Come Aboard My French Barge Cruise on Adrienne

All content was accurate when this story was published in February 2007.

I consider myself both knowledgeable and comfortable when it comes to France. After all, I made my first visit to Paris way back in 1962 and, in the ensuing years, have made many subsequent trips to that great city and to the French Riviera. I speak and understand French -- well, at least every third word -- and have a decades-long passion for French cuisine; so long standing, in fact, that I can remember when nouvelle cuisine actually was the "new cuisine."

But, zut alors! I am ashamed to admit that there are two big holes in the middle of that knowledge. First off, as intimate as is my acquaintance with French food, I consider my grasp of French wines average at best. In addition, I've never visited the French countryside, a region huge in both size and heritage. I felt a bit like the European tourist who visits the United States, but only sees the East and West Coasts, defining America by New York and Los Angeles without ever exploring the heartland.

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So, I was excited by the prospect of exploring provincial France aboard French Country Waterways' elegant new river barge, Adrienne, sailing the canals of the Upper Loire Valley, touring this region known as "the gateway to the royal chateaux," as well as being exposed to some of France's finest wines, both onboard and in the cellars of local vineyards.

The regions explored by French Country Waterways' five-barge fleet are all out in the provinces fairly distant from Paris, so all passengers gather on Sunday at a designated Parisian hotel, from there to be transported to the barge's overnight mooring. The cruises last six nights, with passengers returned to the same Paris hotel the following Saturday.

Leaving Paris ... and Intro to Adrienne
Our meeting point was the elegant four-star Hotel Meurice, and I can't say we were disappointed that our flight schedule required us to overnight there. Not only was the service superb and the hotel cuisine excellent, but also the hotel's location on Rue Rivoli, a mere two blocks from the Louvre, gave us the opportunity to spend Sunday morning at that massive museum.

After a leisurely lunch at the hotel, we ensconced ourselves at a table in the lobby outside the hotel's bar. While enjoying glasses of wine, we noticed a group of three American couples at a nearby table eyeing us with curiosity. One of the men came over to our table and inquired if we were passengers on Adrienne, waiting, like them, for the 4 p.m. rendezvous with the French Country Waterways representative. (We had surmised the same thing about them). We wound up joining the group, which turned out to be two sisters with husbands in tow, along with friends they regularly travel with. We also learned that the eight of us represented the sum total of passengers on this sailing. In the past, I don't think I've ever learned the names of every passenger sharing a vessel with me, let alone in the first hour after having met them!

At exactly 4 p.m. we were approached by a clean-cut fortyish-looking chap in shorts and a crisp white pique T-shirt. In a mild, soft-spoken British accent he introduced himself as Glen, and inquired if we were the group for French Country Waterways. He then led us to a 12-passenger Mercedes van, the spacious, large-windowed variety typical of personalized sightseeing tours. All of our luggage had been stacked in the back, and 10 minutes later we were on our way. Blissfully, the van had superb air conditioning, as France had been in the grip of a record-setting heat wave, and, under cloudless skies, the daytime temperatures had been in the 90's since our arrival.

Glen explained that he was Adrienne's onboard tour guide, and would be driving the bus between Adrienne's moorings for use as a sightseeing vehicle, and for transferring us back to Paris at the conclusion of the trip.

As we joined highway A6, the main southbound artery leaving Paris, he took the opportunity to describe our destination and the region we would be sailing on Adrienne. What I learned was an eye-opener, and highlighted a characteristic of France -- and, by extension, Europe in general -- that differentiates it from our country in a way I hadn't considered. I'd always thought of the primary mode of moving goods and people in pre-flight America as being land-based, from the Conestoga wagons to the web of railroads crisscrossing the continent. To be sure there is still water-borned commerce in the United States, but it is, for the most part, limited to the seacoasts, major navigable rivers, and the Great Lakes.

Not so in France. In 1604, 225 years before the invention of the first practical locomotive, France began work on a network of canals joining the country's two major rivers, the Seine and Loire, a transportation system that served the same function as our railroads. To this day it is still functional and accessible to the Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean, and to similar river/canal systems throughout Western Europe carrying cargo, private boats and hotel barges (like Adrienne), which awaited us now at Nemours on the Loing Canal.

