That first night we dined on sole, steak and local cheeses, followed by a waistline-challenging gateau. It was a very satisfying start to our voyage. But we weren't just going to eat our way through the South of France. There would be many excursions planned by our crew which consisted along with Brits John and Julian, of Dean, the pilot who steered the boat effortlessly (actually extremely effortlessly as we discovered when were allowed a go across the vast salt water lake, and experienced at first hand just how hard it is to steer a flat-bottomed 128 footer), Xav the crazy french man who had a passion for reggae artist Eek-a-mouse and danced the way only a Frenchman can, and Aussie hostesses Lauren and Almira who served drinks and dinner and acted as on board housekeepers.
You can join a barging cruise like ours as a couple meeting up with others on board, in much the way as you join a ski chalet. You don't know who you are going to meet and you often make great friends. However the joy of taking over your own boat with friends with children of similar ages, or to celebrate a special anniversary is obvious. From the start you can set the tone of the way you want the cruise to progress, decide the meal times, the level of formality, divide up the excursions, and not feel too guilty if you prefer to stay on board.
On our first morning we sail for Marseillan, a little town on the huge saltwater lake. As we passed along the Canal du Midi, going through a tiny lock, passengers on boats going the other way shouted admiringly at the size of out barge. When we docked, the adults in our party were driven between fields that rioted in sunflowers to an old Roman villa, where the owner, who had clearly been lying for far too long underneath one of the vast vats with the tap on, allowed us to taste his finest wines, and Jules did his best to translate. The children crowded into the mini bus and went off instead with Xav to the nearby Aqua Park.
From Marseillan we crossed the L'Etang, much like being at open sea, towards the little hamlet of Maguelonne, at Frontignan, gliding smoothly across the oyster beds of the inland lagoon and watching clouds of pink flamingos picking their way through the water, the odd one actually wheeling up across the sky.
Lunching on board - cuttlefish stuffed with shrimp - with a spectacular view of the water, it was clear that not for nothing is area this known as the Venice of the Languedoc. That evening we took a dip in the sea just a few yards across the marshlands from where L'Impressionniste had moored for the night. By now, fully in holiday mode, having ducked our shoulders in the Med and learned how you can tell the alcoholic content of a local wine by the size of its surface 'disc' in the glass, we were sniffing and tasting reds and whites like old masters. Lauren explained that one of the local cheeses had confused her at the local market because every time the women went to examine it they poked it then touched their eye. To be utterly ripe the cheese had to be of the exact same firmness to the touch as the eyelid, she explained.
And so the days went on, the children cycling along the towpath as we cruised along beside the fishermen's cottages at the Canal du Rhone a Sete where we could quite easily have been in the American deep south with the abundance of fishing rods, porches and swing seats. We might have been cruising Old Man River. In fact the canal system in France is far vaster and more intricate than our British one and they are worked far more densely. Nor are the English narrowboats anything like as majestic as L'Impressionniste.
As half of us set off to gallop the famous white horses of the Camargue, descended from arab steeds believed to have been brought over at the time of Mary Magdelene, the rest curled up on one of the deck's striped sunloungers and swatted up on the medieval town of Aigues Mortes where we would moor for the night beneath the Tour de Constance, built in 1248 as a lighthouse for the returning 13th century Crusaders. Mary Magdalene is said to have lived here for a time, and from its ramparts you can see three different canals stretching into the distance. Here Julian took us on shore for dinner to an excellent restaurant along the shiny worn cobbled streets.
Because the scenery is constantly changing as you cruise along, and you spend so much time in the open air you feel healthy and invigorated, as if you have been exercising like crazy. In reality, the first day's anxiety about being able to manage another major meal in the evening after one of John's lunches, vanishes as the bewitching cocktail hour approaches. Amazingly we were all there in the saloon, out of swimsuits, booted and suited and ravenously looking forward to dinner.
Jules has warned us that as we swung into the rivers, those in the slightly lower level should make sure their portholes were fastened shut and it was easy to see why as the canals gave way to the deep blue waters of the Petit Rhone, and then the mighty Rhone itself. Arles, the old capital of the Camargue, was home to Vincent Van Gogh, so the History of Art students on board were out in force here, searching for his Maison Jaune, pointing out famous scenes from his paintings. The rest bought up yards of the yellow and blue Provencal fabrics, sat in the little mini Coliseum, and clicked forever on the memory of sunlight flooding the aisle of St Trophim's Basilica.
On our last day, even as we cruised between two majestic chateaux and caught sight of the sun picking out the huge gold bauble on top of the Papal palace at Avignon we couldn't believe how quickly the time had gone by. As we passed le pont d'Avignon, a gaggle of teenage girls waving to the tourists from the hot tub, the week had worked wonders. We were as chilled as Jules' latest discovery awaiting us in the wine bucket. Some went to dance on the bridge at Avignon just to fulfil the words of the song, others - hysterically - learned to bop with Xavier as only the French can. When I got back to England I found my TV idea already taken. Later this year a famous chef has a TV series barging through the culinary and scenic delights of rural France. I cannot wait to watch it.
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