Come Aboard My French Barge Cruise on L'Impressionniste

All content was accurate when this story was published in July 2008.

When my mother, Bea, celebrated her 80th birthday, I decided that a trip on a French canal barge, or "peniche," would be a fitting and appropriately commemorative journey for the two of us. I knew that she'd love the slow pace, the fine food and wine, the sweet green, gold and red of the southern French countryside in autumn -- chosen specifically to avoid the heat, crowds and higher fares of summer -- and the intimate setting of the barge itself. Go Barging's L'Impressionniste was perfectly suited to my purpose for several reasons, not least of which was its itinerary, which would take me to the Languedoc region around Sete.

I had been to this area before, on Windstar's Wind Surf, and had absolutely fallen in love with it. Sete, an almost-isolated slice of the French Mediterranean, is a small city on a cone-shaped hill; part of it faces the sea and its shipping industry, and part of it faces the big saltwater lagoon, Etang du Thau, and the oyster and mussel beds that constitute a large portion of its exports and GDP. Plus, Bea is a painter and printmaker who adores the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, both of whom had lived and painted in the regions through which L'Impressionniste traveled.

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L'Impressionniste itself is a 13-passenger converted Dutch cargo barge, built in 1960 and turned into a hotel-barge in 1996. It has six double rooms and one single, a cozy living/dining space, and two outdoor decks. It travels the route from Avignon to Agde or reverse, using five different waterways: the Rhone River, the Petit Rhone, the Canal du Rhone a Sete, the Canal du Midi and the Herault River. Despite the fact that this itinerary covers the most distance of all of Go Barging's routes (some 380 kilometers), the Canal du Rhone a Sete actually has very few locks and we traversed only three locks and one "lifting bridge." The latter, in the town of Frontignan, only rises three times a day for water traffic to pass through.

Once we were booked on our trip, the real planning began. While we originally wanted to try the TGV, France's highly lauded high-speed train, we discovered that booking air travel on Air France from Paris was substantially less expensive, so that's what we did. We booked "open jaw" flights round-trip from Orly Airport in Paris, arriving in Avignon and departing a week later from Montpellier. Go Barging's staff delivers its guests to the train station in Montpellier or the airport at the cruise's conclusion.

Arriving in Avignon

Almost all of Go Barging's regular six-night itineraries start on a Sunday and end on a Saturday. Bea and I wanted to arrive a day early to get over our jetlag and be refreshed when we boarded L'Impressionniste.

Even though it was more expensive than Go Barging's recommended hotel (le Mercure, a modern chain hotel), we chose to stay at the ancient, charming Hotel d'Europe. It is unequivocally French and seemed to be the perfect spot from which to start our adventure. We also chose it because it had been the Avignon home to Jackie Kennedy, Salvador Dali, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Napoleon Bonaparte, and most importantly for Bea, Pablo Picasso. Originally built as a two-family mansion in the 1500s, it was turned into a hotel during the French Revolution by a mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte, and has remained a hotel since 1799. Located just inside the ramparts of the walled city, a block from the Rhone, and within walking distance to the Palais des Papes, Place d'Horloge and the Pont St. Benezet, Avignon's biggest draws for tourists, it was the perfect choice for our one-night stay.

Before our cab got there, though, we were stopped by some oddball parade in the middle of town. We heard the noise and drums before we could see anything; when we finally could see the parade participants we discovered hundreds and hundreds of people dressed in chain mail, helmets and leggings carrying what looked to be medieval items of mass destruction. That's exactly what it was, a medieval knights' parade. Despite the displacement of our cab, it was an exciting welcome into this charming, walled, sunsplashed Provencal city.

When we finally made it to the check-in counter and Bea was handed her key and told her room number, I clapped my hands and said "That's the one! That was Picasso's room!" The receptionist looked a little stunned but when she caught my glance, she joined right in. "Yes!" she said, "That room belonged to Pablo." We all started laughing.

Sagging with fatigue, I asked about getting coffee. "Listen," the receptionist said. "If you get it at the bar, you get one cup, and it's 4 euros. If I have it sent to your room, you get a little pot and it's the same price." Grinning, I asked that coffee be delivered to my room and went upstairs, knowing the lovely receptionist had just performed one of those "random acts of kindness" that are so welcome in today's harried world.

