01 of 06
A Slow Canal Barge Cruise through Gascony on board Rosa
There she was, a blue and white ‘Clipper’ barge called Rosa moored on the Canal de Montech near Montauban in south west France. Built in 1907 in Holland, she looked sturdy, pretty and endlessly welcoming. Rosa has been transformed from a workhorse of a vessel into a smart hotel barge with flower boxes on her sides and a sun deck with cream canvas umbrellas shading a large wooden table and chairs. Rosa was a star and had starred in Rick Stein’s French Odyssey TV series. She looked the part. She was to take us on the not-so-arduous trip along the Montech Canal and the Garonne Canal into the gorgeous Tarn River for a brief cruise then back into the Garonne Canal.
A Few Facts
- The journey on Rosa from Montauben to Agen covers 90 kms (55 miles)
- There are 10 locks between Montauban and Montech
- And 10 locks between Montech and Agen
- The Canal lateral a la Garonne (Canal de Garonne) is part of the Canal des Deux Mers (the Canal of the Two Seas), linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
For the Techies
For anybody interested in barges, canals, locks and how they work, a trip like this one is a dream and the captain and pilot are more than willing to talk endlessly about the barge and its conversion in 2010. The barge has an engine dated from 1954; there's no milometer; the tank holds 3 tons of diesel and 5 tons of water, and Rosa's maximum speed is 4.3 knots.
The Montech water slope is a real surprise. It's situated at the inrtersection of the Canal des Deux Mers and the Canal de Montauban. The 443 meter-long (1,450 ft) canal lift was the brainchild of the French engineer Jean Aubert in the early 1960s, though the technique was invented a century earlier by the German engineer Julius Greve. The idea was to bypass 5 so much larger boats (up to 250 tonnes) could travel between Bordeaux and Toulouse. The principle is similar to a lock: the boat enters the water slope; the gate behind closes keeping the water in the slope. Two 1,000 hp locomotives on each side of the canal on the banks are connected together by a crosspiece. They hold the boat in the sloping 'furrow' and take it up or down the slope with its 43 feet (13 meter) drop. Sadly it has proved too expensive to keep in service and there are no plans currently to restore what is a remarkable piece of engineering.
The 1,000 ft long aquaduct, the Pont Canal du Cacor, runs over the Tarn River. Then the barge negotiates a double lock at Moissac to take you from the Canal de Garonne to the Tarn River where you pass under the aquaduct.
Details on booking and European Waterways information on page 6.Continue to 2 of 6 below.
02 of 06
Canal Barge Trip on Rosa from Montauban to Agen in Gascony
Cyclists wizz past on the banks of the canals, walkers stroll along in the warm sunshine waving at us sitting on the sundeck. Rosa slides through the water, disturbing the odd heron on the banks, gently approaching the locks that take us up or down the canals. Beyond the banks, fields of bright yellow sunflowers do their daily turn towards the sun; maize grows beside racks that will hold the harvest, and ripening in the sun are fields upon fields of plum trees for which the region is famous.
Old red-brick lock keepers’ houses stand beside the locks, some with paint peeling and shutters drawn, abandoned long ago as the locks were automated. Others are occupied, their little front gardens enclosed by a fence and boxes full of geraniums at the windows, and we try to peer in through the windows to the two ground floor rooms that run front to back.
Each lock (ecluse) is named and gives the distance from the last and to the next lock. Distances between locks are just a few kilometers, time enough to get off and join the walkers on the banks, or take one of the bicycles and pedal along at a leisurely pace, though faster than the barge which cannot exceed 8 kms or 4 miles ph. If you want to do some sightseeing, there's time to take in the odd village less than a kilometer away before getting back on board at the next convenient lock.
The barge enters a lock and Jules Whitaker, the pilot for the whole journey, throws the rope onto the iron bollard, anchoring the 29.5 meter-long (98 ft) boat in the restricted space which fills up as the sluices are opened and we go up or down to reach the next level. We’re impressed, particularly when he has to manoeuvre the barge backwards through the narrowest of bridges to reach one night’s mooring place. But Jules has been doing this since he was a child when he lived on a barge in Paris and woke up each morning within sight of the Eiffel Tower. A few decades and many qualifications later, he’s a skilled pilot who steers Rosa through the canals. He spins the wheel round and round first one way then the other through the gears that push the big heavy rudder. On particularly long straight stretches he goes on auto-pilot -- which is not what you think, but Jules sitting down holding the big wheel steady with his feet.