During the hour and a half ride, the scenery changed from village to village, cycling from vast fields of corn, wheat and hay to small, tightly clumped communities of chateau-style stone houses to industrial towns bordering factories and quarries. In between were densely forested deep green rolling hills, reminiscent to me of rural Connecticut.

Arriving at Nemours (the ancestral home of the Du Pont family, one of America's oldest reigning dynasties), we crossed the bridge spanning the confluence of the Loing River and Canal, giving us a pretty view of Adrienne tied up to bollards (thick, flanged metal posts set into the river bank). At first sight the shape of vessels like Adrienne appears strange, seeming excessively long for their width and with a waterline only a handful of feet below top-deck level. As we continued our journey, these proportions -- necessary to fit into narrow locks and under low bridges while still enclosing a comfortable amount of living space -- became more and more familiar-looking.

But one thing stood out even more: this barge was immaculate. Dark hull and bright cream-colored superstructure positively gleamed; wooden decks, railings and outer window frames were varnished and polished to a glass-smooth surface, and, on the forward sundeck, potted geraniums and thin topiary added warm homey accents.

As Glen unloaded our bags, Adrienne's master, Captain Mark Bostin, approached us and introduced himself to each of us individually. Forty-something years old with a short crewcut, Mark is FCW's senior captain, but compared to the rosters of conventional cruise liner masters, the designation "senior" didn't match the image. Mark also took an equal hand at schlepping bags aboard, assisted by Adrienne's deck hand, Kyle.

Entering the salon, the single public room aboard the barge reminded me of a 19th-century provincial French country inn. Rich, deep red carpeting crisscrossed with gold accents is the color palette echoed by the toile draperies, framed by rich wood paneling and antiqued mirrors; a decor that continues throughout the barge. Chairs and tables bear the gently curving shapes arms and legs hearkening back to the era of Louis XV. Wide expanses of glass keep the atmosphere light and bright during daylight hours.

As we settled into the gold overstuffed sofas, we were served Kir Royales and canapes by the two onboard hostesses, Jessie and Karine. Like all crewmembers, they are fluent in English, though Karine was one of the two staffers onboard for whom French was their first language. Next, Mark began his welcome aboard and orientation talk, beginning with introducing the other native Frenchman, Adrienne's chef J.C. (I realized with a shock that I now knew not only the names of all the passengers but those of the entire crew, as well!) Mark's presentation included information on meals, a description of the highlights of our itinerary, and a discussion of the logistics of venturing ashore on foot or by bicycle. He also asked for a show of hands of how many of us would be interested in taking a hot-air balloon ride, for which there would be a charge of 220 euros per person (about $280 U.S.; otherwise all shore excursions on Adrienne are included in the fare.) All eight of us raised our hands. Since ballooning is weather dependent we were told that we would be informed at a later time which evening the flight would be scheduled.

After the talk -- and snapping up a few more canapes -- we went to our stateroom to unpack. Though called a suite, the room lacked what most cruise passengers associate with suites: an extra room or, at least, separate seating area. Nonetheless, it was extremely comfortable and commodious, and styled in the same ornate provincial French style of the upper public deck. Instead of a closet the room had a large armoire, perfectly sufficient for storage of all our clothing and possessions. Also, unlike many hotels and vessels in Europe, Adrienne has both 220- and 110-volt outlets, so no converter is necessary. Another nice surprise was the heated towel rack in the spacious marble and granite bathroom.

By the time we'd gotten settled it was time for dinner, and we gathered with our six fellow passengers in Adrienne's elegant dining area. Carved out of the main salon, the dining room is separated from it by a wood-paneled bulkhead on one side and heavy, ornate wall unit/bookshelf on the other. Each of the three tables for four is situated next to a window.

Dinner begins each night with Karine and Jessie providing an in-depth description of the two wines -- typically one red and one white -- served with that meal. The quality of the wines served was superb; most of them "grand cru" or "premiere cru," referring to the French government's rating of the quality of the vineyard. And of course, all the wines came from France. (You'd be more likely to find a six-legged purple unicorn aboard Adrienne than a bottle of California wine!)