We stayed awake long enough to have a sip and then we each conked out in our respective rooms. I'm not sure about Bea, but I was more than grateful for the plush comfortable bed and embroidered sheets and duvet as I faded away.

Finding L'Impressionniste

As it turned out, the knights' parade of the previous day wasn't the only exciting welcome we experienced. After our refreshing nap, Bea and I wandered down to the Place d'Horloge, the main square in Avignon, to find some supper. The square is lined with bars, cafes, brasseries and restaurants, so we knew we'd find something to eat. Every single one of them had televisions, and every single one of them was filled to capacity. It so happened that the Rugby World Cup semifinals were being held in Paris that night, with England and France vying for a playoff spot. That explained the televisions everywhere, and the excited crowd. As we wandered through the square checking out the menus (which were either posted outside or written on blackboards), we just assumed that it was a typical Saturday night crowd. At the stroke of 9 p.m., as we were still searching for our dining spot, the entire square full of people stood up to sing La Marseillaise, France's national anthem. Now, we might have expected this with "football," what we in the U.S. call "soccer," but rugby?

Neither Bea nor I know a thing about rugby, but we were caught up in the moment, watching the television and trying to figure out what was going on as the crowd surrounding us either cheered or groaned. After our meal of a shared plate of sundry pates and salad, we went back to our hotel and to sleep. We later found out that England had scored and advanced to the finals.

On Sunday we wandered around a bit, surprised at how many people were up and about like we were. It was a typical Avignon Sunday morning, we were told, although without the knights' parade and the rugby activities, the city did seem calmer. We made our way to L'Impressionniste's pick-up point, gathering with others who were standing with their luggage -- these were to be our traveling companions for the next six nights. We met Ann and Phil from northern California, owners of Sierra Starr Winery; Betty from New Jersey, a retired nurse; Kae and Tom who were traveling with Dee and Mike, all from Michigan; and Helene and Andy from southern California. If this week's trip was geared all to Americans, the next week's, we learned, would be solely occupied by Brits.

L'Impressionniste's skipper Nicolas and tour guide Laurent piled our luggage into the two vans that are used on this route and took us to the spot where the barge was moored for the night, on the other side of the Rhone, in what is called Villeneuf d'Avignon (Avignon's "new city"). It's essentially a suburban extension outside of the ancient walls of the medieval town.

Our dock at Villeneuf d'Avignon was in an inconspicuous spot along the bank, under what had been the far tower of the Pont St. Benezet, the bridge about which the children's song, "Sur le pont d'Avignon" is sung. Built in the 12th century with sixteen stanchions and spanning the island in the middle of the Rhone, it now has only four and stops mid-river on the city side.

We could see the barge as we crossed the bridge in our van; it looked like a shiny black slipper snuggled up against the shady bank. As we boarded, Nicolas guided us to the upper deck where we sat at the big teak table on comfortably padded teak chairs, sipping Champagne and munching on hors d'oeuvres. It looked exactly like the photos on Go Barging's Web site and so felt instantly familiar. Laurent and the two hostesses delivered luggage to the staterooms while Nicolas talked to us about the barge and the trip. (I literally laughed out loud when he said that the barge was 260 tons. One of the last ships I had been on, Grand Princess, was almost 110,000 tons and the next, Norwegian Gem, would be 97,000 tons.) He then introduced us to the rest of our crew: Aiden, our young chef from New Zealand, Tara from Australia and Sarah from the U.K., our two hostesses.

We would get to know each of them well during our six days together; unlike on ocean-going ships where there is a clear distance between guest and staff, on a canal barge the experience is much more collegial and intimate.

The Bunks

Our cabin, the Cezanne Suite, measured 125 square ft. (which might sound tiny when contemplated in comparison to a cruise-ship, but for a barge was actually quite grand in its dimensions!) with perpendicular twin beds, one little night stand with reading lamp, two oblong windows at eye level and a small marble-clad bathroom with a nice-sized shower. After a friendly argument over which of us got the bed next to the lamp (I won), we had our belongings stowed and our suitcases put out to be stored elsewhere on the barge; there is no room in the cabins for them.

This accomplished, everyone wandered up to the saloon, L'Impressionniste's main gathering and dining room, or out onto the deck for conversation and hors d'oeuvres. Our supper menu was posted on the chalkboard on the buffet server near the dining table: we would have a crawfish salad to start, salmon as the main meal served with something called "carpaccio des courgettes" (which turned out to be paper-thin slices of baby zucchini barely sautéed) and lemon tarte for dessert.

Getting to Know You...

When you're traveling with a tiny group of people in close quarters, it's always worrisome as to whether you will mesh or if there will be personality conflicts. On a barge, which in this case carries only 13 passengers, it could be disastrous to dislike your compadres. I had had nightmares of Bea dining while kneeling on the floor next to our beds, choosing isolation as opposed to having to spend another minute with bargemates she couldn't tolerate. Thank heaven it didn't turn out that way and in our case, happily, we were more than compatible. As the week wore on, we became fast friends.

Supper on that first night was congenial as we got to know each other. Aiden came out to explain the menu, and Tara told us about the Rhone wines we were having, both a red and a white. After supper we gathered in the saloon for coffee and cordials before going to bed. We would remain moored in Avignon that night and explore more the next day; shore excursions were included as part of our cruise fare.

Getting Our Bearings

In the morning, after a breakfast of coffee, yogurt, fruit and croissants, we headed off on our first ship-organized tour to the Palais des Papes (Pope's Palace) in the center of Avignon. During the 13th century, Avignon was the seat of Catholicism in Europe while Rome sorted itself out; this medieval gothic edifice served as a mini-Vatican. The architecture is impressive but a heads up: it is not a suitable excursion for anyone with mobility problems as there are many staircases to both descend and climb.

Oddly, the rooms in the palace, while intriguing, are devoid of furnishings. Ultimately, there were lots of stairs to climb, but not much to see. I much preferred the little square in front with its ancient cobbles, the gothic architecture from the outside, and the carved gargoyles on the facade.

Back at L'Impressionniste, lunch was a self-serve buffet of salads, cold cuts and the most magnificent Provencal onion pie, which Aiden told us entailed cooking onions and tomatoes together for hours. Lunch was accompanied by more wine (wine is served at lunch and dinner and is included, as are all cocktails, sodas and bottled water, in the cruise fare), a cheese course and coffee. Then it was off to the Chateauneuf des Papes vineyard and cellars for a tour and tasting. Throughout the rest of the trip words like "nose," "bouquet," "cuvee" and "notes of alfalfa" were bandied about at every meal.

Setting Sail, At Last

After the afternoon excursion we finally set sail, first circling around so that we could see Avignon from the vantage point of the river. There was the famous bridge, and there, behind it, were the spires of the Palais des Papes. After we snapped a couple of photos, the boat was turned to the south, and we were off to Arles.

The sun was just getting low in the sky as we sat on the upper deck enjoying the chug-chug-chug of the motor and the gentle swish of the barge's wake. Just as the sun set, we moored at a place called Vallabregues, named, according to Nico, for the brigands and marauders who plundered the region several centuries earlier. The barge hadn't traveled very far, maybe 50 or 60 kilometers, just enough to get us out of the main Avignon congestion and on our way early the following morning. We were at a marina in a totally isolated area; off in the distance was the barely visible steeple of a church. Kae, Tom, Phil, Ann and Andy decided to try the onboard bicycles that Laurent quickly assembled for them. They weren't gone long; they said it was too dark and there were no lights.

Aiden had found some baby artichokes and flat green beans in a local market in Avignon while the group was off exploring the winery. That night at dinner we had an artichoke starter and stuffed chicken breast and green beans, all fresh and beautifully prepared. Dessert was gorgeous: pears poached in white wine with a slice of chocolate pistachio nougat. Coffee, liqueurs and conversation followed the cheese course, and then we all toddled off to bed.

We set off again near sunrise for our journey to Arles and the passage on the Petit Rhone to the Canal du Rhone a Sete. Most of us were awake at that point; it was late October, and being that far south, sunrise came late-ish (8:30 am or so) and sunset came early (5 pm-ish).

Vincent van Gogh Slept Here

As we enjoyed our coffee on the upper deck, we were mostly silent as the barge moved through an industrial stretch of the Rhone lined on one side with enormous, sculpturesque windmills. Laurent explained that France's electricity is 80 percent generated by nuclear power; the remainder is hydropower and wind. It was hard to imagine the three-pronged and sleek-looking structures, lazily circling in the fall sun, generating enough power to do much of anything.

As soon as we came within sight of Arles, there was an expectation, a familiarity. The gnarled trees lined up along the riverbank, the way the sun hit the ochre-colored buildings, the faded paint on the signs of commerce brought most of us to a state of near deja vu. We'd seen this before, in van Gogh's paintings.

For a city that reviled Vincent van Gogh while he was living, Arles has certainly capitalized on his fame since his death. Some blame his dependence on absinthe for his craziness, some credit his craziness for his incredible works of art. He never sold a single painting while he was alive. He ended up living in a sanitarium in Arles, which is now a monument to his greatness. At certain points throughout the city there are plaques with reproductions of his paintings; the plaques stand at the vantage point from which old Vincent painted his scenery. The barge was moored at the spot at which he painted "Starry Night," which both Bea and I found moving.

We only had a couple of hours to see Arles so none of us got a real feel for the city. Laurent walked us around a bit, up to the Coliseum, around the Yellow House where Van Gogh lived, and that was about it. If anyone wanted more of Arles it would require a return visit.

We still had quite a distance to travel that day. We backtracked to the juncture of the Rhone and Petit Rhone, angled left and set off down the latter towards Aigues-Mortes.

Flora, Fauna, Les Torreaux and Sea Salt

Along the way, we were informed that Aigues-Mortes had been transformed because it was the time of the Festival of the Bulls, or Des Torreaux. "Be prepared for crowds," our skipper, Nico, told us. "This is a big deal regionally, with lots of games and exhibitions." It sounded like the entire community would be participating in a giant rodeo. We were all pretty excited about it.

In the meantime this would be our longest day on the water; we left the Petit Rhone and entered the Canal du Midi at some point, gliding along the edges of the Camargue wildlife preserve, southern France's equivalent of the Everglades, a unique eco-system that stretches from just below Arles west to beyond Aigues-Morte. We had heard about the wild horses (white) and bulls (black) that are specific to this area, and about the flamingoes that dotted the lagoons further along. Most of our day was spent sitting or standing on the upper deck, pointing out the magnificent white horses galloping in the distance, waving at the fishermen in overalls as they cast along the canal, munching Aidan's artfully prepared lunch and snacks of quiches and salads, the ever-present cheeses and fresh fruit, enjoying the glorious fall weather. Although most of us brought books to the top deck with us, there was too much to see for any of us to settle in for a good read. Betty and Bea were knitting, but they didn't have to look away to do that.

We saw the Constance Tower, a fort during the Crusades, in the distance, long before we got to Aigues Mortes. As we drew closer we got some idea of how big it is (huge). It towers over the landscape from about 11 stories up.

We "parked" the barge in the middle of town, not really surprised at the watergoing congestion because we'd been told about the festival. But we found out that the actual celebrations were on a two-day hiatus and we would not get to see the torreaux games after all, which kind of disappointed us after Nico's build-up of the event.

The town of Aigues-Mortes itself was delightful, small and easily walkable. It's all enclosed within the stone walls that at some spots were nearly 15 feet deep. Once we were inside the town walls we all went shopping, bumping into each other on the main street. All of us, it seemed, were looking to purchase the little tubs of sea salt that we had on our dinner table on L'Impressionniste. We compared prices as we found each other criss-crossing the main roads. Then we went back to the barge, got ready for our dinner ashore, and headed out again for Cafe de Bouzigues, a centrally located bistro in the town where we would dine on local specialties in a typical French ambiance.

