YOU MIGHT KEEP
It was intermission at the New York Met where French opera singer Natalie Dessay had just been belting out her best in the comic opera, La Fille du Régiment. Adages like "it's a small world," "birds of a feather flock together," and "you can never get enough of a good thing" really hit home when I realized that standing behind us in the cocktail line was a couple who, like myself, had just returned from a hotel barging trip in France. On my trip I had been invited as a guest journalist, so I was keen on knowing what they had to say about barging. Instead, they were the ones who pumped me for information-- they were so eager to go on another cruise-- and I found myself scribbling the Go Barging fleet address on their program.
Just to step aboard a vintage 1930's Dutch cargo barge like the one I cruised on, the Impressionniste, refurbished and converted to a hotel barge in 1995, is a thrill. Living on one of them for a week while gliding through the easy-to-fall-in-love with French countryside is near nirvana.
It's definitely not "roughing it." Candlelight dinners, healthy breakfasts and mouth-watering noontime buffets punctuate the days filled with morning visits to towns and villages, then afternoon river and canal cruising. These quaint, floating four-star boutique hotels with well-trained bi-lingual crews who never miss a cue, cater typically to English-speaking tourists. They feature every convenience and then some, not to mention a perpetually changing nec plus ultra: calming sights and sounds of French country water living. As I wrote in a France Today Magazine article, this kind of barging can never be more taxing than deciding which shoes to wear, the comfortable ones or the not-so-comfortable ones.
By the second day of the Impressionniste cruise through the Carmargue rice lands along the Rhône we began to lose track of time. The morning spent strolling Pézenas streets and studying the city's noble 17th century architecture, then devouring the plump world-famous Bouzigues oysters on the half-shell we had had for lunch while crossing the Basin de Thau, a large salt water lagoon with immense oyster and mussel farms, seemed ions away-- though only the day before.
Our itinerary was relaxed and at the same time full. We roamed around historic sites like the Tour de Constance, a 13th century lighthouse that had once guided Crusaders into port at Aigue Mortes and admired the expanse of pastel tiled rooftops from the town's ramparts. We moored along a thin strip of bank parallel to the Mediterranean, and walked over to collect seashells and driftwood on a wild beach, a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the colorful port of Sète we had just left behind.
We pet circus animals before their early evening performance in an old-world basket weaving village where we sipped our afternoon coffee. In Arles, we window-shopped to our hearts' content while exploring Van Gogh's old haunts, and stood reverent before the town's Roman ruins and arena. We trooped through the pope's palace in Avignon and combed the city known as the "Other Rome" before we headed back to the barge for the cook's bouquet final, the Captain's dinner. And after that feast, the first mate stupefied us with a card trick we're still trying to figure out.
With choice sight-seeing activities, ever-changing countryside and all the comfy places to stretch out on the barge inside and out, there was never a sense of confinement or crowding. Many wonder about how interpersonal relations are among the passengers on a hotel barge. They can matter in the decision to go on a cruise. Some want to "know before they go" and reserve the entire barge with friends or family, to eliminate the element of surprise of whose company they'll keep during the voyage. Others count on making new and interesting friends, and just go. Either way, it's a safe bet for an enchanting voyage like no other.
The Impressionniste is now cruising the Burgundy Canal.
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Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron