French Canal Cruising: My French Love Affair
Crew, Excursions & Paris!
By Elysa Leonard.
Crazy Crew Crush
The staff on a small-ship cruise, especially a barge cruise carrying only six passengers, is a vital ingredient for a memorable holiday. French canal cruising is all about being coddled while inching along the canals of gorgeous France soaking up all the amazing scenery, history, cuisine and wine.
Aboard the six-passenger Esperance, our crew comprised Captain Corey Shelley; Chief Steward, Deckhand, and Hostess, Helen Toy; and Chef du Cuisine, Jean Luc Poulet. This trio worked like a well-oiled machine. They knew their roles and worked together to make sure we were safe, happy and well-fed, anticipating what we needed before we did.
Mathias Giles, Barge Owner & Host Extraordinaire
The owner of Esperance, Matthias Giles, was also a big part of the experience. He met the boat at each docking point, providing any needed supplies and supplemental groceries for Chef Jean Luc. He pitched in wherever he was needed, from giving us the skinny on a wine choice during a pre-dinner tasting to making sure the table settings were always perfect. Mathias always had a smile and a story and had a unique way of making us feel at home on his luxury hotel barge.
Rex, Our Fearless Guide
Our tour guide for the week was Reitze Lemstra, a.k.a. Rex. On a barge cruise, the land excursions are just as important as the journey on the canal. Each day, Rex would arrive in a luxury van where the barge was docked. He’d share stories about the history of the place we were visiting, always with a comical twist that would lead to a van filled with laughter.
He was extremely knowledgeable about the places we visited, the wines of the area, and the history of both. During the drive, he would prep us on what to expect, and then he would join us on each tour, answering questions and pointing out the important parts. By the end of the week, I knew I would miss these daily excursions with Rex.
Captain Corey Shelley, Our Captain
We learned different history lessons from Captain Corey Shelley. Unfortunately, Corey didn’t share any poetry with us even though he is a direct relative to the famous English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley!
Captain Shelley knows the community who lives along the banks of the Canal du Midi very well as he has spent many seasons navigating there. He gave us the inside scoop on what life was really like along the canal. He knew many of the boat owners and lock keepers and told us stories about the canal and the Esperance. Captain Shelley even showed us a few of his recent barge renovation projects as we traveled along the canal.
It was remarkable to see how he got our barge through so many tight spaces without a single mishap. Good thing he never let me take the wheel!
Helen Toy, Our “Jane” of All Trades
But it was Helen Toy, our steward, deckhand and hostess, who seemed to be the glue that held it all together. She quickly learned our preferences and seemed to always be right on hand. I dubbed her “the fairy” because she seemed to fly around the barge, cleaning, pouring wine, setting a table, throwing a line to the lock-keeper, and translating for us. She was always where she was needed, and everything she did was with a smile or a sweet giggle.
Chef Jean Luc Poulet, Our Chef de Cuisine
Food is a big part of French canal cruising, and on this trip, Chef Jean Luc Poulet was always working in the galley to make sure we had the very best cuisine. Many of the dishes required meticulous prep work that could take a few days before creating one of our memorable courses. Daily, he was up on deck planning his menus, visiting local markets, or spending many early hours in the small barge galley.
Cooking Lessons with a French Flair
My daughter Samantha, a student at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, was eager for the chance to learn from a seasoned French chef and he was encouraging, kind and willing to share his knowledge with her. It made for a very special experience that she will never forget.
Samantha helped Chef Jean Luc with several dishes, but his biggest lesson for her was teaching her how to completely debone a guinea fowl and then help to stuff it for one of our main courses.
The southern French countryside was the embodiment of beauty, charm, and of course history. Whenever I visit Europe I am always impressed with, well, how wonderfully old things are.
Our celebrated colonial history in the United States pales in comparison to centuries-old European villages where history seems to be steeped into every cobblestone. Some buildings and ruins we visited on this trip date back more than 1,000 years.
French canal cruising is an ideal way to get a taste of France’s impressive heritage.
Day 1: The Village of Penzenas
The first day of touring, Rex took us to the charming village of Penzenas, lined with tiny cobblestone streets and unique shops. To get there, it was a 30- to 40-minute drive from where the barge was docked the night before.
We had time to browse and wander the streets and found beautiful flowers, tiny doors and plenty of presents to buy. I was happy to find a local craftswoman and brought home a gorgeous hand-painted pendant necklace.
Rex also took us to a spot where we could get into a royal chariot. It was indeed a seat fit for a king or a queen.
Day 2: Olives & Panoramic Views
Day two was the highlight of the trip. We visited the olive groves of L’Oulibo, a mill producing high-quality olives and olive oils, based in Bize, Minervois since 1942.
We took a guided tour of the olive groves and learned about the pressing process and then got to taste the olives and the oil. It was tricky to pick a favorite, they were all so good!
After tasting our fill of olives and oils, we headed to the ancient city of Minerve. Rex stopped above the city so we could take pictures, and then we headed down the mountain to this stone covered village for a visit.
It was breathtaking, with narrow cobblestone streets and tiny shops set up in buildings dating as far back as the 13th century. We walked through the city, stopped for coffee and then headed back to the luxury barge ready to relax, wine, and dine.
Day 3: The Narbonne Market
The biggest attraction for this excursion was the market in Narbonne. The wrought iron and glass beauty dates back to 1901 and it’s one of the treasures of ancient Narbonne, at one time long ago, an important Roman seaport.
The produce, cheeses, meats, and fish were exceptional. We decided to give Chef Jean Luc a break and bring back items from the market to share for the appetizer course that evening.