Aigues-Mortes was one of the jumping off points for the Crusades and there are monuments to that effect; the Constance Tower's construction and viewpoint showed just how far they went at defending themselves from intruders. We visited there in the morning, before we set off for Magualone, and we could see, from its thick walls, few entrances over a moat and small, slitted windows, how it would have been protected.

On the ground floor, etched into one of the stones, is the word "RESISTER." Pronounced RAY – zees – TAY, it means, in a grander gesture, "Stand Firm! Don't Bend!" The Protestant Marie Duran was held prisoner there for 38 years in the 18th century; it's assumed that she scratched the word over time using either her fingernails or a hair comb. Either way, she would not renounce her Protestant views and embrace Catholicism, so she remained a prisoner. The etched stone is covered now with a piece of Plexiglas to preserve it; although France is a predominantly Catholic country, they do love rebels, and this manifestation of rebellion is precious to them.

A Foot in the Med and a Market Day

We left the bustling and vibrant Aigues-Mortes for the middle-of-nowhere Maguelone and fully expected our trip would be quite passive and calm. We meandered along the Canal du Midi through the Carmargue's marshes and lagoons until we got to our resting point at Maguelone, a spot with nothing but a place to tie up for the evening and a bike trail through the grounds of a monastery to the Mediterranean, about a mile away.

Some of the group took bicycles to the beach, so they could poke their toes into the Mediterranean Sea. I wandered off to take photos of the old men fishing along the rocks, the younger men with their dogs, and flocks of flamingoes wandering through the very shallow "etangs" or saltwater marshes. Kae returned flushed with excitement and shared her collection of Mediterranean beach rocks with us. She couldn't wait to bring them back to Michigan.

In the morning we set off fairly early en route to Marseillan, home to the Noilly Prat vermouth distillery. While we were following the Canal du Midi through etangs that were barely wet, maybe ankle-deep, on this day we were going behind the conical shape of the back of Sete (the front side facing the Mediterranean Sea) and through the enormous Etang de Thau, a really big, really deep lagoon that is home to hundreds of oyster and mussel farms.

On our way we stopped to wait for one of only three times a day that the bridge at Frontignan was lifted for water traffic. We got in line behind other peniches and private watercraft, a couple of commercial barges and a few small powerboats. We had about three hours to wait, so we all went walking in the little town, which was having a market day.

Frontignan might have been teeny but the town was filled with stalls selling cheeses, sausages, fruit, vegetables, nuts, clothing, watches, scarves, household items and fast food. The weather was fantastic; we wandered around the little streets circling the town square. Ann and Phil bought some really esoteric (i.e. stinky) cheeses and posed for photos with the fromagieres. I bought myself a retro-looking watch for €5 and was thrilled to get it, then found some sunflower-themed kitchen towels for my neighbor who was watering my new lawn while I was away.

In one spot on the square a young man and young woman, probably college-aged, were standing in front of an open display that had the tiniest kitten and piglet I had ever seen. They gestured us over and I explained that we couldn't buy animals, that we were tourists. "OH NO," they were quick to exclaim, handing me a flyer. They represented the equivalent of our ASPCA and were soliciting donations. I happily reached into my pocket and forked over a couple of stray euros. One of the nicest photos I took on our trip is of Andy leaning his big Yankee frame over this little display and tickling the kitten under the chin. It was so sweet it nearly made me weep.

We reboarded L'Impressionniste in time for the mid-day bridge-lifting so we could continue on our way. The break we had, while short, was so perfect for all of us that it made reclaiming the upper deck of L'Impressionniste a truly joyful endeavor. We chattered, shared our purchasing experiences, and of course sipped wine as we meandered down the last of the Canal du Rhone a Sete towards the monumental salt marshes and oyster beds of the Etang du Thau behind the Mediterranean fishing town of Sete.