Dinner each night was a four-course fixed menu: appetizer, main course, cheese and salad course, and dessert. While we were enjoying our first wine selection and appetizer (thin pastry purse with goat cheese and pesto, with honey and almonds), we got to meet our fellow passengers. One couple -- a teacher and her astronomer husband -- came from British Columbia. The other two couples came from Washington D.C.: a tax attorney and her husband, who worked at the Smithsonian, and their friends, who both worked for the Transportation Security Administration. We made our strongest connection with the latter couple, and were fascinated to learn that the husband was formerly with the defense department, and was in the Pentagon when one of the September 11, 2001 planes crashed into it. His stories of the chaos, heroism and escaping amid collapsing floors and falling walls was vivid, and really brought that bit of history to life for me.

Though we were disappointed with the main course (a chicken breast with olives and bell pepper sauce -- a bit dry to my palate) we were forgiving, as we usually are, for the first dinner served aboard a ship. The next course, cheese plate and salad -- a traditional European menu placement -- was another eye-opener. Karine and Jessie made as complete a presentation and explanation for the cheeses as they had for the wine, including where they came from, what type of milk they were made from (goat, cow, ewe), even what order to eat them (mild to strong). Throughout the sailing there would be three cheeses served with each meal; nearly thirty varieties with no repeats! Then, after a light grapefruit sorbet for dessert, we decided to take a stroll around the village of Nemours, as even at 9:30 at night it was still light out, and the approach of evening had begun to lower the oppressive temperature.

As Debbie and I wandered close to Adrienne we were surprised to see a flock of hot-air balloons gracefully and silently climbing over the houses, church steeples and canal-side grain elevators. Our fellow guests joined us, and we walked along the canal, skirting the streets of the village. My impression was one of an eclectic mix of eras, from medieval to modern layered one on top of each other ... much the same way the strata in archeological digs carry older and older the artifacts, the deeper the layer.

Satellite dishes were mounted atop stone houses with steeply pitched shingle roofs, a modern factory sat on a thick concrete foundation poured over ancient-looking cobblestones, and the "towpath," once used for beasts of burden to move barges along the canal, bore the twin-rutted look of a rural road given over to automobile traffic. Likewise, at various points along the canal wall's antique-looking arcane machinery, huge gears and cranks of mysterious purpose sat rusting and crumbling, abandoned and superseded by newer generations of engineering. After crossing the lock we would sail through tomorrow, and continuing on for another 15 minutes or so, Debbie and I -- having more serious jetlag than our fellows (who had been in France for a week already) -- excused ourselves and returned to Adrienne to get a good night's sleep.

Hot Air Balloon ... 11th Century Abbey ... And Cheese
Before we left the dinner table last night Jessie pointed to a 12-cup Krups auto-drip coffeemaker, letting us know that it would be loaded with coffee and water each night and it was up to the first person to rise in the morning to press the button to start the coffee brewing. (That invariably was I. Jetlag or not, I am a habitual early riser, and by 6:30 a.m. I was awake and ready for a cup of coffee.) On the sideboard with the coffeemaker were three canisters of cold cereal. The remainder of the daily continental breakfast was to be put out somewhat later. For about an hour I did some writing, joined at that point by Debbie and one of our fellow passengers. Looking out the window I caught a glimpse of Glen bicycling toward Adrienne, a large canvas tote over his shoulder from whose top poked several baguettes. When Glen came aboard I could see that the tote contained not only baguettes but an assortment of pastries: croissants, small sweetened crispy squares, and puff pastries filled with fruit, chocolate or cheese. This was one of Adrienne's most delightful surprises. Every morning, at whatever village we overnighted, either Glen or Mark would go to the local boulangerie (bakery) and bring back freshly baked breads and pastries. In addition, breakfast included cold cuts, fruits and cheeses.