Everyone brought something, including cheeses, fresh fruit, olives and grilled watermelon steaks with feta cheese that were made by the Canadian Chef Travis Quin Olfers. It was fun to share stories of our day over our combined appetizers from the famous Narbonne Market.
Day 4: Carcassonne Castles
Castles have always impressed me and citadel of Carcassonne was no exception. It is located on a hill on the right bank of the River Aude, in the south-east part of the city. It’s actually not just a castle but a medieval citadel with more than 2,500 years of history. Through the ages, it has been occupied by Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Crusaders.
It is also reportedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom and the similarities are apparent. The views and structures were stunning. It was a 30-minute drive to Carcassonne from where the barge was docked and we had a great day of touring!
Rex showed us sections of the walls and how the different components marked time. You could see how the wall structure had changed and improved over time and how the older sections had been built with more primitive building materials. Amazingly the entire large complex still stands strong.
Day 5: Our Final Excursion
We left Esperance in the evening this time, after enjoying a day cruise on the Canal du Midi, and drove to Villeseque des Corbieres, a small village in southern France about 45 minutes away from where Esperance was docked for the night.
Mathias was taking us to meet a chef and friend, Stephanie Asco, who had invited us for dinner at her home.
This evening was the perfect example of the kind of experiences offered on an intimate barge cruise. As graciously as Mattias had welcomed us onto his luxury barge and treated us like honored guests, he was now thoughtfully ushering us into a friend’s home for dinner.
Stephanie had a large wooden farm table set for our dinner and we felt as if we were already old friends.
The dishes she served were family-style, with a starter of baked mussels followed by the main course, a rice dish similar to Spanish paella. She had cooked it on a neighbor’s grill, because of the large size of the pan. The dinner ended with a luxurious dark chocolate mousse and there was plenty of wine to enjoy throughout the dinner.
That night when we returned to Esperance, the crew had adorned the walkway to the barge with lights and balloons. It was lovely.
After a nightcap on board, we retired to pack and get ready for our departure to the train station the next morning.
Luckily for Samantha and me, we had a few days left of our French canal cruising adventure. We were returning to Paris to see the sites and take a day trip to the legendary Palace of Versailles.
Our Bonus Days in Paris
The four-star XO Hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood, very close to all the top attractions and walking distance to the Arch de Triumph and Champs de Elysee. Other major tourist spots were just a quick train ride away. These few extra days in Paris were our chance to see the sites. It didn’t seem right to leave so soon, Samantha had never been to Paris and we had a lot to see!
Paris Day 1
After a long train ride to Paris from Narbonne, we kept a low profile our first night. We had a quick bite to eat at a local cafe and called it a day.
The XO hotel was quaint and friendly and was a good base for our touring activities. The rooms were on the small side, but in line with most hotels in Europe. The vibe was friendly and there was a happy hour from 7-9pm and a full breakfast in the morning that was included with our stay.
I would stay at this hotel again and would recommend it to others.
Paris Day 2
Day two we explored by foot, walking to the Louvre, and then the Eiffel Tower. With little to no French language experience, we learned to navigate the train lines and figured out the line to get us to the Palace of Versailles the next day.
Paris Day 3
Day three was our day to visit the Palace of Versailles. We realized that we would not have time to see it all. It is a huge property and there were garden tours, palace tours, bicycle rentals and golf carts that included an automated drive-yourself-tour.
It was a beautiful sunny day, which we had not unfortunately experienced on our barge cruise. We really wanted to stay outside and enjoy the day so we opted for the golf cart tour of the grounds.
My daughter Samantha was happy to drive the cart and the auto tour worked nicely, telling us where to go and what we were looking at. It lasted for 90 minutes and told us stories about each place we visited. We noticed many Parisian families had opted for a day trip to the Versailles gardens for a picnic lunch.
When we returned we grabbed dinner at another cafe that was near our hotel. It was easy to find a nice cafe for dinner in Paris, they seemed to be on every street corner.
Paris Day 4
This would be our last day in Paris before heading back to Virginia. We discovered the hop-on hop-off Batobus ferry from one of the passengers on the Esperance, who told us it was a great way to get around Paris to see the sites.
The Batobus open-air ferry travels up and down the River Seine. For a fixed price for the day, you can get on and off as you please to visit Paris’s iconic treasures. If you are there for two days, the cost goes down.
We went to visit Notre Dame that day and it was so sad to see what was left of the burned structure. When we had first arrived at the Esperance we had found out about the fire, it had happened while we were on the cruise.
However, we were heartened to see that the restoration work had already begun and we look forward to going back and seeing Notre Dame in all of its beauty once the work is complete.
While we were there, Samantha was approached by an artist who wanted to paint her picture. It was well worth the time and cost, as we now have a hand-drawn caricature of her to remember our visit.
The length of our visit was perfect as an add-on to the cruise. I think if we could have switched the trip and visited Paris before the cruise, it would have helped with the jet lag, so I would plan to do this prior to the cruise instead of after. Before or after, just make sure you tack on a few days to see beloved Paris. It is a gorgeous city with plenty to do and see.
The Skinny on Barge Lady Cruises
When you book a cruise with Barge Lady Cruises, they take care of all the details. They pair you up with the best barge cruise to fit your style, personality and budget, rating their barges from three to six stars. And they’re also very good at helping you find the best hotels for pre- and post-cruise stays in the region. Stephanie Sack, the daughter of the original Barge Lady, helped us to find the perfect hotel for our extra few days in Paris. Our time in Paris was excellent.
I highly recommend working with the Barge Ladies to find the exact barge trip that fits your family and trip specifications. Stephanie knows the routes, owners, and barges first-hand and can make sure your trip is exactly as you wish.
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