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It’s not just a question of size: there is a world of difference between river cruising and canal barging. Words: Maggy Oehlbeck.

Today’s barges are, in fact, yesterday’s barges. Most were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as workhorses of the waterways and subsequently toiled up and down the canal networks of Europe, hauling freight. Many are still going strong, having been successfully converted into hotel barges. Stocky rather than streamlined, their dimensions were always predetermined by the width of Europe’s canals and lock systems. Consequently, most accommodate no more than eight people.

Today’s river-cruise boats are sleek and slender by comparison. Purpose-built for the leisure market, they are designed exclusively for tourists’ comfort. Typically, they’re too big for the classic canals of the past but can pass through locks on certain rivers. They may carry up to 200 passengers.

But it is the buxom barge beauties of the last 120 years that, for most of us, hold the greatest allure and romance (though they were never built for the latter!) Cabins are snug and there isn’t much room for gay abandon. Still, these old girls have character and you soon become part of a family of like-minded souls, despite (or perhaps because of) the close quarters.

We are aboard the barge Anjodi on the Canal du Midi, the oldest canal in France. Built in the 17th century, it is an engineering masterpiece of bridges, tunnels and locks – locks that were originally cranked open by hand but are now fully automated. The canal covers 240 kilometres between Toulouse and Sète but over our six-night, seven-day cruise, we will only do a small sector between Le Somail and Marseillan. Even so, we’ll pass by hectares of vineyards – we are in the heart of Languedoc, the biggest wine-producing area in the world – in a region that’s steeped in history, mystery, sleepy villages, medieval fortresses and fresh-produce markets. (Anjodi shared celebrity status with chef Rick Stein in his television series French Odyssey.)

Our cruise starts in the pretty town of Le Somail, about an hour’s drive from Montpellier, where we had been picked up by minibus. Over Champagne introductions on Anjodi, we discover that our travel companions are from Western Australia, Sydney, Melbourne and the UK.

Before setting sail, we stroll the canal banks examining other barges, curious to see the floating épicerie (grocer’s shop), which is doing a brisk trade as families stock up for their self-skippered canal-boat cruises.

We have no need for supplies: dinner is waiting at a beautifully dressed candlelit table in Anjodi’s atmospheric wood-panelled saloon. Before we tuck in, our hostess describes the four-course menu of regional specialties, wines and cheeses, as she does daily throughout the cruise.

Breakfast is a help-yourself affair below, and lunch is almost always served on deck. These are my favourite occasions. Our skipper generally chooses some gorgeous spot beneath a shady canopy of plane trees and secures Anjodi between their mottled trunks. Sometimes, lunch is a perfectly composed salad Niçoise, other times, it’s a Mediterranean fish soup with an array of pâtés and terrines, perfectly paired wines and, always, a naughty little dessert.

Following these languid lunches, we drift into a stupor as Anjodi tugs at her moorings, awakening with a jolt as the skipper announces we have to make the next lock before sundown.

As we meander along, we can almost touch cyclists and passersby, peer in their shopping baskets and look through lock-keepers’ windows. We are something of a curiosity for the locals, it seems, but they greet us nevertheless with cheery bonjours and au revoirs.

Each day, there are innumerable locks to navigate. We never tire of watching the water levels rise and fall with great ferocity as the gates open and close. Most fascinating is the seven-tiered staircase lock at Fonserannes, near Béziers.

Optional half-day tours by minibus to nearby places of interest include the fascinating but slightly sinister medieval town of Minerve and the intriguing walled city of Carcassone – sinister because of the sieges that took place here.

Another fabulous destination is Narbonne, once the largest Roman town outside of Rome, where we’re free to explore the old quarter, peruse classy shopping precincts or join our crew stocking up from the fabulous covered market, brimming with ingredients we will later sample on Anjodi.

All too soon, we reach Marseillan, which is famous for its oyster beds and Noilly Prat vermouth. On this, our last day, we gorge on plate-sized, freshly shucked oysters that are still briny with the taste of the sea, swap yarns into the early hours, shed a few tears and vow to do it again. Very soon.

Maggy Oehlbeck was a guest of Outdoor Travel.

For information, phone 1800 331 582 or visit www.outdoortravel.com.au.

FACT FILE

Cruise line: Go Barging
Vessel:
Anjodi
Max passenger capacity:
8
Total crew:
4
Entered service:
Anjodi started life in 1929 as freight barge and was converted to a hotel barge in 1982
Dimensions:
30 x 5m
Maximum speed:
11 knots, mostly putters along at 4 or 5
Accommodation:
4 staterooms, each with twin or double beds, ensuite bathrooms, each with shower, toilet, washbasin, mirror, complimentary toiletries and hairdryer.
Facilities:
The saloon/dining room is air-conditioned and has 2 sofas and a dining table that seats 9. There’s a fully stocked open bar with alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. (Special vintage wines and Champagne are available, but are not included in the cruise price.)
Upper deck:
Dining table, lounge chairs, umbrellas, bicycles.

Highs:

Food and wines are exceptional and the countryside is exquisite.
Lows:

Cabins are small and storage space is limited but that is the nature of barging.

Want to know more?

Barge-cruise regions include Burgundy, Rhône, Loire, Normandy, Alsace-Lorraine, Italy, England and Scotland.

For cycle fans, there are dedicated 14-day bike-and-barge cruises from Bruges in Belgium to Paris (or reverse) aboard Fleur (above), a specially converted 10-twin-berth barge with a fleet of 21-speed touring bikes. Each day, cyclists pedal the back roads of Belgium and France before meeting Fleur at her new mooring. Highlights include the city of Bruges, optional visits to Ypres and various WW1 sites, Compiegne, and the grand finale: up the Seine into Paris. You’ll pedal about 600 kilometres en route. www.outdoortravel.com.au.

For self-skippered canal boats and barge cruises, contact French Travel Connection at www.frenchtravel.com.

For those wishing to cruise in luxurious comfort, Afloat in France operates a series of péniche-hôtel barge cruises. www.afloatinfrance.com.