By 8 a.m. we were ready to be on our way. Kyle cast off the bow line and we slowly edged into the center of the canal, moving at an unhurried five knots -- about the speed of a brisk walk -- and within a few minutes we were on the approach to our first lock. As our captain, Mark, had described it, our southbound route would take us uphill for three days and downhill for the final two. In order to handle the change in elevation, locks were necessary, and many of the locks in France's canal system go back to the 17th century. Since we were traveling uphill we would be entering this lock at a low level, the water's surface significantly lower than ground level at the front end of the lock.

As we entered the lock I was astounded by how tight a fit it was. Standing on the forward sundeck, the concrete walls towered above me, and there were mere inches on either side between the wall and the barge. I asked Kyle, our deckhand, who was standing on the sundeck with our mooring line in his hand, how often they had to repaint Adrienne's sides. "Every week," he replied.

As we reached the lock gate, Kyle handed the line to the lockmaster, who moored us to the top of the lock. Mark had scrambled ashore from Adrienne's bridge and closed the rear lock gates himself. (This lack of formality is common to the French canal system, and at some locks, the task was completed by the crew itself without the aid of a lockmaster.)

Kyle and the lockmaster then opened the sluice gates by winding large metal cranks; water rushed into the lock, and up we went. Though nobody did so at this early hour; later on, at the point the barge was even with the upper canal bank, those who wanted to walk between locks would briskly disembark, and meet Adrienne one or more locks farther along the canal. On most cruises, some passengers elect to bicycle a greater distance through various villages, arranging to meet the barge several locks farther along.

In the same informal manner as we entered the lock, the forward gate was opened by Kyle and the lockmaster vigorously cranking, and we smoothly slid out. And so it went for the next three locks as we made our leisurely way downstream, the passing scenery reminiscent of what we had seen in the van on the way to Nemours: a mixture of industrial and residential villages interspersed with farmland.

Each day Adrienne would stop before and/or after lunchtime for guided trips ashore. Today there would be one stop in the morning to explore the fortified village of Chateau-Landon. At about 11 a.m. we had reached the lock at the village of Mocpoix, where Glen and the van waited for us. On the way Glen gave us some background on this seldom-visited village. Its history stretches back 20,000 years, the age of the first evidence of primitive human habitation here. In 52 B.C. it was captured from the Gauls by Caesar, and turned into a center of Gallo-Roman culture. Glen's description of its history continued as we switched from the van to a walking tour past numerous former mills, churches, residences and fortifications.

For the second part of our tour we boarded a wagon drawn by a pair of contoise horses, a breed that looked like downsized Clydesdales. The highlight of this portion of the tour was a visit to the St. Severin Abbey, parts of which dated from the 11th century.

We returned to Adrienne in time for our 1 p.m. lunch. As soon as we were all aboard the barge cast off, creating a cooling breeze on the sundeck, which is where the buffet-style lunch is typically served. Chef J.C. would both describe the daily selections, which typically included two cold salads, a hot meat dish and a warm bread-based option such as quiche or focaccia. And, of course, lunch, like dinner, includes two wines, and a cheese course, natch, served with descriptions by Jessie and Karine.

At the end of lunch, Mark made an announcement. Apparently, the weather gods favored hot-air ballooning for tonight, necessitating dining an hour earlier than usual. Since we had no afternoon tour scheduled, eating early was no problem. There was even time for leisurely cocktails and hors d'oeuvres prior to taking our seats. A Note: Cocktail service is interesting on Adrienne. As with all the wine selections, there's no additional charge for bar drinks. The drinks are served by whichever crewmember is closest, and, when the bar is unattended, passengers are encouraged to serve themselves!

After dinner we disembarked for our hot-air balloon adventure. Expecting a transfer by van I was surprised to see our balloon, partially filled, lying on its side in a weedy field no more than a hundred yards from the gangway. When we got closer we could see that it was slowly being inflated by a powerful fan. At the point the open end was distended enough, the flame was ignited, sending heated air into the envelope. While the balloon continued to fill, our pilot gave us a safety and procedural briefing, handed out souvenir berets, and, at the point the balloon righted itself, we all scrambled into the wicker gondola.

