Style: Authentic barge converted into comfy, cosy tourist accommodation in the 1980s. The kind of experience you choose when you have done everything else and wondered what took you so long to discover barge cruising.
Scene: The Canal du Midi through rural France.
Seen on Deck: the languid luxury of doing nothing and dressing down with effortless French knowhow.
The old barge Anjodi is restless. Moored between two of the many hundred gigantic plane trees that form a leafy avenue along the 300 year old Canal du Midi, the most famous and picturesque canal in France, she wants to move on.
Not her guests. We have all slipped into a dreamy torpor after a lunch of perfectly-composed Salade Nicoise, fruits, cheese and a well-chosen rose from the Corbieres region. We are 'somewhere' along the canal in the heart of Languedoc - a region steeped in history and mystery.
Fortunately our captain is not in a dreamy torpor. He watches attentively from behind is huge wooden wheel, then eases Anjodi away from the banks. We must make the next lock before it closes.
The Canal du Midi was built in the 17th century and scoured out of the landscape by hand. It is a complex system of locks - nowadays fully-automated - bridges and tunnels and cuts a swathe through some of the most beautiful rural regions of France between Toulouse and Sete on the Mediterranean. All up, it covers 240km, but we will only do a small, seductively beautiful section of it over 7 days. We will float through hectares of vineyards, sleepy villages, past medieval citadels, mighty cathedrals, lively market places, cross ancient aqueducts and dine on incomparable food.
Anjodi won celebrity status when she 'co-starred' with Rick Stein in the television series French Odyssey. She was one of the barges which carried him on his culinary journey through Southern France. Although Stein is not on this cruise, we are confident he would approve the superb meals prepared by a cordon-bleu trained chef from fresh regional produce sourced daily en route.
Our cruise starts in the pretty canal-side town of Le Somail about an hour's drive from Montpellier. Introductions are exchanged over champagne on deck. Enchanted by the setting, we opt to stroll the canal banks scattering ducks, geese, dogs and small children, then head for the floating epicerie (grocer's shop) which is doing a brisk trade among nearby self-skippered canal boats.
We have no need of provisions as it is time for dinner in Anjodi's handsome, wood-panelled saloon. At dinner and lunch, our hostess describes the regional specialties, cheeses and wines on the daily menus. All meals are jolly occasions whether in the saloon or on deck.
Anjodi is anything but sylph-like. More like one imagines a respected 'old-school-style' Dutch housekeeper - scrupulously clean, tidy, comfortable and friendly.
Anjodi was built in 1929 as a freight barge, carrying grain between Amsterdam and Paris. Although buxom of contour (approx 30 x 5m), she glides along the water like a nymph skimming the surface on tiptoe. Her maximum speed is 10 knots, but mostly she putters along at an amiable five - a pace that allows us to have conversations with passersby, cyclists, and other bargees.
She has four staterooms, all with twin or double beds and carries 8 persons double occupancy. All have neat little en suite bathrooms with shower, toilet, washbasin, mirrors, complimentary toiletries and hairdryers.
The saloon/dining room has 2 comfy sofas, a dining table which seats nine, a fully-stocked open bar with alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks. (Special vintage wines and champagne are available, but not included in the cruise price).
By day we watch spellbound as our skipper cleverly navigates locks, where water levels rise and fall in ferocious torrents. Most amazing engineering feats of the period are the seven-tiered staircase lock at Fonserannes and the ancient canal tunnel at Malpas.
We are a curiosity for the locals ... who watch our ascent and descent, then applaud when we pass through the lock to calmer waters.
We are a curiosity for the locals - especially school children, who watch our ascent and descent, then applaud when we pass through the lock to calmer waters.
On most days, there is an optional half day tour by mini bus to places not directly on the canal. Some loll around deck, others take a bike ride, some shop.
Tours are a half day in duration. Highlights are the curious medieval towns of Minerve and Carcassone, famous for their links with the Cathar religious cult in a region that provided inspiration for aspects of Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code'. Today, Carcassone is the most perfectly-restored medieval fortified city in existence, and is a fascinating tourist stop - if you can get through the souvenir shoppers.
In Narbonne - once the largest roman town outside of Rome we could explore roman ruins, visit the cathedral or peruse the classy shopping precincts of the old quarter. Best of all was the fabulous market brimming with many of the ingredients we had been dining on along the way.
But now, the vegetation has changed from Plane trees to Mediterranean pines and marsh grasses. We are not far from the Camargue - renowned for its horses, les gardiens (cowboy equivalents) and gypsies.
Our cruise ends in the pretty port of Marseillan - famous for its oyster beds and its Noilly Prat vermouth. We gorge on plate-size, freshly-shucked oysters still briny with the taste of the sea, and swap yarns into the early hours.
Montpellier, pick up by the company's minibus, then drive to Le Somail to join Anjodi.
The sheer bliss of having no schedule at all.
|Most Indulgent Moment:
On deck, lying on a chaise looking at the sky filtered through the leaves of the plane trees - with a glass of what you fancy at your elbow.
|The Little Things:
Unexpected treats which appear as if by magic - smoked almonds, pistachios, spicy regional sausages, rillettes de porc, tapenade, nougat.
Not a lot. Fine if whole barge is under charter by family and friends.
By day - capri pants, cargos, bermudas, and something linen by night.
A large, flexible travel bag by Coach, easy to stow.
|Dent in the platinum: