and sometimes carrying us to see the cathedral at Rheims, or to visit the tiny, family-owned Ployez-Jacquemart champagne vineyard and taste its goods, or to tour the Belleau Woods battlefield, cemetery, and memorial from the First World War, or to attend a beautiful private dinner at the abbey where Dom Perignon lived and worked in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

When there's nothing planned, you can concoct your own adventure if you like: the barge must stop frequently at locks, and whenever it does, you're free to hop off, perhaps taking a sturdy, balloon-tired bike with you. ("Hop" is the word: the barge is stationary and more or less level with the bank for only a few moments.) The barge often moves at no more than a walking pace, so where there's a towpath you may walk instead if you like. The crew know which stretches of the trip are best for bicycling, and one day we asked them to put up a picnic for six of us. They packed the food on the carriers behind the seats of six bikes, and then handed the bikes ashore at a lock we reached shortly before lunchtime. We pedaled madly uphill for a half hour or so in the heat, wondering if this had been such a good idea. And then the land smoothed out and opened up, and we were coasting past vineyards and red poppies and wheat and brilliant-yellow fields of canola. It wasn't long before we found ourselves in a village, back by the river, at a picnic table in a park under huge old trees. We waved as the barge came past, leisurely finished our meal, and tidied up the empty food containers to please those dears on the crew--and then we pedaled madly again to get to the next lock on time.

Often hotel-barge trips offer an optional hot-air-balloon excursion, and the combination is an inspired one: the barge tends to follow the lowest contours on the landscape, whereas the balloon lofts you above it. A basketload of five of us soared up from a high school soccer field one morning in the care of Vincent Dupuis, with whom French Country Waterways makes it a point to work, because he is a personable, English-speaking former world ballooning champion with an excellent safety record (his company's name is Air Adventures). As we glided along above the villages, dogs barked, cats ran, cows gaped, and plump farmwives flung open their shutters, looked up, and called to their husbands and children to come see. "Ça va?" Vincent would call down to them, and we would all wave. We flitted around for an hour or so and then Vincent began looking for a place to land. Early to mid summer is the hardest time of year to find a good spot, he explained, because in every field is growing something a farmer values. Sure enough, outside the towns little but the river and a quilt of bounteous agriculture was to be seen anywhere beneath us. At last we set down, very carefully, on a six-foot-wide dirt road between a field of tall wheat and a field of oats, and immediately the farmer who owned the field came driving out in his truck, with his dog, to have a look around. Vincent invited the man to join us for croissants, coffee, and champagne--a breakfast his assistant whisked from the van in which he had been following us all the while.

ANY kind of barge trip takes some thoughtful planning. The hotel-barge industry is tiny, and its "product" is not yet a commodity in the way that, say, Caribbean cruises are: even in the same barge on the same route no two barge cruises will be alike. Obviously, the region a given barge travels through is an important consideration when you're choosing a trip to take. (Down the Loire and on the Saône and the canals of Burgundy in September, when the vineyards are harvesting their grapes, are the classic routes, and the ones that sell out first.) The size of the barge--how many passengers it carries--will also affect how you experience your trip. In fact, the passengers themselves will be crucial to your experience, so it's not a bad idea to quiz someone from the barge company about the others who have reservations on a trip you are interested in. Do make sure that, for example, on an eight-person barge the other people aren't all old friends traveling together. Also while deciding what to book, make your priorities known. Are you most interested in an itinerary that includes many historic sites? In having a spacious cabin? In exploring the region's food and wine?

This year French Country Waterways (800-222-1236) has deployed all four of its barges, including the Esprit, in Burgundy. Other companies continue to offer itineraries in Champagne, and in Alsace-Lorraine, Brittany, and the south. There are, as well, owner-operated barges that are not part of any larger company, and these often allow you to customize your itinerary, excursions, and menu, but they are usually available by charter only, so this option is for the most part practical only if you can assemble a traveling party of at least five or six. Information about these barges, and about the do-it-yourself ones, can be found in the Yacht Charter Guide, which many travel agents have. Or you can call the French Government Tourist Office (900-990-0040; there's a charge of fifty cents a minute) and ask to be sent its list of barge operators.

Although it wouldn't be especially helpful for choosing a barge (its list of operators is sorely wanting), Waterways of Europe, in the Insight guidebook series, is full of lovely photographs and is useful for background. I found a copy in the library on board the Esprit. It was a good choice one afternoon to carry into the sun and the breeze on deck, to flip through idly while I waited for another paysan with a fishing pole to appear round the bend.

Photographs by Julian H. Fisher

The Atlantic Monthly; February, 1996; A Movable Feast; Volume 277, No. 2; pages 38-43.