Find A French
On a hot, sunny day in a small medieval square
in the south of France, Sarah, our tour guide,
furtively inserted a huge iron key she had gotten
from a local friend into an ancient church lock. The
large wooden door swung open, revealing a cool,
dark interior. Shepherding the five of us inside,
she quickly relocked the door.
The 12th Century Catholic church in the tiny fortress village of Minerve was a simple affair of unadorned stone walls, but it held a 5th Century altar that’s reportedly the oldest in Europe. With our hands touching the cool marble slab, we heard about the Cathar, a regional religious order that felt the wrath of the only Papal crusade against fellow Christians. In one brutal incident outside the church, 140 Perfects were tossed into a fire by Simon de Montford, who preached in the church immediately afterwards.
Sarah explained this was no forgotten event. “When the town closed the church to the public,” she said, “they put up a sign saying it was due to lack of respect by visitors. Soon after, someone added ‘Due to what happened here in the 12th Century, this church doesn't deserve to be open.’
“In this region,” Sarah continued, “the past is very much a part of the present, and the people, called Occitans, see themselves as different from the rest of France.”
That special moment was just one of many that my wife and I experienced while
barging through France’s Languedoc region. Because of the crew’s local
knowledge and intimate access, we came to know and appreciate Languedoc,
and think of her as a kind of Cinderella – an undiscovered princess
overshadowed and bookended by her two nearby sisters: Bordeaux and
Provence. But Languedoc compares favorably to her siblings -- during our
week aboard the eight-passenger Anjodi, we browsed local markets, explored
little-known towns and historical sites, cycled in and out of picturesque villages,
and sampled excellent local wines, cheeses and breads.
Truthfully, though, we were a little apprehensive as we started the week at the
pickup point, the Chateau Lignan Hotel just outside the interesting town of
Beziers (pop. 80,000) six hours train ride south of Paris. As first-time bargers,
we wondered: What would the six other passengers be like? Would the barge be comfortable? What would the crew be like? Would the region hold enough interest for an entire week?
Through booking luck, there were only two other passengers -- Mic
and Jen, a friendly 50s English couple who turned out to be perfect
traveling companions. The international crew of four included two
young and enthusiastic women, Sarah from Canada and Jennifer
from South Africa; a wonderful chef, Helen from Cornwall; and the
captain, Duncan from England. Both Helen and Duncan (in their
mid-30s), had been on the Anjodi for years and knew well
Languedoc’s people, history, culture and culinary treats.
The canal we were on was the Canal du Midi, which is part of a canal
system that connects the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. At 300 years old, Canal du Midi is one of the oldest in France and seeped in history, including an American tie – Thomas Jefferson became the first “tourist” when he took the wheels off his carriage, placed it on a barge and cruised up and down studying the locks.
Our accommodations were definitely better than Jefferson’s. The
Anjodi, which is the largest vessel on the canal (98 feet long by 12
feet wide), is an 80-year-old commercial barge beautifully refitted for
passengers. Inside, the bedrooms are done in dark, polished wood
and are small (twice the size of a train compartment) but comfortable,
with an upper and lower berth, two small windows and a good-sized
bathroom. The lounge area doubles as a diningroom and was perfect
for our small group (although with eight it might feel crowded). Up on
deck, amid an array of potted flowers, are chairs and a table, chaise
lounges, a Jacuzzi, and mountain bikes.
During the first night aboard, as we sipped aperitifs, Duncan told us we’d be cruising
from our berth near Carcassonne back to Beziers. “If there’s a group on board,” he
said, “we can usually go where they want. If it’s individual couples, as you are, then
we take you to what we consider are the best parts of the canal.”
Thus began a fantastic week of truly slowing down -- literally and figuratively. Traveling
at a sedate four miles an hour, we covered just over 100 miles and negotiated little
more than two dozen locks in a week.
More important than distance was how the journey effected us. Relaxation never felt
so good. We spent every day meandering down a narrow waterway so still it reflected
all it saw. Most times the sycamore-like plane trees lining both banks created a leafy
cathedral ceiling that kept us cool. In the distance, on low hillsides or spread out in
wide valleys, the land was a tidy mix of cultivated fields and vineyards accented by red-tiled dollops of stone villages. On the canal, smaller pleasure boats and other barges would pass by, their occupants waving and calling out greetings in French. At the various locks, Duncan would spend time chatting with the lockkeepers or translating when our limited language skills failed. The only stress came while up on deck when we had to occasionally bend down for low bridges.
