In Narbonne (pop. 47,000), we toured the partially com-
pleted 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
“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 protected]); 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.
Writing & Photography
For travelers, history buffs, readers, writers, and even the health conscious
Barging in the South of France
Find A French
By Jeff Miller
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 got-ten 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 Montfort, 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 Lanuedoc 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 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. 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.