Going with the flow on the rivers of Bordeaux
As the third-largest country in Western Europe, France provides an opportunity to experience some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes.
Nick Constance makes waves cruising the waterways of Bordeaux and Gascony aboard a hotel barge.
There’s something rather charming about waving to locals from a slow-moving barge. I find myself waving so many times that, by the end of the week, I’m simply nodding.
Our barge, Rosa, is a 30-metre-long ‘Clipper’, originally built in the Netherlands in 1907 to carry coal and gravel, but she recently had the renovators in and is now very much in the 21st century.
Rosa also played a starring role in the hugely successful TV series Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, which took him via the Canal des Deux Mers and the Canal du Midi, connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Stepping aboard a hotel barge
We’re met in the centre of Bordeaux by our tour guide Adele and whisked off in a minibus to join our ‘floating hotel’.
The hour-long drive passes swiftly: the countryside is ablaze with fields of Van Goghian sunflowers as we meander through a landscape of derelict castles and fairytale châteaux.
When we reach the barge we’re greeted with chilled champagne and warm ‘welcome aboard’ smiles. Introductions over, our delightful host Ellie (Elisa) then shows me to my air-conditioned cabin, a comfortable and cosy space with proper beds and decent pillows.
The crew consists of an experienced pilot, a tour guide, a host and our gourmet chef whose delicious creations continue to thrill throughout the week.
Nothing is too much trouble for the crew – I could ask one of them to go to London and pick up a favourite pen I left in a bedside drawer and they’d probably do it.
There’s time to freshen up and take a stroll into the village before dinner. The barge remains docked overnight, so we rendezvous at 7.30pm. There’s no assigned seating for meals and the dining table accommodates all eight guests at a single sitting – this encourages chat and banter as the week progresses.
Sampling the wines and cheeses of France
Chef (and barge owner) Dominique has prepared a traditional French meal, rich with produce bought locally just hours before our arrival.
Wines such as Cheval Noir Saint-Emilion, Château d’Arcins and Crozes-Hermitage are pretty much ‘on tap’ throughout the week. Likewise, delectable cheeses such as Le Bleu du Quercy, Templais Sec, Cabécou, Roquefort and Laguiole round off our meals beautifully.
Cruises of this nature will appeal to wine-lovers, and as such European Waterways offers themed trips with visits to vineyards and cellars across France, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg, as well as Scotland and Ireland.
It’s usually a buffet-style breakfast and lunch, while dinner is a more formal (and candlelit) affair where Dominque showcases his repertoire of foodie delights. (pavé de saumon et son fenouil confit à l’orange, anyone?)
All drinks are included, which means wine and beer with meals, but also a wide range of spirits are available from the (self-service) bar.
For teetotallers, an endless supply of tea, coffee and non-alcoholic beverages keep thoughts of mutiny at bay. Midweek, our chef takes a well-earned rest as guests go ashore for dinner at a local auberge. There’s also a Captain’s farewell dinner on the final night.
The rhythm of onboard life
Rosa’s air-conditioned interior includes a dining room-cum-saloon, with comfy sofas and a large coffee table. There are four cabins, grandly referred to as staterooms, each with ensuite facilities. And when I say facilities, we’re talking complimentary Wi-Fi, which is remarkable considering half the time we appear to be in the middle of nowhere.
I’m mindful that it’s difficult to let go of our gadget-mad lives, but here the ambience compels us to do exactly this. The best part of our trip is the absolute tranquillity, changing my mindset and getting in tune with the rhythm of onboard life.
Normally, I would hardly get a buzz from visiting a goat’s cheese farm or a cooperage – a barrel-making factory – but this is what you do on a barge trip – lower your ego and live in the moment. I learn, for instance, that goat’s cheese tastes even better when paired with a crisp Entre-Deux-Mers white Bordeaux wine. Who knew?
Another blessing is that our barge is always moored overnight, so there’s no clinking and clanking of the engine to keep us awake. It is, in fact, a canal regulation – no movement at night.
The sights and tastes of Bordeaux and Gascony
During the day, the landscape unfolds slowly: sometimes it’s like steering a boat through an enchanted forest. Other times, it’s a landscape of vineyard-clad hills and a string of half-timbered medieval towns and villages.
During our time off the boat, Adele (our guide and driver) takes us on excursions to such places as the 12th-century Château de Duras and the medieval town (and castle) of Nérac in the footsteps of King Henry IV. There’s also a tour and tasting at Armagnac producer Domaine de Lapeyrade.
On another day we visit the 11th-century Saint-Pierre Abbey in Moissac. The cloister is the oldest in the world and if this place doesn’t move you, nothing will.
The majesty of Mother Nature
Early on in the week we cross the Pont-Canal d’Agen, a 570-metre aqueduct that carries the Canal de Garonne across the Garonne River. There’s always something new to see.
Later in the week, for instance, our itinerary is brought to a grinding halt by two heavy trees strewn across the canal – the result of a thunderstorm the previous night. Another wayward tree had also crashed into the electricity supply box of a lock we’d recently passed through. We’re affectively stuck between two fallen trees and a broken lock.
Strangely, nobody gets alarmed – certainly not the crew. Joel, our unflappable pilot, assesses the situation and – once the lock is operable – skilfully reverses and swings the boat in the opposite direction. Cue round of applause from the locals and other boat users. After all, it can’t be easy U-turning a barge in a narrow canal, especially with an audience watching (and filming) your every move.
Mother Nature can sometimes add to the excitement of a journey and she certainly does on this occasion. In a few months, I’ll probably be telling the tale of how this mighty vortex of trouble lifted our boat clean out of the canal.
Exploring and getting around the canals
Rosa’s additional facilities include eight bicycles, a small library, a music system, a spacious sundeck and – for any budding ornithologists – binoculars.
You can either spend your mornings riding along the towpath, or soaking up the utter luxury of peace and quiet on the sundeck. Making this choice is probably the most exhausting thing you’ll do all week.
Most mornings I choose the bike option. I stoke up on breakfast then head out to the nearest village, wheel around, move on, smell the trees and get some air into my lungs. This trip might turn out to be the best antidote for city life ever.
Price for a six-night cruise aboard Rosa starts from £2750pp (2017 price) in a twin/double cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full barge charters are also available for families and groups.