Meals were culinary events. Helen used all natural,
local ingredients. Breakfast was a simple continental
affair highlighting freshly baked breads and pastries.
Lunches were light, cool dishes of fresh vegetables,
salads, fruits, meats and cheeses. Dinners were
gourmet wonders. At each evening meal Jennifer
presented local wines, including Blanquette de
Linioux, said to be the first sparkling wine produced in
France, and Berloup, a dry red reputedly grown on the
royal vineyard of Louis XIV. Cheeses were also an
important part of meals. Helen explained the local
ones she served were as richly varied as the wines.
One night, while presenting a Camembert, she told us how locals test to see if the cheese is ripe. “The older ladies say a Camembert is ready when it has the same feel as your closed eyeball.” We all dutifully put one finger to an eyeball as we squeezed the cheese with the other hand.
If anyone had squeezed us, we would definitely have been ripe -- barge living suited us perfectly. We could sit for hours just watching the scenic, idyllic world unfold before us. Or we could step off at any time for a bike ride or walk along the tow path into quaint little villages. Each day we also had at least one guided excursion -- many of which turned out to be memorable events.
At Carcassonne, Sarah showed us around Europe’s largest double wall fortress that boasts nearly two miles of ramparts and 52 towers, and was used in Kevin Kostner’s Robin Hood movie. While a 19th Century reconstruction wasn’t exactly true to medieval design, it’s nonetheless a visually stunning place. Today, behind its massive walls are a wide array of stores, shops and restaurants catering to summertime crowds.
In Narbonne (pop. 47,000), we toured the partially completed cathedral that includes an ornately carved choir section and massive pipe organ. Outside, shaded from the warm summer sun by tree-lined streets, we spent a few hours wandering through the town’s vibrant and very active weekly market of clothes, crafts and food.
One night, as Sarah played host, we were taken out to a meal at a cozy French restaurant. A small doorway led down into a cool stone-walled room crammed with a handful of tables. Candles and linen tablecloths, fines wines and gourmet food, a friendly waiter and good conversation all added up to a wonderful experience.
“For those who come here only for the barge trip,” Duncan said, “we want them to experience a french restaurant -- small, intimate and with the Southern French ambiance that’s so delightful. So we do one dinner out every cruise.”
In the tiny village of Olonzac (pop. 300), we spent a fascinating morning wandering through the weekly market. As the social event of the week, everyone was there: Gray-haired ladies in flowered sundresses and pearl necklaces; Chain-smoking older men with white moustaches; Proud young mothers with babies in strollers. Around knots of chatting, laughing people vendors hawked everything from crafts to shoes, fresh fruit to paella, the regional dish of shrimp, chicken, and mussels on a bed of saffron rice.
As my wife and I wandered though those ancient, charming streets, observing a scene that had been playing for centuries, we were pulled up short by an image in front
of a cheese stall. There before us was an elderly woman
touching one eye as she squeezed a block of cheese.
We smiled to ourselves. Because of Helen, Duncan, Sarah,
Jennifer and their incredible barge, we knew what the
woman was doing. For just a quick moment in time, we
were no longer international tourists...we were insiders
who knew the scene unfolding before us.
If You Go -- (Info. NOT checked)
Getting There: It’s easiest to fly first into Paris, which is served by numerous international carriers, including American Airlines. From Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, it’s a quick and easy train ride to Beziers on the comfortable French TGV trains (direct and connecting schedules available). From the Beziers train station it’s a short taxi ride to the pickup point at the Chateau Lignan Hotel.
When to Go: While the climate in Languedoc is usually mild, it can be chilly and rainy even in summer, as well as close to 100 degrees on a few days. The heaviest tourist seasons are June through mid-July and September through mid-October.
Where to Stay Before or After Barging: In Paris, recommended for its tree-lined street location near the Arc de Triumphe is the four-star Hotel Royal Elysees, 6, avenue Victor-Hugo, 75116 Paris, 01-45-00-05-57, fax, 01-45-00-13-88, email email@example.com); Beziers has numerous hotels, including a few three-star ones. They can be found on the French Government Tourist Office website listed below.
