For centuries, the easiest way to move heavy wine casks around Europe was by boat—it is no coincidence that many of the continent’s wine regions are readily accessible by sea, river or canal. That same network of trade routes gives present-day travelers an opportunity to explore wine country at a 19th-century pace, away from the rush of the autoroute or the bustle of the local train stations. It’s an escape of sorts, the kind of vacation where you kick back and let someone else handle the details.
There may be a more civilized way to enjoy the wine and food of Europe than spending a week aboard a small floating hotel, but it’s difficult to imagine one.
“We specialize in canal and river cruises in all major regions of France—Burgundy, Bordeaux, Midi, Provence, Loire and Alsace, where over 40 hotel barges provide an intimately unique way to discover the splendid and historic countryside,” says Jean-Francois Dabrowski of France Cruises, Inc., the agency that arranged my tour. Although it’s possible to search out barge hotels and book them directly, cruise specialists can help you find the right one.
Here is a day-by-day account of my September trip, which took me along the Canal du Midi in France’s Languedoc.
Day 1: Meeting the Crew
Yesterday, I flew into Toulouse from the United States, then caught the TGV (France’s high-speed rail) to Carcassonne, the famous walled citadel that seven centuries ago was a strong hold for the Cathar religion. This afternoon, I meet up with my boatmates—John and Marilynn from New York City—at our rendezvous in front of the Hôtel Donjon.
Soon, our barge captain, Uli Weber, has us packed into his van for the quick transfer to the Caroline, our home for the next week. Short and bespectacled with wavy hair and a mustache, the German-born Uli steers the van through the narrow streets to the boat, telling us that for the past two weeks the Caroline has hosted a single family from Australia. Groups often rent all three guest rooms for private voyages, but frequently there are rooms to book individually.
As we board the Caroline at its mooring beside the train station, we are greeted by Ute, Uli’s cheerful wife. Most barge hotels offer either half-board or all-inclusive fare, so Ute serves as chef as well as first mate.
We enjoy a glass of sparkling wine from Limoux, one of several Languedoc appellations in the region, while Uli shows us the boat.
It was built in Holland in 1928, he says, to transport goods between the islands of the North Sea and the mainland. The Caroline is 85 feet long, with a three-cylinder diesel engine that propels the craft at speeds rarely exceeding three miles an hour. It is handsomely trimmed in red, black and white, and its large deck holds tables and chairs, numerous flower pots, a fish pool, two skylights for below and plenty of room for bicycles and Uli’s motor scooter, which he uses to retrieve the van at day’s end or whenever we go visiting wineries, markets or scenic places.
Below deck are three comfortable bedrooms with individual bathrooms, private quarters for Uli and Ute, a kitchen and a lounge/dining room, where Ute has prepared our welcoming meal.
Uli pours us a dry Muscat from Coteaux d’Ensérune, and later, a red blend from the village of Puisserguier to match Ute’s gourmet fare—clear tomato soup with prawns, rare duck breast with Riesling risotto and an excellent cheese plate.
Boats do not travel at night on the canal—the locks close at 7 pm—so the Caroline is perfectly still as I fall asleep.
Day 2: Stuck in Traffic
Standing behind the wheel in the early morning sun, peering through his binoculars at our first lock 100 yards away, Uli is upset. Dozens of cabin cruisers and another hotel barge, the Alouette, are docked along the narrow waterway.
We have had our continental breakfast, our engine is puttering, but the lock shows no sign of activity.
“I told the man at the lock that we wanted to be first through, but he is late,” Uli sighs, explaining the difficulty in maneuvering in front of closed locks without hitting the smaller cabin cruisers, which he dismissively calls “Tupperware boats.” Barges get first dibs at locks, he explains, and also have canal right of way, often to the chagrin of the Tupperware crews.
Soon, there is a wave from the lockmaster, who greets us canalside holding the small, portable console that electronically opens and closes his lock. And there will be lots of locks—about 16 to pass through during our five days between Carcassonne and docking near Capestang, a distance of about 50 miles. This lock is a simple one, but others raise and lower boats in as many as three stages.
“Can I join you?” one touring bicyclist yells amid the watching crowd as we pass out of the lock.
For the next few hours, we travel through small villages and rural countryside, occasionally passing other boats on the two-vessel-wide waterway. The canal, built to connect the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, was finished in 1681 as a crucial commercial link, but since 1970 or so, it has mainly serviced pleasure boats.
Popular Barge Cruise Destinations
Most of the canals in Europe were built in the U.K., Holland and France. But it’s France that most interests wine lovers who want to visit their favorite vineyards while meandering along on a hotel barge. Canal tours that cater to wine touring are available in:
Barge tours are also available in the Mosel region of Germany, but most other water travel in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe is by much larger cruise ships that tour the Rhine and Danube. Most of these are not dedicated to winery and vineyard visits.
The Douro in Portugal does have riverboat wine touring, but these are usually one- or two-day trips. Alas, visiting the vineyards of Spain and Italy is still mainly accomplished by land.
From the South of France: Coq au Vin
As owners and operators of the Caroline, a small hotel barge that plies the waters of the Canal du Midi as it cuts across the South of France, Uli and Ute Weber are experts in the cuisine of the region. Uli, who captains the ship, usually does the shopping for fresh ingredients in the local markets from Carcassonne to Bezier, while Ute converts Uli’s finds into gourmet lunches and dinners for the Caroline’s passengers.
“The most typical dish of the region, apart from cassoulet and bouillabaisse, is coq au vin,” Ute says, “because the ingredients are everywhere, the preparation is easy and the taste is great as well.”
Coq au Vin
1 large chicken (about 4 pounds), cut into 8 pieces
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
4–8 cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 carrots, peeled and diced
1 leek, washed, halved and sliced into rough pieces
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
6½ cups regional red wine
5–6 ounces bacon
6 button mushrooms, quartered
Oil for cooking
2 tablespoons lard
To marinade the chicken: In a large bowl, place the chicken, onions, garlic cloves, carrots and leek and mix with salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaf and wine. Let marinate in the refrigerator overnight, up to 24 hours.
To make the coq au vin: Drain meat and vegetables in a large strainer and keep the marinade, separating the chicken from the vegetables. Remove thyme and bay leaf. Heat oil in a large pan with 2 tablespoons of lard. Brown the chicken, adding salt and pepper to taste. Fry the bacon in a pan and add the chicken pieces. Pour in the marinade and the vegetables. Let simmer for about 1 hour, then add in the mushrooms and simmer for 30 minutes longer.
To finish: Remove the chicken pieces from the broth and keep warm. If necessary, thicken the sauce. If you would like it spicier, add a little Espeletter pepper. Serves 4.
Wine recommendations: Uli recommends a red from the Corbières or Faugères regions.