Oysters, Mussels, Vermouth

As we crossed the enormous Etang du Thau, leaving the Canal du Rhone a Sete behind us, we couldn't help but contemplate that this would be our fifth night onboard and that our journey together was almost over. While the weather was fall-day glorious, there was quite a chop for our barge to get through. What was more astonishing, though, were the hundreds and hundreds of oyster beds and mussel farms that lined the northern shore of the lagoon, very visible as wire cages or upright sticks that allowed the oysters or mussels to grow from a mushy mixture of eggs into mollusks that get sent off to market. I was fascinated not only by the process of how to grow an oyster but by the fact that we were bumping along the waves on this body of water, the sun at our back, the fall snap in the air, on this postcard-gorgeous lake, and we were surrounded by industry.

In a small nook at the far end of the lake, still within view of the back side of Sete, we anchored at Marseillan and immediately set out for our private tour of the Noilly Prat vermouth distillery, the front of which was visible from our berth. Marseillan is centered around a finger of a marina, and although it's an old city, it's painted and spiffy and looks brand new ... in fact, it looks like a Disney version of an old city.

We walked around the marina to the facade of the vermouth factory, which looked more like a storefront in amongst the other storefronts, so when we were taken to the actual distillery behind it, we were quite surprised at its size. We were given a standard tour, shown the vats where the vermouth was distilled, shown the outside casks where it aged. It smelled yummy in the distillery; we were shown a display of the number of spices and herbs that were used to give Noilly Prat its unique taste --compared to, say, Campari or other vermouths, each of which uses a secret recipe, usually passed down through the family, to try to outshine the competition.

At the end of our tour we went to the front for a tasting and were given samples of dry, sweet and amber. Dry (pale gold) and sweet (red) are easily obtainable almost anywhere, but amber... ah, amber is precious and can only be purchased in Marseillan. It's thick and sweet and spicy; just knowing that one can only purchase it in that very spot, that remote corner of France somewhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the Herault River, tucked into a corner of the Etang du Thau, made it worth every euro we paid for it. In fact, it really wasn't that expensive. Bea and I bought a box with three liter bottles in it, probably paying about $15 per bottle. Bea gave them as Christmas gifts to a couple of lucky souls.

That night Aidan prepared Bouzigue oysters, both grilled and raw, for our dining pleasure; fully sated, we all went to sleep fairly early.

Of Commerce and Pogroms, Moliere and Farewell

We knew that this day was to be our last day of travel and this night our last aboard. We had enjoyed our companions so much, and had felt so pampered during the trip, that we were sorry to see it end. If another crop of passengers weren't expected we could have done the turn-around of the next six days and have been content.

We were up early and had a little bit of time to walk around Marseillan, which actually was nothing special, before Nico got us all onboard for the last cast-off. We headed into the wind of the huge etang for about half an hour, and then we entered the part of the Canal du Midi that's most typically seen in the photos and postcards, the pastoral scenes of the narrow, twisty canal lined on both sides by maples, sweet gum and chestnuts forming a leafy arch overhead. Nico called it "the five-inch canal," because, as he said, there were five inches under the draft of the barge, five inches on each side of the barge, and five inches above our heads as we went under bridges.

We were en route to Agde, our final stop. We had been told that we'd do a walking tour of Pezenas but none of us had a clue what that would bring. We knew it was an ancient town, but we had no idea what would be the draw. The other towns on our route, those in which there were excursions, anyway, were, unlike Pezenas, well-noted historical stops. The fact was, we were about a mile or so from Cap d'Agde, the largest "naturist" colony in Europe, just over a couple of spits of land and on the Med, popular, perhaps, because of the temperate weather, the positioning of a "cape" that isolates the community. During the summer, the population of Cap d'Agde swells to over 41,000. People dine, shop, do their banking and stroll with the kids in the nude. There are campgrounds, time shares, hotels and motels. There are tour companies that do nothing but book stays at Cap d'Agde year round. Surely this was cultural phenomena worthy of a side trip, even in October? But no, Laurent preferred to enlighten us with ancient history so Pezenas it would be.

And that's one of the downsides of barge travel.

With tours included in the fares, and stops in places that are pretty much off the tourist grid, we either had to count on our hosts' choices or sit it out on the barge. Exceptions are in places like Vallabregues or Magalone, where there is nothing planned and guests are at leisure to take the provided bicycles out for a spin. Many did in Magalone, and would have in Vallabregues too if it hadn't been dark when we arrived. The bicycle experience on a French barge is equivalent to using the gym on an oceangoing cruise: you don't have to, but if you want to, they're available.