The Barge: Weekly trips start on Sunday afternoon and end Saturday morning. Prices do not include airfare or train fare but do include full board -- all food, drinks (including sodas and alcohol), bicycle use, all guided tours, and local transfers. Reservations: 1-800-217-4447.
Further Information: European Waterways, 1-800-217-4447; or www.europeanwaters.com; French Government Tourist Office: 1-410-286-8310 (M-F, 9-7, EST), or www.francetourism.com.
Through our masks, my wife and I scanned the murky Florida water with some apprehension. Our breathing came quick and shallow in the snorkels, and the wet suits couldn't stop an occasional shiver.
Bill, the tour guide, had said they could come from any direction, straight out of the silt and algae clouds like ghosts. But these weren't ghosts, they could reach up to 13 feet long and 3,000 pounds.
Treading water quietly – they don't like loud noises and overactive swimmers – I felt vulnerable and very small. My eyes strained to see into the foggy water. I knew my wife must be getting nervous when I felt her nudge me in the back.
Turning, I found myself face-to-face with one of the beasts – twice my size.
Any trepidation disappeared the moment I looked into the gentle, curious face of the manatee just inches away. The big, bulbous snout came closer and the tiny black eyes looked me over. I reached out with one arm, palm open, as I had been instructed, and rubbed under one of its flippers. The massive gray creature began a slow roll onto its back, exposing a large blubbery stomach. The little eyes did a slow roll of their own into the back of its head. One of the flippers gently but insistently moved my hand to just the right spots, and I swear I heard a sigh of contentment.
As I rubbed the big guy's belly, I suddenly remembered my wife. Looking around, I spotted her making friends with her own manatee, while another inched forward hoping for some attention.
With a look of a Pillsbury Dough Boy and the personality of a friendly dog starved for affection, manatees in the wild actually seek out contact with humans. They touch and want to be touched. And it's all truly amazing.
"When you think of it," Bill said as we were heading back to the dock in Crystal River, Flab., "it's incredible. Here's an animal in the water that chooses to be around you."
At times, manatees don't look so much like animals as they do people dressed in thick, lovable Halloween costumes. At one end is a huge squared off head and bulbous snout; at the other end is a flat, wide tail that
moves up and down. They have no shoulders, so their backs merge into their
heads like old TV wrestlers gone to seed. There are no fins and only two front
flippers, which cover human-like arm skeletons that include elbows, wrists,
four fingers and a thumb. All of which give the impression of human hands
inside heavy mittens when the manatees move their flippers.
Ancient mariners – with vivid imaginations and poor eye-sight, no doubt –
mistook the gentle, air-breathing mammals for mermaids. Today, in the
United States, manatees congregate in Florida during the winter, with one of
the highest concentrations in Citrus County, where warm, spring-fed waters
create a friendly environment.
Citrus County is on the Gulf Coast – less than two hours drive north of Tampa
or west of Orlando. It's also a world away from the mouse with the big ears. In
fact, Citrus County is completely different from most peoples' perceptions of
Florida, which is usually of endless miles of white sand and highrise hotels, or the swamps of the Everglades.
Citrus County is neither. Approximately 50 to 100 miles north of "Tropical Florida," it has rolling hills covered in thick forests of pine trees, cabbage palms, red cedar, scrub oak, and hickory, many dripping with the gray lace of Spanish moss. The moist air is laddened with the sounds of thousands of birds, including seagulls, pelicans, cormorants, herons, ospreys and the ever-present circling turkey buzzards.
Close to the Gulf, the land flattens, the forests thin, and numerous rivers and springs create a huge estuary of inlets, canals, bays and islands. Large expanses of chest-high grasses move with the wind and tides. The only beach is a manmade strip a few hundred yards long at Fort Island Gulf Beach.
Since the mid to late 1800s, Americans have carved thin ribbons of roads through the thick vegetation and founded communities such as Crystal River and Homosassa. In many places, rows of houses back up on canals. Fishing is the major industry, although in the last 10 years tourism has grown – due in part to the manatee.
With a last count of just over 3,200 in Florida, and many dying every year from careless boaters, manatees are an endangered species that attracts thousands of tourists a year. Visitors can go out in rental boats, but the best is to go with an established tour operator who knows the area, knows where to find them, and knows the laws governing contact.
Each tour operator is supposed to play the U.S. Fish and Wildlife video, "Manatee Manners," which details proper interaction: One-hand, open-palm petting only; no swimming after them or riding them; no getting between mother and calf; and no disturbing those feeding or sleeping on the bottom. Manatee rules are also posted along many of the waterways.
