Gently down the stream

When my husband told me there was no way he could make the trip from Avignon
to the Mediterranean on a luxury barge with me, I remembered my friend Aprile
had offered to carry our bags if she could only stow away. When I tell her the
situation, she jumps at the opportunity to take Jim’s place, although
neither of us has spent more than a week solely in each other’s company.
But the promise of fine cuisine and fantastic wines on a floating hotel cruising
the French waterways while exploring the towns along the way is irresistible
— and outweighs any risk to our friendship.


We fly into Paris and spend two days “unwinding” at all the tourist
spots — visiting Napoleon’s Tomb, the Eiffel Tower and the Rodin
Museum; window shopping at Galeries Lafayettes and Faubourg Saint-Honoré;
and ending our days at restaurant l’Insulaire one block from the Left
Bank-Saint Germain, where we’re staying. With rising excitement, we get
our tickets for the train that will take us south to Avignon for the start of
the cruise. Aprile packs a picnic for us from the offerings at Fauchon, the
famous Paris food hall: pâtés, cheeses, champagne mustard, gherkins,
crackers and baguette — as well as a half-bottle of Chablis. Leaving our
Canadian coats at our hotel to be picked up upon our return, we head to Gare
de Lyon for our 2 1/2-hour trip.


When we finally get to the hotel, we ask the desk clerk if anyone from our
cruise has shown up. He points to a couple sitting outside. We walk over and
say in clear and pedantic English, “Are you going on the barge cruise?”


“Yes,” she responds, as clearly and slowly as we have. “We’re
booked on l’Impressionniste.”


“Where are you from?” I ask in carefully enunciated English.


“Ontario, Canada — a town called Wiarton,” she answers. We’ve
come to France, and Carol and Ron, the first people we meet live not three hours
from my home in Toronto.


The façade of our meeting place, the hotel Mercure Pont d’Avignon,
curves around the bend in the street. It’s not terribly imposing —
until you step inside and down a flight of stairs to the check-in counter, where
you can see the river reflecting the colours of the south of France. Aprile
and I take a seat in the lounge and order a cocktail: in the spirit of excess,
I go for champagne, Aprile for a kir royale. Carol and Ron come down the stairs
and join us. And a few minutes later, we’re joined by Stan and Barb. From
New Zealand, they’ve already been to Italy and, after the cruise, are
meeting their daughter and son-in-law in Paris, then a visit with their son
and his family in Scotland. All in all, they’ll be away from their home
for about six months.


Promptly at four, a man with curly black hair — the epitome of a French
sailor — bounds down the stairs and introduces himself. Nicholas —
or Niko, as everyone calls him — knows all our names and where we’re


We finish our drinks and head for the van for the short drive to Villeneuve-les-Avignon
and l’Impressionniste, the barge that will be our home for the
next week. On the way, I reiterate to Aprile the advantages of this kind of
travel. With two similar cruises under my belt, I extol its virtues: like any
cruise, we’ll unpack only once. But unlike bigger ships, we’ll get
to know everyone on board; we can control the heating and air conditioning in
our luxurious room, complete with plush towels, soft linens and a private bath;
meals made with fresh produce from local markets will be accompanied with fantastic
French wines and cheeses; we’ll tour the attractions of many of the towns
we float by. My excitement is building as our van turns off the road to the
river where our floating hotel is docked: a blue and white 126-foot barge that
was converted to a hotel in 1996 and refurbished in 2006.


On the deck waits the rest of the crew with warm smiles and welcoming glasses
of champagne. Toni, our chef for the next week, is English; the two servers,
Tara and Brie, are both Australian.


Our itinerary is a six-day cruise down the Rhone, into the Canal du Rhone à
Sète and across Lac Thau. Tonight sets the stage for the gastronomic
portion of our week. Tara and Brie pass trays of delectable appetizers to nibble
with our champagne while we relax around a teak table on the front deck. In
the bow of the boat is a hot tub, which Aprile and I have already decided we’ll
make use of.


We have enough time before dinner at eight, so four of us head off to explore
Villeneuve-les-Avignon. The white Tour Phillippe-le-Bel dominates the river
and the town; from its terrace, we have incredible views of Avignon and Mont
Ventoux, the source of the mighty mistral — the notorious wind that rushes
down the Rhone more than 100 days a year and blows so hard it can drive people
mad. An old law in Provence acquitted a murderer if it was proven he had killed
during the blowing of the mistral.


After a fresh green salad with a sparkling vinaigrette, we dine on a main course
of chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto served with two wines — one, a
delectable Cuvee Prestige Gigondas (I can hear my husband groaning in envy back
in Canada). Dinner ends with chocolate pôts de crème and
liqueurs. Aprile and I want to enjoy everything that is offered and hit the
hot tub while our fellow travellers hit their beds. Then we tumble into bed,
giggling like teenagers, until sleep takes over.


