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Quirky Cruise
September 2, 2019

French Barge Cruising: My French Love Affair (Part 1) 

French Barge Cruising:
My French Love Affair (Part 1)

The Canal, The Boat, The Weather, The Locks, The Food & The Wine

By Elysa Leonard.

To be completely honest, I had mixed feelings about this quirky cruise as we planned it. It was not my norm. I am a scuba girl and love my trips to be sun-kissed and salty. On this French barge cruising adventure, the focus would be on wining and dining, not diving and regulating.

I would be bringing my daughter, Samantha, a budding chef who is halfway through her studies at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA). A French barge cruise would be a great experience for her to learn some cooking skills from a seasoned French chef and it would of course be a super memorable mother-daughter holiday as well.

But what would I really think about a slow crawl through southern France on a luxury barge?

The truth is, I fell in love with French barge cruising!

French Barge Cruise - Esperance on the Canal du Midi

Elysa and her daughter Sam aboard the 6-passenger Esperance! * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi … or

Le Canal Charmant Mais Etonnant (The lovely and Remarkable Canal)

The Canal du Midi is set in the lovely region of Languedoc in southern France. It’s a step back in time to motor through this idyllic pastoral countryside. You quickly realize why artists are drawn to this area after seeing firsthand the inspiration surrounding you. From small quaint villages with stone churches and narrow cobblestone streets to vineyards and small farms, this cruise was all about the journey.

A slow-moving barge is a perfect vessel — and speed — to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

French barge cruising aboard Experance

A barge cruise along the Canal du Midi is an excellent to soak up the French countryside. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

What’s not to love!

When you realize this canal was built centuries ago, in a very rural part of the country with no modern equipment, it truly is a remarkable accomplishment. The project began in 1667 and was managed by Pierre-Paul Riquet, taking 14 years to complete. It was built as a working canal to transport goods between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. Sadly, Riquet would never see the completed project, he died one year before it was finished.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996, the Canal du Midi is considered one of the major civil engineering achievements of the modern age.

Esperance — Love at First Sight

The luxury hotel barge, Esperance, has a capacity for six passengers and three crew members. The word Esperance means hope or promise and this barge delivered on all of her promises.

French Barge Cruising on the Esperance

The 6-passenger Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Not only that but the barge fits perfectly in some very tight spaces.

As seen here:

The three bedrooms were spacious and charming; ours had a reading area with a sofa and a large closet. Each room has an ensuite bathroom.

Esperance cabin

A charming cabin aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

On the top open deck was a dining table, lounge chairs, and a hot tub. The salon was lined with windows and there was a lovely area for lounging, reading or just enjoying one of the freshly prepared snacks made by our on-board chef, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea.

Elegant lounge aboard French Barge Esperance

The elegant salon aboard the Esperance. * Photo: Barge Lady Cruises

The salon’s high-top table is where we would enjoy most of our meals. It was perfectly sized for six and was always impeccably adorned with a colorful themed tablescape and fresh flowers.

The kitchen was tiny and we were amazed by the dishes that Chef, Jean-Luc, prepared from such a small space.

Dining aboard a French Barge cruise.

The lovely “tablescape” at dinner on the Esperance. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

There was a lot to love about the Esperance. The rooms were big and it felt like a moving luxury hotel; we never felt cramped.

The One Thing Not to Love — The Weather

We were not blessed with perfect weather and much of the time, it was colder than I expected and a bit windy. In fact, there were several days/nights where they had to heat the cabin — we were cruising in early April, so the temperatures were fairly typical.

French Barge Cruise aboard Esperance

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Sadly, that meant that all of our meals except for one were inside in the salon. It also meant that we didn’t do as much walking and biking as I think we would have if the weather gods had cooperated. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying our time and thankfully, we didn’t get much rain to dampen our excursions.

It was easy to imagine what it would be like to have more meals and happy hours on the deck, and maybe a few more dips in the hot tub, but we will save that dream for future trips. The foliage and flowers were just about to pop and we could only imagine how lush and green things would be in just a few short weeks. It was just on the cusp of gorgeousness during our week and about to get even more so in a few short weeks.