We spend an afternoon moving slowly down the Tarn river, leaving the surprising sight of water skiers in a broad reach, to pootle gently to a château before turning round and going gently back again.
We spend 6 nights on the barge, moving in stately style by day and stopping at night in tiny towns and villages with just a few other boats as companions. We change for dinner on deck, watching the sun sink on the horizon. Elisa and chef Mike serve the evening’s 3-course meal and Elisa goes through that evening’s top-of-the-range French wines. It’s a remarkably relaxing holiday.
Details on booking and European Waterways information on page 6.Continue to 3 of 6 below.
03 of 06
The Canal Barge Rosa, the Rooms. the Crew and Facilities
Rosa in a Nutshell
- The former working Dutch barge measures 98 ft long by 16 ft 4 inches wide (29.5m x 5m). It seems quite small until you sit beside the pilot and see the boat stretching out before you. At 40 meters long and 6 meters wide, the locks feel remarkably tight.
- There’s a crew of 4 on board: Captain, Pilot (who doubles as a guide on the excursions), Chef and Housekeeper. The staff can change, though the constant presence is the captain, Dominique Montclus, the French owner of the boat. Our pilot was Jules Whitaker, a Brit who grew up on barges in France, chef Mike Crowson comes from Cornwall, and Elisa Mason, an English singer who does the summer season on the barge then tours with her band the rest of the year.
The trip is organized by European Waterways, which runs barge trips on the most beautiful canals of France.
- The outside wooden sun deck at the front is large, with a table to seat 8 people very confortably (9 for the last-night Captain's dinner) and comfortable loungers. Umbrellas shade you as you travel along, though you have to pull them down to the deck (and make sure you're sitting down) going under the bridges. In the evenings there are large canvas umbrellas for shade. 8 bicycles are carried at the front.
- Inside there’s a spacious main air-conditioned room with a table and chairs at one end, sitting area in the middle and a small bar and seating area at the other end. Breakfast and some meals are served in this delightful room which is decorated like an old-fashioned living room. There are novels in English; guide books in both languages, games, and a selection of music (Charles Trenet, Juliette Greco, Edith Piaf and the like) that takes you back a few decades. There’s free Wi-Fi but be warned, the connections are temperamental. English 3-pin plugs and adaptors for French appliances are all around the boat.
- Rosa has 4 guest bedrooms in the front, so space is restricted. But every inch is used so somehow you manage to unpack everything into a cupboard and drawers and put the suitcases away. There’s a choice of double- or twin-bedded air-conditioned rooms, all with ensuite bathrooms. The bathrooms are what you might describe as snug, but everybody manages fine and the showers are excellent.
Details on booking and European Waterways information on page 6.Continue to 4 of 6 below.
04 of 06
A Gourmet Cruise on the Canal Barge Rosa in Gascony
Mike Crowson is a remarkable, talented chef who produces top quality dishes from locally sourced, seasonal ingredients on board Rosa, operating from a tiny, hot kitchen. Each meal is different with no dishes even remotely alike.
Lunch is light: generous bowls of brightly colored hermitage sliced tomatoes, coleslaw, the freshest green leaves, or spiced chickpeas to accompany the likes of guinea fowl with new potatoes, or asparagus and tomato quiche. He’s a man with a sense of occasion after a trip to a farm producing foie gras, he produced confit duck with duck hearts. One morning was taken up with a visit to the local market at Castelsarrasin where you follow Mike as he buys charcuterie, cheeses, vegetables and fruit, explaining how to pick the best and what to look out for. It makes up that day’s lunch and he uses other produce is used that evening.
Dinner is a more elaborate 3-course affair, served usually in the open air on deck, with candles twinkling as the sun sets. A thunderstorm one evening and a mooring beside a wood where the bugs would have had as good a feast on us as we were enjoying from Mike took us into the main cabin.
