French Barge Meander with Barge Lady Cruises
By Jane Lyons.
As the doughty, trim little barge Johanna sauntered down the Marne River, I sat under its top deck awning and contemplated the gorgeous Champagne landscape surrounding us on both sides. Apart from the occasional sibilant swish of water against the hull, the lazy surfacing of a fish, or the singing of birds, peace and quiet reigned. The frenzy of Charles de Gaulle airport and the bustle of Paris — less than a hundred miles and a couple of hours distant — seemed long ago and far away.
For a scorchingly hot week in August, my son Ben and I sampled Johanna’s “Champagne and Chocolates” itinerary, meandering along the Marne and the Marne l’Aisle Canal, a 50-mile journey from Chateau Thierry to Rheims. This is the Champagne region — the native soil of the fabled beverage. Much of the area is also World War I territory, punctuated with storied battlefields and heartbreakingly poignant cemeteries. Our first excursion, even before boarding the Johanna, was to the American cemetery at Chateau Thierry and the adjacent battlefield of Belleau Wood, where remnants of the fierce struggle are still visible. In this, the centennial year of the end of WWI, the past seemed very present.
Once on board the Johanna, with our Belgian hosts Patsie, Kris, and Jan the guide, the mood was lighter. Our cabin was, inevitably, small but it and the en suite bathroom were well-designed with a surprising amount of storage. Above all, it was air-conditioned! Almost as important, the beds were so comfortable that sleep came easily.
The Johanna is a six-passenger vessel — and one of 50 barge cruises offered by Barge Lady Cruises — and on our trip there were only two other guests, an American couple from the Midwest. I had entertained fears of spending a week trapped cheek-by-jowl with “uncongenial” fellow passengers, unable to escape tense discussions of politics and world affairs. To our great relief, after some cautious reconnaissance of our respective allegiances and attitudes, compatibility was soon assured. Donna and Ken proved to be great company. Nevertheless, it might have been otherwise, and failure to achieve harmony is definitely a hazard of small, nay, tiny, ship travel.
The Daily Routine
The barge-board routine was swiftly established. Delicious breakfast in the open-plan kitchen/dining/living area, then up a few steps to settle into the top deck chairs. During most of our tortoise-like passage, Donna knitted, Ken read his book, Ben worked on his laptop. I glanced at my book in between gazing at the vineyards and woods and occasional small villages. Every now and then Patsy would appear with her singularly delicious version of iced tea, accompanied by melon chunks and perhaps a chocolate or two. Then it was time for a perfect lunch to be set before us. Needless to say, lunch would also be accompanied by well-chosen wines. However, I think we were a great disappointment to our hosts as none of us were particularly interested in wine or, sadly, the eponymous champagne. There were murmurs of “But why would you come on ‘Champagne and Chocolates’ if you aren’t really interested in champagne?” This resulted in some performance anxiety and we tried to up our consumption of wine and champagne. As for the “chocolates,” well, I can never have too many and would have welcomed more.
Exploring on Shore
Exploring by walking (at a brisker pace than Johanna’s amble), or taking advantage of the bicycles, was a post-lunch option. However, we were an unambitious group and, frankly, it was just too hot. Instead, we would reluctantly abandon indolence in favor of an excursion with Jan at the helm of the large and comfortable van. It was off to visit another World War I monument, or perhaps a champagne “house” where we learned a great deal about the history and production of champagne. As “tasting” or buying the bubbly to send home was not a lure for our crowd, we disappointed Jan by discouraging visits to other “vignobles.”
Each excursion took us through scenic countryside and villages, best viewed in this historically hot summer from the air-conditioned van. We were never sorry to return to Johanna and the sumptuous meal that would soon be offered. Among many highlights was a “Blanche Madame” ice cream parfait that Patsie topped with whipped cream and a hot chocolate sauce concoction. A cold tomato soup was truly cooling and delicious, and en excellent cheese board appeared at every meal.
Our two (included) dinners in local restaurants were a pleasant deviation. One of them, a truly excellent meal, lived up to Patsie’s culinary standard; perhaps the other is best described as somewhat less successful.
Memorable as the excursions and the meals and the countryside were, the paramount takeaway of the cruise (a term I have difficulty applying to our stately progress) was the respite from the rest of the world. I had been on many cruises and crossings with and without Ben on enormous ships (Queen Mary 2) or much smaller vessels (Lindblad Explorer). The week on Johanna bore very little resemblance to those experiences. Yes, it was a boat, floating on water. Yes, the meals were delicious, the beds comfortable, and the service attentive. However, the commonalities ended there. “Amenities” expected on more conventional cruises were simply not available — no “entertainment,” no waterslides, no casinos or concerts.
Ready for more
Quirky? Yes, indeed…idyllically, endearingly quirky. It was a wonderful week and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. 🐦
Jane Lyons has been traveling on ocean-going ships since she was a toddler accompanying her Foreign Service family here, there and seemingly everywhere. She has lost count of the total, but her list pales in comparison to son Ben’s. (Read more about Ben Lyons here!) Many trips have been enjoyed together. Somewhere along the years, the experience has shifted from Jane instructing Ben on “How to Behave on Ships” to Ben explaining the finer points of shipboard life and decorum — and carrying all the heavy stuff. Although Jane has been largely replaced as Ben’s travel companion by his wonderful wife, she appreciates all the shipboard time she has shared with him.
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