By Carol Canter.
Floating by barge through France’s canal-laced countryside underscores the pleasures of dining on meals prepared from fresh locally-sourced ingredients.
Our first lunch onboard the 8-passenger Anjodi made this abundantly clear. The buffet was no less than a delectable culinary map of the surrounding Languedoc region in the south of France, featuring a beautiful salade niçoise (from Nice) with red mullet; tielle – an octopus pie from the neighboring seaport of Sète; brandade de morue — a salt cod and olive oil paste; warm rocket, potato and mussel salad; green salad; and a pissaladière — a provençal pizza made with anchovies, olives and onions.
Star billing went to the oysters, served au natural gleaming in their briny shells and grilled as Oysters Kilpatrick. Both dishes recalled our short sunset spin the night before through the oyster beds of the Étang de Thau, a vast saltwater lake off Marseillan, where we first boarded the Anjodi.
It was a fine beginning to a trip based on culinary magic, as performed by our brilliant young British Chef Lauren Clare Scott. The wines were a revelation as well, all the more as we came to understand the terroir, or characteristics of the land from which they originate.
So, as we returned to the barge from our first morning excursion to Pézenas, a charming flower-draped town of narrow cobblestone streets and remains of an ancient Jewish ghetto, the road was lined with vineyards of Picpoul grapes. Giant red poppies sprouted up among the vines on this cool April day, as our guide and wine expert Julian Allsop described for us the very typical French regional varietal planted here to go with the oysters from the surrounding beds. He thus readied our palates for the 2010 Duc de Morny Picpoul de Pinet we would soon be sipping at lunch, a crisp chilled white he promised would pair beautifully with the oysters.
The sense of total well being, perhaps heightened by our first glass, came well before the selection of cheeses and desserts that were to accompany each gourmet lunch and dinner during our 6-night cruise.
Was the trip about more than fine food and wine? Absolutely. Barge cruising is slow travel at its best, a chance to settle into the rhythms and textures of life along a French waterway from your very own floating boutique hotel. Best of all, a crackerjack crew of four – captain, tour guide/deckhand, gourmet chef and hostess – ensures that everything works smoothly, as they share their expertise about the history, politics and culture, not to mention the food and wine of the region.
With a ratio of one crew member to two passengers, the service is beyond personalized. Your every need is anticipated. While our captain was plotting on a map a bicycle route for my husband and me that would take us high into hillside villages overlooking farms and vineyards, Julian arranged for a couple from Wales to meet with a local artist in the tiny village of Somail. Chef Lauren went off each morning for an early jog along the towpath, returning with armloads of flaky croissants and crusty baguettes from the local boulangerie. Later she would tend her herb garden and prepare another memorable meal.
Forays into the surrounding region of the Languedoc: Our forays into the surrounding region of the Languedoc were nothing short of time travel. They took us all the way back to the Roman Empire’s second city, Narbonne, where we walked for a moment on the Via Domitia, an excavated portion of the original Roman road founded in 118 B.C. From there we leaped forward to 1901, as we entered a historic building housing Les Halles, Narbonne’s bustling food market. Fresh fish and produce would provide ingredients for Chef Scott’s upcoming meal; fresh cut flowers would grace her table.
I once visited Carcassonne in summer, when the circle of towers and turrets and ramparts of this complete medieval fortified city shimmered ghostly pale under a full moon. This time, we ducked inside the ancient Cathedral to escape a cold wind, only to be enthralled by more Carcassone magic: a Russian quartet harmonizing, their heavenly voices rising to the light that poured through the stained glass windows.
Minerve, everyone’s favorite medieval village, is designated “L’un des plus beaux villages de France” for a reason. “One of France’s most beautiful villages” is defined by its setting at the junction of two rivers that cut through dramatic limestone gorges. Narrow winding alleyways are lined with the studios of potters and painters, glassblowers and jewelers, their flower boxes splashing wild colors across the facades of ancient stone buildings.
Following a wine tasting at the 14th century Chateau de Perdiguier, the beautiful frescoes and antiques inspired one of our Australian passengers to buy an antique platter that managed to survive her long trip home. At an olive co-op we found lovely olive wood cutting boards, sampled the fruits plain, in tapenades and in oils, and learned how they’re harvested and pressed. And then we bought escargots and a bit of charcuterie for hors d’oeuvres back on the barge.
We became a family of sorts during our week aboard the Anjodi, sharing a life far removed from our normal routines. There were late night soaks in the hot tub under a starry sky and afternoon champagne and strawberries on the sundeck as fleeting vignettes of the French countryside were unveiled.
Unexpected were the wild horses grazing the marshland and the pink flamingos. Vivid were the painted shutters and doors on old stone houses in indigos and reds. Sublime were the distant Pyrénées, the mountains that separate France from Spain. Immediate were the warnings to duck at the approach of a low arcing bridge or tunnel. Fascinating were the locks, especially at Fonserannes, which allowed boats to ascend a stairway of seven locks in just a few hundred feet.
