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The idea of a barge cruise through France occurred by chance while I was waiting for my French instructor at Alliance Francaise one evening. I was reading the French magazines and ran across an article about cruising the French rivers and canals by barge. I actually jotted down the URL’s for some barge websites, but quickly filed the information for future study because it was time for my French lesson to begin. Some time later Robin and I were brainstorming ideas for the next RHATT trip and I mentioned the possibility of a barge cruise. Robin coincidentally had considered barge cruises as well so the plan was launched to book a cruise. All we had to do was find a time that suited our complicated schedules; we agreed that October of 2004 would work for everyone. Robin began her exhaustive research of every possible cruise in France and we chose the Athos on the Canal du Midi. We decided to charter the entire barge, which would accommodate 12 passengers and then started to invite friends and family to join us. Robin and Steve recruited Bill and Kathy Morton; Hugh and Becky couldn’t convince anyone to join the trip. We all met in Paris on Saturday October 23.
Saturday 23 October 2004
Bill and Kathy arrived in Paris from Boston a few hours before Robin and Steve arrived from Newark. They met in the Charles d’Gaulle airport and found the transport to the Chateaudun hotel. They spent the morning touring the Opera, the Arc Arc d’Triumph and the Champs Elysee . Hugh and Becky arrived a few hours later and joined the group at the hotel. We decided to visit St. Chapelle on l’isle de la Cite to view the marvelous stained glass windows. The walk to the island took us past the Palais Royal, the Louvre and along the Seine. We had to wait about 30 minutes to enter St. Chapelle, but all agreed the time waiting was worth the view of the windows on the second floor. From St. Chapelle we found a nice bistro and began the first of many happy hours with French wine, cheese and bread. All of us were fighting jet lag so we decided on a time to meet for dinner later that evening and then returned to the hotel for a little rest.
Sunday 24 October 2004
The complimentary continental breakfast at the Chateaudun was not the highlight of the day but at least there was coffee. We met our driver who took us to the Gare de Lyon where we boarded the TGV (Tres Grand Vitesse) for the four hour ride to Montpelier. The train was comfortable and quiet considering we were moving at 260 kilometers per hour. We arrived about an hour before the Athos Crew came to pick us up; we thought that we would be met on arrival but after rereading the information we realized that they would be at the station at 4:00pm and that’s exactly when they arrived. During the hour we waited for the crew we were entertained by the French drivers who came to drop off and pick up passengers…their driving skills could cause road rage in Texas. We really expected a French crew to meet us at the train station but after I tried to introduce myself in French I learned that they were all British, Canadian or South African and English was the preferred language. The Athos was docked about 45 minutes drive from Montpelier at the fishing village of Marseillan on the Etang de Thau. Julian, the captain, drove one van and Robert, the deckhand, drove the other…each provided an explanation of the country we were seeing and points of interest like the local oyster beds. As we arrived at the dock we discovered the Athos decorated with lots of flowers and potted herbs on the deck; we entered the lovely salon (where we would spend a lot of time) and met Danielle (tour director, wife of Julian) and the other crew. We went to our cabins; a bit on the small side but to be expected. In the salon we had our welcome champagne along with some lovely hors d'oeuvres. Pixie (the chef) would produce wonderful meals. Heather was the other all around person on board. We found the CD’s, the books and the board games. Hugh, Becky and Steve took bikes and went for a ride while Kathy, Bill and Robin took a walk. It was a bit gray but still interesting to explore the small local town.
We returned to find the table set with linens and candles (as it would be every night) and sat down for our first dinner. The serious eating and drinking began. We had a vegetable appetizer/starter, lovely chicken in a mustard sauce with scallions and potatoes, then the cheese course and finally a crème brulee. White wine to start and then red. Plus good bread. We never had the same cheese twice nor the same red, white or rose wine. What we also quickly noticed was that the portion size was small which was great. We finished the evening with our usual single malt and chocolate. All of us knew that this was going to be a very, very nice week.
A note about the Athos. According to Julian the 30 meter barge (the maximum length that the locks can accommodate) was built in the ‘50’s for freight service on the Canal du Midi and was in service until freight service ceased on the canal when commercial freight barges could no longer economically compete with the railroads. The barge was converted to a hotel barge in the late 80’s and can accommodate 12 passengers and a crew of five. It is fully air conditioned with en suite baths in each of the guest rooms. The sun deck has tables and chairs and bicycles for all of the guests. For more information about the Athos visit http://www.athoscruises.com/ .