After scraping and bumping along the field for a bit, we lurched into the air. With bursts of flame, our aeronaut/guide controlled our altitude, sometimes descending low enough over farmland that we could see rabbits scampering between the rows of corn, other times high enough to see a dozen villages at the same time, and always, our speed and direction were at the whim of the wind. We continued until the sun set, at which point the pilot began to look for a place to set down. He selected a farm with broad, recently harvested hayfields, the stalks cut close to the ground.

As we came close to landing, we saw the farmowner, wife and three dogs walking toward us. I asked the pilot if he always landed at this field. "Never the same place twice," he said.

"But you know them?" I asked.

"Not yet," he replied. I found this amazing, but the farmer, his wife and two of the dogs were very friendly and curious about our craft -- the other dog was not so certain -- and they (the humans, not the dogs) were quite ready to accept a glass of the congratulatory champagne we were sharing to commemorate landing with all our limbs intact.

In a few minutes the two support trucks arrived, and the balloon was promptly deflated, folded and stored on a trailer. Then off we went for a half-hour drive back to the village of Cepoy where Adrienne was moored. After pouring nightcaps, and waiting for the issuance of certificates commemorating our flight, we retired, looking forward to the most event-packed day of the trip tomorrow: two tours and dinner ashore at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Pralines in Montargis & The Quirky La Bussiere
Our next stop, the village of Montargis, was a mere 6.4 kilometers (about four miles). On our way we switched from the Loing Canal to the Briare Canal. Montargis is situated on the confluence of three canals: the Loing, Briare and Orleans. Because of its location, this was a convenient site to establish mills and factories, all water-driven. The waterways no longer turn the wheels of industry, though they are still in place. In places along these watercourses, with 18th and 19th century houses crowding the banks, rowboats turned into huge floral planters, have been anchored midstream, lending color and life to the stone, wood and concrete surroundings.

This stop was primarily a shopping visit, and navigating the streets of Montargis was simple; there being really only one main street. For those of us who are used to shopping in Paris or other major European tourist destinations, the prices in Montargis came as a (pleasant) shock. My wife bought a beautiful handsewn white linen ensemble, long skirt and top, which was priced at 60 euros (about $76 U.S.). Montargis is also known for its chocolates, and we bought a box of the local specialty, pralines.

During lunch we continued south on the Briare Canal to the small village of Montbouy where Glen met us with the van. The scheduled tour was to the Chateau at La Bussiere, also known as Chateau des Pecheurs (Castle of the Fishermen), the first visit to a chateau of the trip.

As we stood in the vast walled courtyard, viewing the chateau's traditional mullioned windows, brick and stone siding, and steeply peaked slate roofs and turrets, topped by a veritable forest of chimneys, Glen briefly described its history. It was built in the 11th century, then rebuilt or modified during the 600 subsequent years, including the installation of a six-hectare fishpond (somewhat grandiosely referred to as a lake), and the planting of formal gardens designed by Louis XIV's landscape architect.

Inside, there sure were enough there of the usual (and seemingly endless number) of large, ornate, high-ceilinged rooms with antique, carved and gilded furniture, but the theme of the decor gave meaning to the chateau's quirky nickname. The most recent owner was a fishing fanatic, and every bit of decoration on the walls, ceilings and on tabletops and pedestals was about fishing. There were collections of antique fishing rods, reels and lures. There were handdrawn etchings and pen-and-ink illustrations of fish from 18th and 19th century, and fishing guidebooks and encyclopedias. Even the ceilings had frescos illustrating anglers enjoying their sport, and on all the walls hung mounted fish. But the real capper was found in the basement, where, preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, was a rare specimen of a coelacanth, the fish thought to have been extinct for millions of years, until one was caught in the mid-20th century.

