CRUISES: France At a Snail’s Pace
Ninety-seven percent of the water in the world lolls in the ocean, two percent sits locked in polar ice, and half of one percent lies buried below the earth. The remaining half of one percent cascades out of the mountains, tears into the valleys and rushes to the sea. Rivers claw, each year, 200 tons rock from each square mile of the Earth. Yet without water there can be no life. Rivers surging full-tilt, in a way back to their beginnings, bring the supreme gift. Thus we find rivers rich in legend, hallowed by time, a liquid endless history of man's struggles to survive.
Man has looked for centuries with awe at his rivers. How could water spring from the soil? The Book of Ecclesiastes had the explanation: "All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again."
This was the answer. The seas run back below the mountains and spring up purified. To believe otherwise was heresy. The non-believers were French. In the seventeenth century Pierre Perrault measured the flow of the river Seine and realized that the amount of precipitation in its catchment area was enough to fill its tributaries. Then Edme Mariotte proved that rain water could penetrate the earth. So, France destroyed the magic in rivers.
And now, three and a half centuries later, Air France is bringing the magic back. Ten hours after leaving New York City you can lie lazily, languidly on the river Charente and drift through time, taking a week to cover on a barge the distance you might travel in an hour on the highway. To any American such outrageous absurdity could not fail to be a vacation. For travel writers, 20 years ago, it was idyllic.
So come to serenity, to torpid tranquility, to nirvana. Because floating through France is not barging through life. It is instead the ultimate example of going with the flow. Come to charming Charente, a mere four hours by rail from Paris. Although the Paris-Angouleme train is not the flagship of the French national railway it is still so much better than anything in America. A quick run from the Gare d'Austerlitz takes the traveler past yellow fields of wild safflower and straggling hedgerows of Angouleme. Three minutes later your taxi arrives at the Grand Hotel de France, a somewhat pretentious name for a modest yet comfortable hotel right beside the village square. It is Sunday morning and you'll have an hour or two to spend at the farmers' market before you wander over to LaPaix Restaurant for a croque-monsieur sandwich of toasted cheese and ham, a cup of strong French coffee and a gaze at the world walking by.
Do look. People-watching is a French pastime. Take your time. The waiter won't rush so why should you? Leave room for a gateau at the patisserie next door to the hotel. You can always walk off the calories by strolling around the ramparts that surround the town like a balcony making it one of the largest fortresses in France yet one of the least known.
The view stretches over the tiles and the tangerine tones of Angouleme to the valley of the Charente below. St. Peter's Cathedral sits on the western exposure dominating the landscape as it has since the 12th century -- it is one of the most dramatic examples of Norman or Romanesque architecture in provincial France.
Angouleme has two other corners of further interest to Americans: a cobbled street with a statue to the glory of Dr. Emile Roux who fought so hard against diphtheria, and a flower-bedecked park before the town hall to commemorate John F. Kennedy. But Angouleme is more than a memory to the past. It is a sign post, a gateway to an area virtually unknown to the foreign tourist, a spot almost untouched by time -- the valley of the river Charente.
The Charente rises in central France in the granite plateaus of Limousin then wanders west for about two hundred miles before running past Rochefort and spilling into the Atlantic ocean. Near its estuary sits La Rochelle, the seaport that saw so many Huguenots make the last gesture of despair and take the final risk -- immigration to a new land, America, in creaking, and sometimes leaking, hulks.
No such miserable hulk is Le Cognac. Proudly wearing new coats of white paint and black tar that quite belie its beginnings as an estuary barge built in London in 1917 to ship 250 tons of ammunition to the front in the Great War, the Cognac now has the amenities of a small country inn compressed into one hundred feet. This pleasure boat is one of a motley fleet of about 60 hotel barges cruising on the five thousand miles of inland waterways in France. The barges are all owned by different, and mostly British, operators; interestingly enough only a few are run by the French. This is understandable because Palinurus, the first barge created to accommodate tourists was restored by Richard Parsons, an Englishman. Two years later, in 1971, he formed a company and a new industry - -- hotel barging -- was born.
A barge like the Cognac represents a big investment. The diesel engine is economical but the generator has an expensive appetite. The season lasts about six months from late spring to fall; winter sees the barges in maintenance and overhaul. Usually only about a dozen passengers are carried in the hotel barges and a crew of four or five is common. Overheads can be quite heavy and cost to passengers likewise high but can you put a price on contentment?
So unusual and different is the barge vacation in Franc, even 20 years after our trip, that tourists are still flocking to organizations now like Special Places Travel to enjoy the dimensions of a different vacation -- slow boat satisfaction. Says Don Dillin who owns Special Places Travel with his wife, Sally, “Our passengers leave contented because the pace of their life has never allowed them the opportunity to relax like this before. We once had a woman, a university chair, come with her husband. She had a lot of stress in her life. After two days cruising, her husband said, ‘That wrinkle you’ve had on your forehead for 15 years has gone!’ Indeed, we see reactions like this all the time. Sometimes our guests cry when their cruise is over and they have to leave the barge.”