In the morning, after a continental breakfast of fresh fruit, yogourt, cereal
and pastries, we take cups of coffee out to the deck, where Niko gives us the
day’s plans. Because the river is running high, we won’t be cruising
today. Instead, we keep to the original plan of touring Avignon and the Palais
des Papes. Then back to the boat for lunch, followed by a wine-tasting in Châteauneuf
du Pape, a former vineyard of the Pope.


The ancient city of Avignon is one of France’s most dramatic monuments.
The crenellated wall around the town is studded with towers and narrow windows,
while the centre is dominated by the 14th-century fortress of the Palais des
Papes. The severe stone ediface belies its history as an incredibly luxurious
home to popes, cardinals and courtiers. After the Revolution, it served as both
a prison and a barracks. After our self-guided tour, Aprile and I head back
to the barge for lunch.


Tara and Brie have set the long teak table on the deck and decorated it with
wildflowers and pretty napkins. They serve rocket salad with baby beets, thinly
sliced radishes and sliced hard-cooked egg in a raspberry vinaigrette. Our main
course is asparagus and smoked salmon with homemade pesto nestled in a rectangle
of puff pastry drizzled in a garlic ailoi. For dessert, fresh fruit with vanilla
cream. We would be quite happy in our mooring but Châteauneuf du Pape
beckons, and no one wants to pass up this opportunity for wine tasting with
an expert.


At the Cave du Verger des Papes, Jean-Baptiste (“Just call me JB”)
shows us how to properly hold the glass — by the base between your thumb
and folded fingers. If you must, grasp the stem but never hold the glass itself,
because the warmth of your hand distorts the taste of the wine — never
mind the smudgy fingerprints you leave behind. He makes us bend over to suck
up our first mouthful, aerating it fully in a noisy display that has the six
of us laughing at one another. But JB says it’s important to fully taste
the first mouthful and, from that, decide what you want to eat with it. The
eight wines we taste today are not available in Canada; too few are produced
to warrant exporting.


Tuesday morning dawns bright, clear and cool. Our destination is the small
city of Arles, the old capital of the Camargue, where we dock below the ramparts.
The light in this city captivated van Gogh, and just where we’ve tied
up, we see one of the many medallions throughout the city, this one marking
the location of his “Starry Night” masterpiece.


Arles is a compact town: it’s a short walk from anywhere into the city
centre. The Roman amphitheatre, built in the first century, is still the site
of bullfights in the summertime. However, unlike the corridas in Spain, here
the bulls are rarely killed.


Wednesday is a big cruising day. We’re leaving the Rhone to cruise the
Petit Rhone that leads to the Canal du Rhone à Sète — and
to our new mooring at Aigues-Mortes. Literally the city of “dead waters,”
Aigues-Mortes may be France’s most perfectly preserved walled town. Surrounded
today by flatlands of salt, sand and marsh, it was once a thriving port, the
first in France on the Mediterranean. It was from Aigues-Mortes that Louis IX
set forth on the Crusades in the 13th century.


The main attraction in town is the Tour de Constance, a defence tower dating
from 1241, which served as a prison after the Crusades. Unfortunately, we can’t
climb to the top today: a national strike has been called and all national monuments
are closed. But this is the town I would return to. It would be a perfect home
base from which to explore the Camargue region.


The Camargue is a marshland between the deltas formed by the two branches
ofthe Rhone — the Grand and the Petit. This is where we hope to see the
native black longhorn cattle that thrive on the salt grass and the wild white
horses descended from Arabian stock. It’s also a birder’s paradise.
As we cruise along the next day, the ivory-pink flamingos are the star attraction.


It’s our last day, and l’Impressionniste heads out across Lac
Thau, a large inland salt-water lagoon on the way to our final berth at Marseillan.
This small Mediterranean fishing village is home to the world-famous Noilly-Prat.
In the Noilly-Prat tasting room, Carol and I show off the skills we learned
at Châteauneuf du Pape at the start of our trip, sucking air through mouthfuls
of the aperitif, slurping and sucking it back. Our tester watches our performance,
then tells us that while that may be how you taste wine — it’s just
wrong for liquor.


The Captain’s dinner that night is more formal than usual but as convivial
as ever. It’s been only a week yet we’ve shared so much —
new experiences, food and wines — and I know I’ll return with my
husband. After all, he’s never seen the Camargue.

For more information on barging, go to or phone 1-877-574-3404.

Photo © Manuela Weschke