We returned to Adrienne, happy to be out of the unrelenting heat, and looking forward to a refreshing shower prior to departing for Auberge des Templiers, the Michelin-starred restaurant dinner included without additional charge as part of the cruise. We also got some good news from Mark, who announced that, due to the heat, the normal jacket-and-tie dress code would be relaxed. After a 20-minute bus ride we arrived at les Templiers, a beautifully landscaped sprawling property with numerous medieval-styled buildings -- and a very un-medieval Olympic-size swimming pool! -- scattered among hundred-year-old majestic oaks. It was built on the site of a guard post for the Knights Templar between the 12th and 17th centuries in 1946 and opened as an inn and restaurant.

Our visit there began with complimentary cocktails and hors d'oeuvres under a two-story coffered ceiling in a chateau-like sitting room. What followed was, for us, the culinary highlight of the trip -- a five-course prix fixe menu served under the oaks in the inn's idyllic garden terrace. Besides two fantastic wines, the dinner included main course choices of beef, seafood and lamb, finished by a spectacular souffle into which a dollop of vanilla ice cream was dropped.

Dinner at les Templiers was very unhurried, and we wound up back at Adrienne four hours later, tired and satiated.

In the afternoon we visited the medieval town of Gien, famous for faience: the traditional, ornate, hand-decorated china one always associates with country French-style dining. Central to the town is the faience factory and museum, which normally includes a tour, much like those offered at working cameo and Murano glass factories in Italy. Unfortunately, the factory is closed during the months of July and August and, as such, the tour is replaced by a video presentation, which most of us considered a disappointment (a bit too much like touristy shore excursions on conventional cruises). Let's amend to say that some of us were disappointed; the women in the group, some of whom had spotted its high-toned boutique in Paris' Sixth Arrondissement, flocked straight to the shop, which sells (ever so slightly) seconds of the normally pricey Gien faience.

We spent a short time exploring the town, then returned to Adrienne (and its blessed air conditioning!)

As we continued south on the Briare Canal, the sky began to cloud up, and though it wasn't exactly cool, it made it more comfortable to spend more time strolling the canal bank between locks. Most of the territory here was devoted to agriculture, and the breeze off the open fields was refreshing. The bridges spanning the canal at the entrance of the locks all were bedecked with potted pink forget-me-nots and yellow wildflowers. Everywhere you looked along the canal there were mother ducks swimming at the head of single files of ducklings, quacking loudly if we got too close to their broods. Then, waiting at the lock where I was to meet Adrienne, I was treated to the sight of a mother duck actually teaching her offspring to fly. She would lead them up the bank and across to the top of the lock gate, then one by one she would nudge them over the edge; a fall of about 12 feet. After they all, with wings wildly flapping, had taken the plunge -- some actually managing to slow their downward speed -- mom would fly down to the surface to join them, lead them up the bank, and the whole process would begin again.

Our overnight mooring was at the village of Rogny-les-Sept-Ecluses (Rogny the Seven Locks) -- named for a now out-of-service series of seven locks climbed 8.5 meters (about 27 feet) in a space of about 400 meters, about the length of a par four golf hole. The locks are so close together that they looked very much like a towering staircase. They have since been replaced by a series six modern, wider mechanized locks, stretched out over a span of 1.6 kilometers (about a mile).

That night we enjoyed a superb dinner of monkfish.

A Low-Key Day Save for the 5th Century Chateaux
This morning we visited the village and chateau of St. Fargeau. The chateau was once home to Anne Marie-Louise d'Orleans, cousin of Louis XIV. The chateau is generally dated as a 15th century edifice, and has been added on to numerous times over the years. A scale model in the cellar showed that the basic footprint of the current chateau was originally occupied by an early medieval fortified stronghold with a defensive perimeter constructed of huge logs with sharpened tips driven vertically side-by-side into the ground. Some of the original timber exists in the chateau's atelier. All over the building and grounds mannequins in period costumes are placed in positions illustrative of their roles in day-to-day life there. Partially, these are to add verisimilitude for tourists walking through the building, but the chateau is also site of an elaborate sound and light show during the summer months, where the mannequins help bring the presentation to life.

After taking about an hour to wander the cobblestone streets of the charming village of St. Fargeau, we returned to Adrienne for afternoon cocktails and dinner.