History of the Canal du Midi: The Fonserannes lock staircase draws steady crowds who come to marvel at this engineering tour de force. Barges line up for a turn to rise up 70 feet by way of seven locks, eight basins and three lock chambers. The whole scene is pretty cool, as we share the excitement of families watching from the stone banks and overhead bridges. School age kids are waving and posing for photos and trying out their English as our barge reaches new heights. Of course we raise a glass to our fine captain and crew, and to Pierre-Paul Riquet, native son of nearby Beziers whose vision and drive made construction of the Canal du Midi possible.
Louis XIV’s wealthy salt tax collector envisioned a waterway that would link the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. Twelve thousand men laboring 15 years dug the channels and built the tunnels, bridges, aqueducts and locks — like the one we were entering — that made the 150-mile Canal du Midi a marvel of engineering and Europe’s oldest functioning canal. In 1996 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though Riquet died in debt just months before the canal’s completion in 1681, his new trade route brought wealth to king and country and eventual renown to himself and his hilltop town of Beziers. Captains of trading ships, once subject to pirate attack as they rounded the Strait of Gibraltar, could now pilot a safe efficient route through the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France.
The Canal du Midi flows from Marseillan, near Sete in the east, to Toulouse in the west where it joins the Garonne River. Along the way are vineyards and fishing villages, medieval cities and wilderness areas, chateaux and historic monuments.
Would Riquet have envisioned the pleasure boat capital his canal would become more than three centuries later, as the slow pace of life on the waterway exerts a lure on today’s wired traveler? Would he have imagined the sweetness of life aboard a small Dutch vessel that once carried grain – and now carries passengers from across the globe?
This we pondered one week in April, couples from California, Australia and Wales, strangers who came to live life in all its fullness on the 8-passenger Anjodi. While we came for diverse reasons: to celebrate a 75th birthday, recovery from illness, retirement, and a daughter-in-law’s run in the Paris Marathon, we all were ready for what Edith Piaf called “La Vie en Rose” . . . and so we savored life on the Canal du Midi through our rose-colored glasses.
The Barge Anjodi: Built in 1927 as a self-propelled cargo barge to carry grain between Paris and Amsterdam, Anjodi was specifically rebuilt to navigate the Canal du Midi. Her narrow girth allows for easy navigation through the canal system. She was converted into a hotel barge in 1983, spankingly refurbished with gleaming African hardwoods and handcrafted paneling, and acquitted with shining brass fittings for the portholes. Her light-filled salon/dining room, formerly the midship cargo hold, measures 13’ x 21.’ Social center of the barge, the warm and welcoming gathering place has two sofas, a coffee table, fully stocked bar, and always fresh fruit and flowers.
Four staterooms offer the choice of two single beds or a double, but the latter is not recommended.
The cabins are compact, so it’s advised to pack light. The dress code is relaxed and informal, although some passengers dress up a bit for the Captain’s Dinner. Comfortable walking shoes with non-slip soles are a must.
Three daily meals, served at the dining table seating up to nine people, begins with a “light” breakfast of flaky croissants, pastries and crusty baguettes bought that morning from the local boulangerie and served with fruits, yogurts, cereals and sometimes charcuterie and cheeses. Lunch and dinner are delectable multi-course creations. One dinner began with pan-seared scallops with an orange and tomato cream sauce served on a bed of lentils, followed by filet mignon of pork served with cabbage, chestnuts and a mushroom and Madeira sauce. Following a cheese course of extra-aged Mimolette and a Selles-Sur-Cher goats’ milk cheese, came a Tarte Tatin with caramel sauce. A Limoux Blanc and Pic St Loup Rouge were the featured wines.
One salubrious change from the early days of barging is the use of the towpath. It was once men – and women – that laboriously pulled the vessel by means of a towrope hitched around their waist. Today’s barges happily are powered by their own energy, leaving the towpath for recreational use by fishermen, cyclists, joggers and strollers out exercising the family dog.
If You Go: Other European Waterways’ barges that cruise the Canal du Midi include Clair de Lune, Athos and the state-of-the-art Enchanté, a double-decker vessel built to the highest standard with four double-bedded suites that measure 200 square feet. Visit the company’s website to view these and other canal trips in Burgundy, Provence and the River Rhône, Gascony, and the Loire Valley in France. Trips are also offered in Italy, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, Scotland, England and Ireland. Prices include all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full boat charters are also available.
Contact European Waterways Toll Free: 1-877-879-8808 or www.gobarging.com
Contact the French Government Tourist Office at: http://us.france.fr/
Narbonne is the pickup and drop-off point for this barge trip. Contact Rail Europe for train schedules between Paris and Narbonne.