My recommendation would be to take this trip in late spring to guarantee that spring in France had indeed sprung. But you can’t control the weather, so we chose to enjoy the journey and sat out on the deck with layers, including some blankets, so we wouldn’t miss the scenery and especially the passage through the locks.

Esperance barge cruises run from April through October.

The ideal time for a Canal du Midi barge cruise is the spring months of May and June; and for a touch of fall, September and October.

French Barge Cruising: Lovely Locks

When traveling on the Canal du Midi you can’t help but love the locks. They are a marvel of engineering and yet appear to seamlessly work to raise or lower boats.

French Barge cruising on Canal du Midi

Passing through the locks was a highlight. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Canal du Midi locks

Up close and personal with the locks of the Canal du Midi. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canals are flat bodies of water, but sometimes where you want to build a canal is hilly, so what do you do? You construct a lock to raise or lower the boats to the next stretch of canal at the higher or lower elevation.

The barge enters the lock, the doors close, it fills with water (or the water lowers) and you have now risen (or sunk) to the next level to continue on your journey.

There are 63 working locks on the Canal du Midi. The locks are maintained by a permanent lock keeper. The lock keeper cottages in many cases have been transformed into art galleries, displaying sculptures and paintings. Some of the lock keepers were the artists themselves and they displayed their art for sale.

Canal du Midi lock - Ecluse de Jouarres

Elcuse de Jouarres on the Canal du Midi – Esperance crew would pick up fresh fruits, vegetables, and, wine at this lock. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Canal du Midi French barge cruising

The arty “lawn” of a lock keeper. * Photo: Elysa Leonard

My favorite was Ecluse de L’aiguille or the Aiguille Lock. The lock keeper is a sculptor who has created really interesting art from wood and metal. One group of sculptures are connected to a motion sensor so when you walk by they all move, from a naked biker to a man sticking out his tongue and another that looks like Humpty Dumpty. It was one of my favorite stops and we had time to take a close-up look while the barge went through the lock.

Ecluse de L'aiguille on the Canal du Midi

Strange yet captivating art at the Ecluse de L’aiguille. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I also witnessed a few replenishments of wine handed over from the lock keeper to our crew, so we would always have a glass (or two!) from the local vineyards.

French Cuisine: A Life-Long Crush

When you think of French food, it conjures thoughts of heavy dishes covered in creamy rich sauces. And although we enjoy dishes with luxurious sauces, our Chef, Jean Luc, who had been cooking for 50 years, kept things elegant while also surprisingly light.

A memorable lunch consisted of a bowl of black shelled mussels with bright apricot-colored flesh, plucked from the Mediterranean Sea that morning. The chef knew with shellfish as fresh as this, less was more. He steamed them in olive oil, white wine, and garlic and served them with a crusty French baguette and a salad tossed in a simple but divine dressing that we found out was made with his own black walnut oil.

When we asked about the dressing through a few translations (Chef Luc doesn’t speak English), we discovered the origin of the oil was a black walnut tree in his backyard. He had crushed the black walnuts and made this oil himself, giving new meaning to the phrase, “from scratch.”

Fresh Mussels - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fresh Mussels in white wine and garlic broth, plucked that morning from the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Green Salad - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Simple Green Salad with a Black Walnut Vinaigrette. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Memorable dinner entrees included a delicious roast duck breast, steak au poivre, stuffed guinea fowl, tender beef roast with root vegetables, and pork tenderloin topped with an onion and mushroom compote.

Roast Duck Breast - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Roast Duck Breast with ratatouille, cauliflower and popovers. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Steak au poivre - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Steak au poivre with whipped potatoes, glazed sugar snap peas, and baby carrots. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Unforgettable appetizers included an asparagus soup served with a straw, a rainbow of caviar on toast, and my favorite, baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto that was sautéed in butter until crispy on the outside with a tender inside.