Best for Last -- Wine Tasting At Sancerre and The Fabulous Briare Market
In the morning we cruised down the Briare Canal to a lock near the town of the same name. From our disembarkation point Glen drove us to Briare's most famous landmark, the Pont Canal aqueduct designed by Gustave Eiffel. It's hard to conceive of a canal traversing another body of water via an elevated bridge, but that's exactly what the Pont Canal does, the 625-meter span over the Loire River supported by row upon row of curving steel girders. The engineering achievement is all the more impressive considering that the weight of the water alone borne by the Pont Canal Bridge exceeds 10,000 tons.

We walked to the town of Briare, itself, which had the most varied mix of styles and attributes of any we had visited the entire trip. Much of it was urban, other parts resembled an upscale vacation destination, and along the waterfront it was a marina community catering to yachting and fishing contingents. But, second to the Pont Canal, Briare is best known for its vast open-air marketplace, with wares from cheeses to fresh seafood to fruits and veggies to grilled sausages, ice cream, and other French fast foods. There were places selling purses and shoes, bathing suits and lingerie, books, CD's, thread, yarn and other notions. And, of course, you could also walk away the proud owner of a live chicken, puppy or kitten.

Returning to the marina at the head of the Pont Canal, we met up with Glen, and in short order Adrienne rounded the bend, we boarded, and began our 10-minute transit of the bridge while enjoying the view over the wrought-iron railings of Briare dwindling in the distance. We passed a number of French people who took a keen interest in our ornate barge: hand-holding lovers, bicyclists and a troop of kindergartners on a field trip with their two teachers.

Ultimately, we reached our final destination, the town of Chatillon-sur-Loire, where we piled again into the van for a trip to the charming village of Sancerre, famous for the wine that bears its name. We walked around the village, enjoying the lovely open square, the views of the surrounding hills, valley and vineyards, and the medieval and renaissance architecture. Of course, the highlight of the excursion -- and, for some, of the whole trip, itself -- was a visit to the Roger Moreux Cave (wine cellar), where, surrounded by racks of casks under a dark vaulted ceiling, we enjoyed several red and white samples of the product from the 22-acre vineyard of this typical Sancerre family business.

We returned to Adrienne in time to pack, and get dressed for the second dressy night onboard, the Captain's Farewell Dinner. At that dinner, Karine and Jessie provided us with printouts of the 21 wines and 30 different cheeses served during our six-night cruise. Before serving the first dinner course, Chef J.C. handed out all the menus from the trip. Although the meal was one of the most elaborate served onboard (in the same way that first-night dinners on ships can sometimes go awry), to our consternation, the main course -- a filet of beef with truffle sauce and potatoes Ana -- came out of the galley quite tough.

However, given the fabulous fondant au chocolat -- the only chocolate dessert served during the trip -- all was forgiven.

Back To Paris ... In Conclusion
By 9:30 a.m., we were all off the barge with with our luggage packed into the van, and off we went on our way back to Paris. The trip back would last an hour longer than the trip to Nemours, which gave me time to collect my thoughts about the trip.

First, this is a fabulous way to see the interior of France, and the focus on satisfying the North American passenger makes it comfortable for those who feel more at ease having experts "run interference" and provide guidance in what can be an intimidating country.

However, for those whose taste runs toward independent exploration, the experience may feel a bit limiting, though, as mentioned before, guests' wanderlust can be satisfied to a degree by enjoying a bike ride through villages near the canal and reconnecting with the barge later. We generally enjoyed the food aboard, but really never had the chance to seek restaurants ashore to have a romantic dinner-a-deux; on this itinerary, our overnight tie-ups were invariably in villages where suitable cafes and bistros were not to be found. But this may not be a characteristic of all available itineraries, so, if this is a priority, I recommend inquiring before booking, or researching online the villages to be visited.

Likewise, each itinerary covers a region of France with its own specific areas of richness and interest. On the Loire itinerary it was the historical emphasis; the Burgundy sailings concentrate more on the wines of the region. As mentioned above, it makes a lot of sense to research or inquire of French Country Waterways before booking.

Oh, and one last conclusion I had come to: I think it'll be a good six months before I'm ready to order another cheese plate!

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