Luxury hotel barge cruise with European Waterways
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Kathryn Liston takes a slow barge along the
historic Canal du Midi past pretty vineyards and boutique wineries, Cathar castles and Roman remains, while enjoying gastronomic cuisine and fine wines
along the way.
“Just don’t say rabbit”, warned
captain Laurent as we boarded the Dutch hotel barge, Anjodi, at Marseillean,
“it’s bad luck”. Apparently, in days gone by, rabbits used to eat through the
bars of their cages and the ribs of the boat and it sank.
Not that we saw any bunnies as we fine dined our
way around the Languedoc region of southern France, following in the footsteps
of Cathars, Romans and celebrity chef Rick Stein, whose French Odyssey TV
series was filmed on the barge.
Monk fish with beurre blanc sauce and black
lobster and avocado, cocoa foie gras and a
succulent hay-smoked beef
tenderloin with roquefort sauce were beautifully cooked
and presented by our onboard Michelin-trained chef Vivien every day - just like
a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Oops, that word again.
Potatoes were candied, peas and pumpkins
velouted and pureed, citrus confited and bacon foamed. Even Vivien’s grandma’s
quiche recipe took a star turn.
One lunchtime, under a warm autumn sun, we
dined on platters of ocean-fresh langoustine, oysters, prawns and whelks bought
at the market in Narbonne the previous day. Sweet choux buns that followed were
as light as a puff of air.
We followed our noses through the vineyards
of Languedoc - and the excellent cheeses of France - under the expert guidance
of Sandra, the sommelier, who introduced us to the complexities of the syrah,
cairgnon, grenache and mourvedre grapes most commonly blended in the region’s
red wines. Languedoc wines typically blend two or more grape varieties.
For the white and roses, we learned about the
three colours - blanc, noir and gris - of the grenache, carignan, picpoul and
terret grapes. On occasion, we strayed into Burgundy.
With our wine noses finely-tuned, we tested
them out in a fun quiz, sniffing and identifying fruits and essences often
identified in wine - lemon, raspberry, even burnt toast. It brought the week’s
wine-quaffing experiences alive.
Each day took on a familiar routine -
cruising in the morning, an al fresco lunch on deck, an afternoon excursion and
free time before dinner to relax in the hot tub on deck, read or cycle. With
only eight guests (Aussies, Americans and Brits) and four crew onboard, the
ambience was more house-party than hotel - and our fellow guests turned out to
be very good company.
Pootling along at a steady 2-4km an
hour, we ambled past pin-neat vineyards bereft of their juicy fruits, wading grey herons stalking their next fishy feast, and tall slender grasses bowing
their bulbous flossy heads. We exchanged “bonjours" with fellow boaters
and families walking on the tow path. Occasionally, I joined them there and cycled to our next mooring, embracing the peace and solitude.
With 330 years of history, the canal is one
of Europe’s oldest and most impressive, particularly the flight of seven locks
at Fonserranes. Spectators watched as we ascended the flight, the cascade of
water shooting through the lock gates buffeting and jostling the barge from
side to side. It’s one-way traffic up in the morning, and down during the
We disembarked at the top and watched an
interesting film at the information office on this amazing feat of engineering,
built by Paul Riquet (1666-1681) to transport wine and grain between the Mediterranean
Another attraction of this area is the wealth
of Cathar history, which we found in the charming fortified town of Minerve. A
10-week siege by crusader Simon de Montfort in 1210, ended with 140 Cathar martyrs being burnt alive at the stake here for refusing to denounce their
religion. There’s a moving memorial to them on the hillside overlooking the
valley and a street called Rue des Martyrs, where they walked to their deaths.
We followed in their footsteps through the
narrow alleyways, stopping off to visit the charming 12th-century church and
museum, and passing by the fortress’s candela, the only part that remains. We descended
down the deep limestone gorges, passing by one of the giant catapults de Montfort used to destroy the village.
Later in the week we visited another Cathar
stronghold, the picturesque medieval fortified city of Carcassonne, and
followed once again in their footsteps around the restored castle, city
ramparts and narrow shop-lined streets.
All the excursions were included in the
cruise fare and led by the ship’s guide, Fabian. At 16th-century Pezenas,
Fabian regaled us with stories about the playwright Moliere who lived there for
10 years - it’s also famous for its arts and crafts.
Unsurprisingly, wine featured too. At the
Noilly Prat winery in Marseillan, we discovered the secrets of the vermouth’s
herb and spice recipe, which has been hand-stirred since 1855. We also visited
Chateau de Perdiguie in Maraussan, owned by the King Charles V of France in
1375, and one of France’s oldest vineyards.
In Narbonne (founded in 118BC), we marched
through Roman history, via the Via Domitia road, built to link Rome and Spain,
admired the unfinished Gothic cathedral with its amazing stained- glass windows
and 8th-century organ, and attempted to work off the week’s calories by
climbing the tower of the Archbishop’s Palace.
A visit to the town’s huge indoor market
proved fascinating, its stalls piled high with displays of vegetables, skate
wings, octopus, tripe, cheeses and, dare I say it - rabbit. We returned to the
barge with our fingers crossed. We need not have feared. Our cosy floating home
was there to welcome us back with yet another fine-dining feast.
For more information visit europeanwaterways.com
European Waterways operates 17 luxury hotel
barges across nine European countries. They can accommodate between six and 20
English-speaking passengers. Barges are also available for private charter and
themed cruises include walking, cycling, golf, whisky, wine, food and opera.
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