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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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Barging through the quaint French canals

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Navigation through the locks has to be precise. One could actually touch the sides of the narrow canals. [Barbara Kingstone photo]

When I mentioned to friends that for our anniversary, my husband and I had decided to take an ultra-deluxe French canal river barge trip on one of European Waterways’ barges, there was a pause in the conversation and eyebrows were raised.

Didn’t we mean the larger, more exclusive river cruisers? No, not quite the same. While the barge is narrower and smaller than the standard river cruise boat, it has all the gastronomical highlights and includes scenery of the little villages along the way.

European Waterways is a series of luxury, bespoke barges that can hold up to 12 guests.  We were only six, traveling in the most lavish style with all-inclusive amenities including the local wines and personal service while visiting historic treasures, and best of all, floating through the Loire country. 

Once cargo vessels, about 30 years ago, these barges were bought and cleverly and lovingly remodeled into floating five-star boutique hotels. The Renaissance barge turned out to be exactly what we wanted, a slow, peaceful cruise and being tended to as the royal French families were before they lost their throne – and their heads.

 There was no pressure to dress royally for dinners, however we did all manage “to wash up well” in our casual chic ensembles as we sat around the formally set round table each evening and where the creative staff turned and twisted napkins into works of art. Chef Ollie, although English, is as French with his cuisine as possible. 

The mode was slow and easy. You can take a walk or use the available bikes and meet up again at the next stop. There is no need to rush off into a crowded lobby to line up for tours as they must in the large cruisers. Yes, in this case, smaller is much better.

The first day was so noteworthy as we entered our first lock. We watched the water elevate while the next went down. There were several of these experiences and none of us took them for granted. The navigation had to be so very precise. One could actually touch the sides of the narrow canals, so that the captain was totally dedicated, never distracted, never leaving the wheelhouse.

My favorite stop had been on my priority list for the longest time. Château Fontainebleau is one of the most beautiful palaces I’ve seen and kept in the most impeccable state. Luckily, since it’s not on the mainstream of most visitors’ itineraries, it was easy to move through the wondrous halls and rooms and get a close look at the furniture, objects and drapery.

Afterwards we all met at a small café and while I opted for a great cup of coffee, the  others had been told about the famous ice cream parlour next door and came back to the table with the creamiest cones.

Next was special. Pont-Canal in Briare, a sweet town if ever there was one, has a most unusual canal designed by Gustave Eiffel (circa 1895) of Eiffel Tower fame. This aqueduct or bridge was an elevated canal across the Loire River below. Imagine being on a canal over a river below.

There were other visits to privately owned manors, a very quirky chalet with a moat, and a morning market in the village of Gien, known not just for its fine china and porcelain, but also the best cheese and bread. 

While in Briare, the other five opted to go to an ancient castle, Sully-sur-Loire, a medieval fortress. One of its claims to fame is that Jeanne d’Arc came to visit on many occasions. I, instead, decided to walk through the streets of the small town. In this lovely, tiny village, I met a few locals as I sipped coffee at an outdoor cafe. There wasn’t one person who didn’t say  “bonjour.”

Anyone who loves new experiences and has dreams of locks, as my husband does, would have been thrilled when the captain suggested we take a turn at the helm.  That said, the captain never took his eyes off us. 

Along the way, the foliage is lush and grand. I learned, that mistletoe is a parasite and transferred from one tree to another, by birds.

And how can you talk about the French and not discuss food and wine. Chef Ollie made each meal a true repast.(The company also caters to kosher meals).

The accommodations?  What a surprise when we saw our suite, Hugo. There are only four suites, all very similar. They compare well with many of Paris’ five-star, small hotels. The closet was too large for our clothing,  and there was also space for our empty luggage. Two chairs and a dresser made up the rest of the furniture. As for the bathroom, it was large with most ample shower, sink and counter space while the loo was on an elevated area.  Perfection from beginning to end, no pun intended.

If you go: European Waterways Ltd, www.GoBarging.com. The Barge Company info@bargecompany.com

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