Starters included two kinds of mackerel, seared and pickled with samphire and celeriac remoulade; quail breast, confit quail leg, soft boiled quail egg and spelt; main dishes went from duck and foie gras to saddle of lamb with Provençal vegetables, and a delicate sea bass with crab-stuffed courgette flower and pomme purée. Then in French fashion comes the cheese. Mike buys and presents 3 different cheeses each day, giving their characteristics before chopping them into generous portions. Finally, it's on to desserts that any self-respecting pastry chef would have been proud of: prune and Armagnac souffle, or a chocolate box containing almond and hazelnut praline with chocolate mousse, cherries and a sharp crème fraiche sorbet.
Wine at lunch is rosé, but rosés which have character and body and which most of us had never heard of: Ines Fonton 2013; Gris blanc 2013 and a Domaine de l’Olivette 2013 from Bandol. At dinner on Sunday we had a Pouilly Fuissé 2012 from the winemaker Bouchard Père et Fils in the region of France around Beaune, then a Chateau Camarsac Bordeaux Superior 2012 and to finish a Floc de Bourgogne, a mix of grape juice and Armagnac. There's always a digestif or liqueur for the dessert, again taking us into unknown names and styles.
This is a real gourmet cruise. Nobody had booked for that reason, but if you like good food and wine, I would thoroughly recommend this trip.
Check out Mike Crowson's blog for a few recipes, bargechef.com.
Details on booking and European Waterways information on page 6.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06
Excursions from the Canal Barge Rosa in Gascony
Food and Wine Excursions
Each day there’s an outing from Rosa, a trip in a thankfully air-conditioned minibus. Tarn-et-Garonne is a rich, fertile area, with Quercy to the north bursting with produce, so it’s logical to include a wine tasting in the Côte du Frontannais region at Château Bellevue la Fôret, and a trip to la Ferme des Jauberts where ducks spend the first 3 months of their lives happily outdoors and are then fattened up indoors. You either approve or not, but the end result is pretty good. Armagnac is different from Cognac, revealed on a trip to La Domaine de Lapeyrade, the producers of that fabulous Floc de Bourgogne we had one evening on board Rosa.
Historic Towns and Villages
There are some spectacular historic towns and villages on the pilgrim route from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostella. Today Moissac is a lively little town; in the Middle Ages it was one of the important stopping points for pilgrims. Founded in the 9th century by the son of Charlemagne, the Abbaye Saint-Pierre was affiliated with Cluny in 1048 and remained one of the great abbeys of France, attracting all-important royal patronage and therefore great wealth. The entrance is spectacular with a huge semi-circular tympanum over the doorway covered in Romanesque figures. It’s made all the more dramatic in the evening with a son-et-lumiere show which is best watched, as we did, from a terrace table at Le Florentin restaurant.
Auvillar was another surprise, also on the pilgrimage route, a charming village classified as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France, full of winding cobbled streets with half-timbered and stone houses. Its main feature is the market place, a circular open-sided building, with the roof held up by columns. This was the place to come to sell and buy grain, measured out in large metal containers in the middle then poured into your waiting sack.
The castle in the medieval town of Nérac was once the home of Henry IV of France, the first Bourbon king, whose Edict of Nantes brought religious tolerance to French Protestants (Hugenots). His castle is now just one wing, but it gives you an idea of the magnitude of the building.
A visit to the Chateau de Gramont, a Renaissance castle of warm stone and a morning trip to the market at Castelsarrasin filled another day.
Details on booking and European Waterways information on page 6.Continue to 6 of 6 below.
06 of 06
Canal Barge Rosa and European Waterways Information
Rosa is operated by European Waterways. Prices for a 6-night cruise are from £2,480 per person in a twin/double cabin. The price includes all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. You can also charter the boat for a family celebration or for a group.
Transfers are from the nearest large city. For the Classic Gascony Cruise on Rosa you’ll be picked up at the Hotel Pullman Toulouse Centre which is a good choice if you're visiting Toulouse. We flew into Toulouse on the day of the pick-up (at 4pm), but several people stayed here both before and after the barge trip.
At the end of the cruise you’re dropped off at the Pullman. We had a late flight and left our luggage safely at the hotel to go sightseeing in the southern French city.
A barge cruise is particularly popular with Australians and New Zealenders. If you're spending quite a time in Europe, then a leisurely vacation in between weeks of hectic sightseeing in Europe's major cities makes complete sense. Brits and Americans are also fans of this particularly relaxing way of seeing France from a different angle.
All the crews are either British or English speakers.
Tel. 00 44 (0)0 1753 59855