Rainbow Caviar Canape - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A rainbow of caviar canapes served with Champagne on our first night. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Baked leeks wrapped in prosciutto - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Baked leeks wrapped in crispy prosciutto. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Cheese courses were a part of all dinners, and I would try to save room to at least sample them. From creamy herbed goat cheese to ripe camembert, they were a perfect pairing with the white, rosé and red wines served with dinner. Yes we did of course drink a lot of good French wine on this trip!

French Cheese Plate with caraway seeds and apples - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with caraway seeds and apples. Photo: Elysa Leonard

A selection of French cheese with honey and rosemary - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese with pears, local figs, honey, and rosemary. Photo: Elysa Leonard

French cheese plate from Narbonne - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

A selection of French cheese from the Narbonne Market. Photo: Elysa Leonard

I was inspired to create cheese plates on my own after this trip. I have been treating my neighbors to French cheese and wine all summer long, as I try to hold on to the pleasant memories of my barge cruise.

Desserts were elegant but simple.

They comprised fresh fruit served with a cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth, gold-dusted strawberries with fresh mint, smooth and creamy vanilla bean ice cream, and a show stopper, puff pastry with a sweet mango filling.

Fruit salad with cinnamon cookie - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Fruit salad with a crispy cinnamon cookie that melted in your mouth. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Gold dusted Strawberries - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Gold dusted fresh strawberries with mint. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Puff pastry with mango filling - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

Puff pastry with mango filling. Photo: Elysa Leonard

The Wine: My Romantic Rendezvous with Rosé

I love wine, that was true long before my visit to France. But, I am very particular in what kinds of wine I drink. I have always been a fan of California whites. I like a buttery Chardonnay from an oak barrel or a crisp Pinot Grigio with a hint of apple and pear, but don’t ever offer me something pink. Pink wines, or so I thought, are sweet and I wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. Sweet wine is not for me.

French rose - Canal du Midi Luxury Barge Cruise

French rose, crisp, dry, and divine. Photo: Elysa Leonard

Pink French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Another French rose that became one of my favorites. Photo: Elysa Leonard

So on the barge cruise, when our cruise manager Helen began offering us rosé in the afternoon, I would put my hand over my glass and tell her I would pass. After the first few days, she asked me why I wouldn’t try the rosé.

“Please don’t be offended, I just don’t like pink wines, they are much too sweet for me,” I confided in her.

Helen said, “But they are not all sweet, some are very dry, like this one, you may like it, give it a try.”

And then several of my new passenger friends including my daughter encouraged me to give it a try as well. Suddenly, I was in a real-life version of “Green Eggs and Ham.” And just like Sam, I thought well, one sip won’t hurt me and after that, they will leave me alone and then I can say I tried it and didn’t like it. However, like Sam, that first sip was not my last.

I took a taste and realized that this French rosé was positively pink perfection!

Drinking French Rose - Canal du Midi luxury barge cruise

Drinking French rosé in the South of France, perfection! Photo: Elysa Leonard

The temperature of this wine is important. Rosé is better when it is well chilled, and of course, Helen took great care to make sure that was always the case on Esperance. I have added rosé to my wine list. But of course, it must be French and it must be from Languedoc or Provence!

Please stay tuned for French Barging Cruising Part 2 — “The Love Affair Continues.” I will discuss the crew, my daughter’s French cooking lessons, the daily excursions and our extended trip to Paris after our barge cruise.

À bientôt! (See you soon!)

➢➢ Are you a barge newbie? Here are some BARGE CRUISE TIPS to get you up to speed!

➢➢ And here’s more info on Barge Lady Cruises, the barge brokers who introduced us to Esperance!

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2 Comments

  1. Don Warnock - 2 months ago

    Great review of the Esperance trip part 1 . How can I get part 2? 6 of us from California are signed up for a trip on the Midi on board the Esperance next year. I would love to have any and all information about what to see on this trip.
    Thanks Don

    • Quirky Cruise - 2 months ago

      Hi Don, thanks for your note! We aim to have Part 2 of Elysa’s Esperance trip up next week. In the meantime, if you’re not a subscriber, we’d love if you’d subscribe to QuirkyCruise to get our monthly updates. Many thanks.

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