Dillin thinks for a moment then continues: “Our guests, our passengers, become content because they’ve never had such a degree of caring attention shown them before, they’ve experienced a level of cuisine, both food and wine, that most of the time they’ve never had in their lives, and they’d had an unmatched opportunity to see a beautiful countryside – chateaux, wineries, villages, markets, and the local people themselves in a way a coach trip never achieves.”
Nor is it so close to nature that you could well be camping in the National Parks. It's a family-run barge, one of three owned by Anna and Norman Riddle who have been in this nuclear age medieval form of divine madness from the beginning. The cabins are compact even small but this is typical of all those barges which have to squeeze two cabins side by side into a width of 16 feet. The toilet and shower are of a size and quality about what you might find in a top-line motor home in America. Living and dining space are, however, more important than a cabin probably used only for sleeping, and here the barges excel.
Questioned as to the characteristics of a good barge, Jeremy Oakes, the English skipper of the Cognac, answers promptly , "It should be immaculate." He looks around his own craft with obvious pride and continues, "You might see a dozen barges tied up at Bordeaux. You will find the bargees constantly polishing the brass, painting the deck, even tarring the hull. They have pride of ownership even with cargo barges."
A good barge needs a healthy engine. The Cognac's diesel is 30 years old but the coarse propeller turns slowly in canal work. This gives an engine longevity. A good barge also needs a competent skipper especially on a river like the Charente which, though slow running, nevertheless has not been classified as navigable by the French authorities. A batellier should always be conscious of the wind, appreciative of the current, and aware of recent floods that have brought shifting sandbars to his course.
A barge captain on the Charente is kept pretty busy and cannot always look for help from local natives because they last saw a commercial barge on the river in 1944 and are somewhat staggered by the whole idea that a way of life has been returned to them. The captain's wife Jane initially didn't realize how busy her husband would be and, at the interview with the barge owners, the Riddles, Jane exclaimed, "Ooh, it sounds lovely! Do you pay us or do we pay you?"
Jane, however, enjoys life on this French river. "I love our freedom," she says, "and the surroundings are so beautiful. I like meeting people and the French atmosphere is so relaxed." She feels that her passengers will enjoy the slow pace in this rural country area where traditions don't necessarily have to change with the times, where French families seem to work, eat and play together. where formality and politeness still exist in life even to where teenagers still shake hands in greeting.
The couple met in the Channel Islands -- 20 miles off the coast of France. Oakes is bilingual in his third year as a barge captain, the first of his family to take to a life on water. His father was a banker as was his cordon bleu chef. Mary-Anne Robbins was working in Lloyds Dank in London when she decided that banking made less sense than barging. When Mary-Anne completed her cooking course taught by the former chef of the Four Seasons in New York City she replaced an Austrian chef, Erna, who had worked for an aristocratic English lady for forty years.
Her first day at work, Mary-Anne looked at the menu her new employer had selected for dinner. "How do you like the meat cooked?" she asked. "The way Erna always cooks it," was the reply. Erna would have approved of the menus aboard the Cognac: Courgette Pecheurs, zuchini squash full of shrimp, mussels, plaice and tomatoes in a white cheese sauce; stuffed crepes with ham and chicken in a veloute sauce; Boeuf en Croute, beef fillet wrapped in puff pastry with pate and mushrooms, Roquefort Pate, roquefort cheese with butter, cognac, lemon and black pepper; and Rosace a l'Orange, genoise filled with creme patissiere and covered with slices of orange poached in syrup.
Asked what skills a chef needs to perform in a barge, Mary-Anne replies, "Capability to shop in local markets, knowledge of regional cooking, ability to work in a small space and the reflexes to catch flying saucepans if we run aground!" The Cognac could run aground: the river is shallow and mud banks are many. The matelot who would help refloat the barge and who opens the many lock gates manually, is her husband, Les, a former hydraulic engineer with British Airways. The only crew member with a nautical background is the young English stewardess, Isabelle Pirault, whose father is a former sea captain in the French Merchant Navy. She has lived in London and is looking forward to a year in France to refine her ability with the French language. "It would be nice to speak to relatives," she says. Her only problem she believes will be her difficulty in leaving the barge after a season of eating such enjoyable meals. "They'll never be able to push me up the hatch!"
That the crew is English is one of the paradoxes of cruising the Charente. Another is that the most famous of the cognac distillers in the area is a firm, Hennessy, started by an Irishman. The third surprise is that the best architectural antiquities in the valley are Roman -- the area was somehow spared ravage by the barbarians who followed the greatest empire in history.
On the last daybreak of the cruise the barge bobs beside the great Roman arch at Saintes, a tribute to Tiberius, Germanicus and Drusus. The mists of morning lie sleepily on the river. By the bank, the chestnuts and elms nod gently in the breeze. A trout jumps. The waters stir awakening to the dawn. A swallow swoops over the surface searching for insects. Bullfinches, already at breakfast, dart over the buttercups. Smoke drifts lazily from a cottage. The barges' Baudouin diesel engine coughs once, then throbs with its quiet cadence of the day. Humming with contentment, the Cognac heads downstream.
All is well. Surely no barge could have a better life than floating through France.