In this case, the barge was moored literally in the middle of nowhere along the Herault River, below a parking lot that held the vans we'd be using for our Pezenas trip and then, on Saturday, to the airport or train station.

A short drive later and we were in medieval Pezenas, a really teeny town with cobbled streets that twist up up up from the center of the town below and significant history as a center of commerce in the Middle Ages. In fact, the word "easement," referring to a passageway through someone's property, is directly related to Pezenas in that anyone transporting goods from Paris or elsewhere for sale in this market town could not be taxed along the way and was allowed to pass through privately held properties en route. That, and the fact that the playwright Moliere lived here and wrote "Le Medecin" ("The Doctor") here, are the town's two claims to fame, but all of us were intrigued by what might have been the first "Jewish Ghetto."

Laurent took us up the narrow cobbled streets, and at the top was a crooked little elbow of an intersection. This was the Quartier Juif -- Jewish Quarter -- of the old city. At each end was a drop-down arched gate that would close the little street in case of insurrection, because, as Laurent explained it, even back then, the Jews were welcomed as merchants but the minute anything went wrong, they were blamed and excoriated. They erected the gates to keep themselves safe, and when the danger passed, the gates came up again and life continued as usual.

If it had been earlier in the summer, the bike riders could easily have made it to the Cap to check out the naturist community and back before dark, but as it was, our trip to Pezenas was wonderful, fulfilling and a sweet ending. When we returned it was time to dress for the Captain's Farewell Dinner and get upstairs for cocktails.


Because we had bonded so deeply, it was hard to say goodbye to each other. We enjoyed our last meal together and our Champagne toast with the crew before dinner. Passengers thanked and tipped the crew, and then sang along with some of the songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s on the CDs that had been left by others before heading off to bed. It was the last time we were together since we all had differing plans for the following days.

Bea and I jetted back to Paris. In a full circle moment for this trip, in which we'd started off being greeted by a parade in Avignon, we were met with another in Paris –- only this one was one of France's infamous "Manifestations" (demonstrations). I never found out what this one was for but it too kept our cab from getting close to our accommodation. We could only laugh.

If You Go:

Both Bea and I were thrilled that we had chosen a fall trip, even though it was quite late in the season. Summers in this region can be intolerably hot and crowded with tourists; spring and fall seasons are far more preferable and often less expensive.

One of the greatest aspects of a Go Barging vacation is that while this is a British company that markets to Brits, it is also marketed worldwide. You just don't know who your companions will be. It was simply happenstance that all of ours were Americans and as much as I loved that aspect of the journey, I hope that on a subsequent barge trip I will have the pleasure of the company of people from other cultures. Those from Great Britain planning a barge trip in France should take note of the transportation options as well, and of the joy of spending a couple of days pre- or post-barging in Paris. After all, once you're on this side of the Channel, you may as well maximize it!

Look carefully at your arrival options. We got a great deal on our "open-jaw" flights from Paris, much better than the cost of the high-speed train. Others on our sailing, though, got great rates on the train and loved the experience.

If you're traveling in the spring or fall, bring layers of clothing. It can be very warm during the day and quite chilly at night and occasionally misty and chilly all day. In the summer, this part of France gets very, very hot, so pack accordingly.

Plan on tipping about $50 per person on this trip, or about $250 total, converted, if possible, to euros. Yes, it's much higher than the $10 - $12.50 daily gratuity that we pay on a large cruise ship, but this is so different... it's like having a team of butlers and concierges at your beck and call 24/7. Just work the additional into the total cost of the trip.

Most of the walking on this particular itinerary is fairly easy. The two places where less-mobile travelers would have difficulty are the Palais des Papes in Avignon because of all the steps, and Pezenas because of the steep climb up cobbles. The crew is very happy to assist, always, and if it's do-able, they'll help.

Smoking is allowed on the decks of the vessel only, not inside at all.

--Top photo appears courtesy of Go Barging.
All other photos appear courtesy of Jana Jones.

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