Monday 25 October 2004
Overall consensus - good showers and water pressure, temperature control in the cabins needed tweaking and breakfast was fine. All week we would have cereal, yogurt, juice, coffee, bread and/or croissants, fruit and sometimes meat and cheese. Danielle took us (via van) to Sete, a nearby town that is where the Canal du Midi actually begins. The drive was interesting and we wound our way up to a promontory point above the city. We were at the Chapel de la Sallette where a miracle occurred. As it happens there are two other chapels for this miracle in the North America, one in Attleboro, MA near Kathy & Bill. The view was good although hazy. From there we headed into Sete to the Central market to pick up some very fresh fish for dinner. They were so fresh they were still flopping around even hours later as poor Pixie attempted to prepare them. The noises from the galley were most amusing. We ambled around Sete; being Monday morning not much was open or going on. We did find a paper and learned that the Red Sox had won their first game of the World Series.We headed back to the barge for lunch. It was mussels and oysters (for those who indulged in such items), salad and quiche for the rest of us; cheese, bread, rose wine. One could easily get used to this. Then we were finally under way. This end of the canal was not terribly picturesque, however, it wasn't butt ugly either. Plein trees lined both banks and according to Julian there are 44,000 of them along the canal and each is numbered. We could not see these numbers but we did take his word on it. We went through several locks of varying size and shape; some were open. We went under some bridges that looked just a bit tight but we made it through every one (often with inches to spare). We sat outside or in (depending on the temperature/sun), we read, napped, chatted and generally relaxed. Can you say VACATION?? We docked just short of another lock with time to ride bikes or walk before happy hour and then yet another meal.
Tuesday, Oct. 26 th
This morning's excursion was to Pezenas, an interesting old town dating back to the Crusade era and the Cathars (whom none of us had ever heard of). After many battles etc the literary crowd of Moliere arrived. Danielle took us around some of the historic sites including the Jewish Quarter and gave us 'clyde cakes'. If you’ve never had a clyde cake you haven’t missed anything. We ambled around and found access to the 'net (Red Sox up 2-0; Pats won). We continued to walk around, a bit of rain but it was a picturesque town. Then it was back to the barge for another meal. Hugh and Becky took the bikes, exiting from one lock; Steve and Bill took the bikes and exited from the next lock while Kathy & Robin walked. Meanwhile the barge cruised along. Even walking was lovely; the towpath is tree-lined, lots of folks were out and about and the weather was pleasant. We all got back on the barge at another lock, crossed over an aqueduct over a river and then the real fun began. The barge went through the Fonseronnes 7-lock staircase; up a total of 40 feet. It was great; Julian would move the barge into place, tie it up; the back gate would close and then all this water would RUSH in raising the barge quite quickly and we'd move on to the next level. All of the locals were out watching our progress. It took about an hour to go through all of the locks and we all agreed that it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip thus far.
We docked just beyond the last lock. Hugh, Becky and Bill took a walk back to look at the locks and aqueduct while the rest of us read. Dinner was again excellent and we followed it with a scrabble game (men vs. women - the ladies won).
Wednesday, Oct 27 th
Since the barge was not leaving right away and we didn't have a morning excursion, after breakfast we headed back down to look at the locks and aqueduct. It's hard to see that it is a canal crossing the river even with another boat going over. Weather was a bit cool. We spent some of the morning reading and being lazy slugs. Eventually we started cruising. This part of the canal had many "S" curves. The canal also narrowed quite a bit. Mid afternoon Hugh and Becky went off on the bikes while the rest of us read, napped etc. About 3:30 we headed (via van) for Minerve. Our first stop was an olive oil processing plant. We saw the huge stones used to do the 'first press'. And of course we had to purchase some 'unfiltered' oil. Then to Minerve where the Minervois wine comes from.
This is a town in the midst of a natural gorge. It sort of pops out at you as you drive around a very curvy road. Danielle took us to the church and showed us the altar. Then we went down into the gorge and into a huge cave. It was quite something. Weather was not terrific and there was a bit of rain off and on. From there we stopped at a local vineyard for a tasting. The wine was decent. What was interesting was the locals coming in with 2-3 liter plastic containers to fill up with 'jug' wine. Then back to the barge for yet another dinner. We sat around, talked, called the folks and found out that Boston was up 3-0. Weather a bit more variable today but we're managing (all the wine sure helps).