My wife and I went out on two different days with two different tour operators, Bill of Bird's Underwater, and David from American Pro Diving Center. We learned from both of them that manatees are warm-blooded mammals that live in fresh and salt water and come up for air every few minutes. In the winter, they stay around natural springs for warmth. Eons ago, they were land animals and share a common ancestor with the elephant. Similarities include the prehensile lips like those on an elephant's trunk, fingernails on the manatee's flippers, and a leathery skin. Both tour guides showed a deep understanding, respect and concern for the manatees.
"Manatees are a touch oriented species," David said. "They like to be touched and they like to touch. But it needs to be done properly and gently."
Dave took us to the headwaters of Homosassa River. The actual spring that feeds the river is in Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park and is off limits to boats and swimmers. When we anchored at 10:30 a.m., most snorkelers had already come and gone – manatees are most active in the early mornings. We took our chances and slipped quietly into the clear water. It was only three or four feet deep in most places and the bottom was sandy with lots of sea grass.
Immediately, we saw five or six manatee eating or sleeping on the bottom. As we watched, one frisky manatee began disturbing the others as if looking for a playmate. When there were no takers, he spotted us and headed over. For the next hour we played with, rubbed and were touched by this mischievous creature.
On the tour with Bill, we went to Kings Spring, where buoys and
lines keep swimmers and boaters away from the actual spring.
Arriving at 7:30 a.m., we found lots of playful manatees, but the
water was deeper and visibility was poor. There were few
snorkelers when we arrived, but by the time we left there were
numerous boats, swimmers, and many noisy, rowdy people
unfamiliar with how to act around these gentle creatures. The
manatees have learned, however, to swim across to the other
side of the buoy lines when they're tired of human contact.
Sadly, every manatee we saw had numerous and pronounced
scars – strings of straight white gashes running parallel across their backs where motorboat propellers had dug into their flesh. We learned why they have such trouble with motorboats when we visited the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Each day park personnel hold periodic manatee educational programs which will definitely enrich any snorkeling experience. The ranger explained that unlike dolphins and whales, manatees don't have internal sonar and find it hard to determine the direction of sounds. That makes it difficult for them to avoid speeding boats.
All of which means that humans have to be the caretakers of manatees. This is especially true because they have no natural predators, except for man – an Alaskan variety of manatee was actually hunted to extinction in only 27 years.
After learning about the manatees at the park, and swimming with the trusting and gentle creatures, we hoped that the same fate doesn't befall America's manatees. It's a sure bet that anyone who does swim with them – rubs their bellies and looks into their lovable faces – will want to do everything possible not to let that happen.
If You Go (info. NOT checked)
When to Go – Traditionally, the season used to be
October through May, but now you can swim with
manatees year round. Because weekends are
crowded, it's best to go on weekday tours. In summer
there are less manatees, but less tourists –
guaranteeing a good experience anytime.
Getting There – Citrus County is less than two hours
drive from Tampa or Orlando, which are served by international air carriers such as Delta Airlines, U.S. Air, Continental, and American.
Before Swimming With the Manatees – visit Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park for the daily educational programs on manatees. Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, U.S. 19, Homosassa; (352) 628-5343 on weekdays, (352) 628-2311 anytime for recorded information; www.nccentral.com/hswildlife.htm. .
Swimming With the Manatees – Various snorkel operators are located in Crystal River. Two recommendations: American Pro Diving Center, 821 SE Hwy. 19, Crystal River, FL 34429, 1-800-291-DIVE; www.gminet.com/ampro. Or Bird's Underwater, 320 N.W. Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL 34428, (352) 563-2763; www.birdsunderwater.com. Both tour operators offer morning swims to various spots year round, seven days, along with complimentary hot chocolate and an optional video of the swim. Make reservations and go on weekdays to avoid crowds.
Accommodations – There are 21 lodging options in Citrus County, including resorts, condominiums, a hotel, a bed & breakfast inn, motels, cabins and campgrounds. Crystal River is the largest town near the coast and has numerous options, while Homosassa Springs is smaller but also offers lodging. Recommended for its river ambience is the Riverside Inn Resort in Homosassa, (352) 628-2474.
Further Information – Contact the Citrus County Tourist Development Council, 1-800-587-6667; www.visitcitrus.com.