Cruises

Europe's River Cruises: Exploring the Waterways of Europe

Filed Under: Europe, France

I've never been the cruising type.

Never have I pictured myself going hog wild at a midnight cruise buffet, then repenting the next morning with an introductory rock-climbing course whilst steaming away from some crowded Caribbean port. Not once have I envisaged a stint of sunrise Pilates on the upper deck. Nor donning a cocktail dress to greet my fellow passengers at the captain's dinner.

Cruises certainly have their appeal. But I suppose I've never had a burning desire to see the world along with 3,000 of my fellow passengers from the vantage point of a behemoth boat.

But when I had the opportunity to experience a lesser-known waterway in the South of France aboard an early 20th-century wooden barge designed for only 8 passengers, I said yes without a second's hesitation.

River-cruising, it turns out, is nothing like its big-ocean counterpart.

With the exception of a kayak or canoe -- or perhaps from a swimmer's vantage point -- viewing the world from a riverboat is as intimate as you can get with a waterway and the world around it.

My journey was along the Canal du Midi, where I watched the world float by at a walker's pace for 3 days, cruising one of the most historic and hauntingly beautiful waterways in Europe (the canal is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site).

Built in the 17th century by 12,000 men, including Paul Riquet -- a taxman who changed careers when he became inspired to build a shortcut to connect the Atlantic and Mediterranean -- the canal stretches for roughly 150 miles between the cities of Sete and Toulouse in the South of France. From Toulouse, it morphs into a web of other waterways that exit into the open ocean near Bordeaux.

To picture the Canal du Midi, imagine a lazily flowing bottle-brown seam, sewn at the edges with neatly spaced plane trees that form an organic tunnel over the water, which is itself covered in parts by ancient, arching stone bridges.

There are more than 100 locks along the Canal du Midi, 67 of which are still working and largely manned by lock keepers who aid boaters in passing through. The 7 contiguous locks at Fonserannes in the town of Beziers are a stepped procession that takes 40 minutes to pass through, and a tourist attraction in their own right.

And the Malpas Tunnel, which cuts 190 yards through a rocky hillside near the village of Enserune, was the first canal tunnel ever built and remains a marvel of engineering.

Up until 1989, when commercial traffic along the Canal du Midi ceased, cargo of grains, grapes for wine and mail were transported along the waterway -- in the old days, the barges were dragged by horses pulling ropes from pathways alongside the canal.

Now the tourist trade plies the Canal du Midi, with trips aboard chartered barges and self-drive boats the main draw. You can spend a few days or a few weeks leisurely cruising and soaking in the sights of medieval towns such as Carcassone, Beziers and Agde.

The Canal du Midi's setting is ridiculously scenic. Where there are no postcard-perfect villages (some 80 percent of the canal's route is undeveloped along the edges), vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see.

And there are Roman ruins, boutique olive oil production facilities and more than 150 castles to visit within a 31-mile radius of the canal's route.

During the peak months of July and August, the Canal du Midi can feel like a veritable Parisian boulevard -- bottlenecked with boat traffic on its waters and busy with runners, bikers and hikers along the dusty footpaths fringing the route.

The best months to visit are April, May and June, and September and October, when crowds are at a minimum and the weather is still fine.

My chariot on the Canal du Midi was the Tango, a glorious 1930s-era wooden barge some 91 feet long, replete with vintage brass portholes, a stately lounge and luxurious cabins with fluffy duvets and ensuite bathrooms and showers -- not to mention a strategically placed hot tub perched atop the bow from which I could take in the scenery while sipping champagne.

Sigh inducing, indeed.

Daniel Sak, the Tango's owner, was our captain -- as well as master chef and local expert extraordinaire.

Half-American, half-French, Sak grew up boating with his mother (she owns the river barge Fandango). And when he wasn't expertly piloting the Tango through tunnels barely wider than the boat itself, Sak was busy preparing three-course meals of the Michelin star variety that we ate in the barge's beautiful dining room or alfresco on the roof, beneath the shade of an awning.

Throughout the trip, the wine flowed -- all of it sourced from family-owned vineyards in the vicinity of the canal, carefully selected by Sak to complement meals such as seared duck breast, onion tarts and Salad Nicoise.

I was clearly not the only passenger to appreciate the pampering.

In the Tango's guest book, one guest from Sarasota, FL, had written that among the top ten things about cruising the Canal du Midi aboard the Tango was "the discovery of wonderful wines and of large quantities, that give you no hangovers, like American wines would."

For me, the pleasures also came in more sober moments and the chance to float no faster than I could walk through an area of France that is being heralded as the next Provence.

La belle vie, indeed.

To learn more about river-cruising in France, visit France Guide:

And follow Travel Channel's lead to more fabulous European river-cruising destinations:

* Douro, Portugal -- Cruise from Portugal to Spain along the Douro River, where port wine grapes are grown along steep slopes cut into the narrow river's banks. 

* Rhine River, Germany -- Germany's wine country is every bit as stunning as that of France, particularly from the vantage point of a river cruise

* Hungary to Holland -- Cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam with a two-week itinerary with Tauck that takes in Germany's Rhine and Main Rivers and the Danube, while passing through Vienna and Bratislava, too.

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