Thursday, Oct. 28 th
Although it seemed quite dark when we first got up, the sun came out as we finished breakfast. This morning we headed to Narbonne. It was a lovely city with a Roman Museum. We were surprised to see how many artifacts had been found in this area, including many mosaic floors. We also saw the cathedral. Thursday is market day in Narbonne and what a spectacular day it was. The sun was out, the temperature pleasant and the streets full of vendors selling everything from underwear to items you never knew you needed. We also found the food market; a HUGE covered area. You could get anything you wanted or needed--fish, meat, cheese, wine, pastry, flowers. We all did some more walking around before meeting Danielle and heading back to the barge for lunch. We ate on the deck as we cruised the canal. The afternoon was spent on the deck watching the sun filter through the trees as we would our way through all the curves and bridges. It was incredibly picturesque. We docked about 5 and Hugh, Becky and Steve took the bikes for a ride. Kathy, Bill and Robin walked along the canal. As far as you could see were vineyards. It was quiet but lovely. We all met back at the barge for another wonderful meal. Pixie came out to talk to us about her training so we learned a bit about her.
Friday, Oct. 29 th
Alas, our last full day, where did this week go?? Each day was leisurely yet the week is almost over. Danielle asked us to be ready to go by 9 AM and of course we were (she was impressed). It took about 45 minutes to get to Carcassonne, an old medieval walled city. Danielle gave us the history that included invasions by everyone (Visigoths, Romans, etc). You could see various styles in the walls; how parts of it were used for defense. In the Basilica we saw the relic (hence it being a basilica) and some other religious items. We then toured the castle, somewhat interesting drawings of the restoration of Carcassonne including a good model of the city. There were a lot of tourist shops, restaurants and souvenir places. Back to the barge for lunch and a short cruise to Port a Soleil. Here we were in the middle of this small town with a huge wonderful antiquarian bookstore. Thank goodness 95% of it was in French! Poor Jill the barge dog had a bit of a run in with the store cat but we managed to get her home safely. We had been watching a storm descend and BAM it hit while we were docked. The wind picked up and there was a torrential rain. The temperature also dropped but as quickly as it came, it was gone. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the salon although Hugh, Becky & Steve were on the deck later in the day while cruising and poor Steve got 'egged'. Evidently some local "JDs" tossed eggs on board and hit him. Julian was really annoyed and threw wine bottles at the kids (empty ones of course). Hugh & Becky went off on the bikes; the rest of us walked around. We found a cemetery that had some interesting things on each grave. It was a nice village and we ambled up/down and around before heading back to the barge to (horrors) pack for tomorrow's early departure.Our last night was the captain's dinner so Julian and Danielle joined us. The meal was excellent and Julian had some good stories. We can only wonder what he'll tell the next group about us! We were all up and ready to go as we had to drive 1 hour 15 min back to Montpelier to get the TGV back to Paris. We read, napped, ate our snack and generally were vegetables. We got to Paris and our driver was there (after a bit of confusion on meeting places) and back to the hotel. We checked in and went out to eat. We were waiting to see when Gary and Jeanine would arrive. As we formulated some plans, they showed up. They stayed at the hotel and we all headed to the Eiffel Tower. It had turned into yet another spectacular day. The sun was out, it was very mild and EVERYONE in Paris was out and at the Eiffel Tower. The lines to go up were much longer than we were willing to deal with so we walked around and took tons of pictures. It is still an incredible structure. Then it was time for more refreshment so we found another outdoor bistro that just happened to have a view of the Eiffel Tower. Beer was about $10 (you're paying for that view). Wound our way back to the hotel and got Gary and Jeanine; headed to a local Turkish restaurant that seemed not to have anything listed on its menu. We had a beer and found an Italian place that was good but almost too much food. The evening concluded with single malt, beer and chocolate. [And we gained an hour with daylight savings.]
Sun. Oct. 31 st
This morning we headed to the Musee D'Orsay. This is the collection from the old Jeu d'Paume transported to this former train station. The building itself is a work of art. The collection is magnificient. There was an Alfred Steglitz exhibit that was great and then there were the impressionists (always wonderful). Some of us could have stayed more but it was time to move on. The day was not especially pleasant, cool and windy, but no rain. We stopped for lunch and then split up. Hugh, Becky, Gary and Jeanine headed to the Champs; we headed to Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. At Notre Dame, we found some type of pilgrimage in the works. There were groups from all over, carrying books, singing, and generally making it very difficult to get into the church. We sort of snuck in and managed a quick view. Then another stop for souvenirs, some pastry and onto Sacre Coeur. Again we hit it during afternoon vespers so while there was lovely organ music and singing, it was jammed. We paid our respects and headed back. As we left, there was a woman playing an accordion dressed as a witch for Halloween.Back at the hotel it was happy hour. So we dug into the snacks, some good French wine and recounted the day's events. We decided to just find somewhere local for dinner again as we'd already had quite a bit to eat. At the restaurant Bill, Becky and Hugh ordered mussels. Over the course of the meal (and several bottles of wine), we had a detailed explanation and demonstration of Bill's tool….for eating mussels. Great hilarity ensued. I'm sure we scandalized the local groups around us. It was a great end to a wonderful trip.
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