Sunday, August 31, 2008
River cruise with a carbon-free conscience
The route passes through some of France's most picturesque rivers and canals Photo: Getty
The Rhone, like all great rivers, has banks lined with great towns Photo: Getty
The route takes in Camargue, famous for its beautiful horses Photo: Getty
Fine French wines and cheeses keep the passengers thoroughly content
On a luxury barge holiday in the South of France Max Davidson finds that fun can coexist with planetary survival.
What goes at 200mph, then 2mph, is fuelled by fine French wine and leaves no footprint? Answer: a “carbon-neutral France” holiday devised by a tour operator with an eye for the eco-conscious 21st-century zeitgeist.
No cars or planes for the passengers gathered on L’Impressionniste, a luxury barge that plies the canals and rivers of the South of France, between Agde and Avignon. We may have arrived by high-speed train – Eurostar to Paris, then the TGV to Montpellier – but from now on we will be progressing at the speed of a well-fed French snail.
You can almost see the stress dropping from the faces of the passengers as the barge looses its moorings and the sunlight dapples the water and the first champagne cork pops on the sun-deck.
The 168-mile Canal du Midi, overhung with plane trees, is one of the glories of southern France: it was originally built as a trade route, a short cut from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but now has the verdant languor of a rural backwater. Contented ducks snooze in the shadow of the branches. Swallows swoop overhead. There is a smell of new-mown hay from the fields.
“Look!” I say, as something stirs on the bank. “A rabbit!”
“Don’t say that word,” yelps the captain, Nicholas, putting his hands to his ears. “Not on ship. It’s unlucky.”
“What? You mean French sailors are superstitious about rab-”
“Stop it. You may only refer to 'small fluffy animals with long ears’.” At which the poor man starts hopping about like a ham actor at the mention of the Scottish play. All very odd.
But what sybaritic pleasures lie in wait for us once the unmentionability of rabbits has been made clear. Our cabin, the Cézanne, is not quite as luxurious as the Renoir next door, but it is light and airy and appropriately decorated, with a still life of Provençal apples to whet our appetites for dinner.
Ah yes, dinner. They take dinner seriously on L’Impressionniste – the only thing taken more seriously is lunch. While the chef, James, works his wizardry in the galley, two jolly women from Shropshire provide the running commentary.
“Our white wine today will be a Côtes du Luberon from the Domaine Chasson,” announces Sarah. “The red wine will be a Saint Chignian.” Two bottles of each have already been uncorked; with only eight passengers to drink them, they are setting a cracking pace.
“And the cheeses…” Bonnie squints at her crib-sheet. “We have a Saint-Nectaire, which comes from the Auvergne, and has a grey rind, and a Bresse Bleu, which is a pasteurised blue cheese produced in the South of France.”
The basic idea, consistent with the carbon-neutral theme, is to consume as much local produce as possible. On the Etang Thau, a salt-water lagoon, we tuck into the local oysters, followed by thielles, Cornish-pastie type pies stuffed with octopus and tomatoes. In the Camargue, it is riz de Camargue and steaks from the famous local bulls.
On shore, we visit the Noilly-Prat factory in Marseillan and, later, a vineyard at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, near Avignon, where a master wine-taster, one of those Cyrano-nosed Frenchmen who could find the spittoon from 20 yards, puts us through our paces.
But this is not, by and large, a foodie holiday. Always reassuring to know that you will be well fed and watered, of course, but it is the lazy pleasures of a canal cruise that etch themselves in the memory.
After leaving the Canal du Midi, we head east, along another canal, towards the Camargue and the Rhône. The plane trees give way to marshlands, and the sea is only a few miles away. A solitary flamingo flaps towards the setting sun. A catamaran glides past, with a woman doing aerobics on deck. An old man slumbers over his fishing-rod.
One afternoon, we take a detour into the picturesque village of Pezenas, where Molière wrote many of his plays. Another afternoon, we cycle through the sand dunes towards the Mediterranean and take a pre-dinner swim. The boat goes so slowly that at times it seems to be standing still. But every day brings something different.
The white horses of the Camargue are famous the world over, but to see a pair of them shoot out of the tall grass and gallop along the bank, manes fanned by the wind, is a magical experience. On the opposite bank, in a timeless vignette of rural life, a thatcher in dungarees bundles up the sheaves of hay, watched by his dog.
The Rhône itself is a great beast of river, far wider than I had expected. At times, it is lily-pond still; at others, whipped up by the famous mistral, the north wind that blows down the Rhône valley, it is so choppy that Nicholas, at the helm, looks like Captain Ahab battling the waves.
Like all great rivers, its banks are lined by great towns, which have grown with the centuries. The second half of the week turns into a kind of A-Z – or rather A-A – of French walled cities: starting with Aigues-Mortes, fortified by the Crusaders; Arles, where Van Gogh shared a house with Gauguin; and Avignon, with its famous bridge, overlooked by the craggy Palais des Papes.
The human landscape is equally beguiling, with our fellow passengers proving a glorious mixture of the clubbable and the eccentric. The young couple from Brisbane are visiting Europe for the first time. The banker from Toronto keeps surreptitiously checking the Dow Jones on his BlackBerry. Lily, who divides her time between Canada and Barbados, is a shopaholic.
On the last night, we have a captain’s dinner, dressed in our glad rags, then dance the night away on deck, under a starry sky, with the lights of Avignon glowing in the distance and the dark, silent river gliding past.
“We shall miss L’Impressionniste,” I tell Nicholas, putting a drunken arm around his shoulder. I was feeling no pain – and, having opted for a carbon-neutral holiday, no eco guilt either.
A six-night cruise on L’Impressionniste between Agde and Avignon costs from £2,471 per person with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2213; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) for Sunday departures until November 4. Price includes Eurostar and TGV tickets, transfers, tours and full board in a junior suite.
Posted by BACCHUS at 8/31/2008