It’s what the French call le Train Grande Vitesse (very fast train) or TGV for short. And there we were in plush reserved seats on one heading for a rendezvous with a canal barge for a week of slow cruising, sightseeing and luxuriating with nine other passengers.
Three and a half hours after leaving Gare Lyon station in Paris on the TGV, one of the world’s fastest and quietest trains, my wife, Dorothy, and I found ourselves 450 miles away in Montpellier, a city of 240,000 in Provence near the Mediterranean Sea. At speeds topping 150 miles an hour, we whizzed by miles of flat farmland, greenery and occasional cows and sheep‚ no cross roads, billboards or quaint, picturesque towns.
Our first mistake after debarking was taking a taxi from the Montpellier railroad station to the Metropole Holiday Inn, which happened to be just across the street. A $10 faux pas. The second was not packing sufficient warm weather clothes for mid-June temperatures in south France that seemed stuck in the 90s and humid — a prelude to one of Europe’s hottest summers on record.
As directed by Abercrombie & Kent, the agency that booked our barge trip, we convened in the hotel lobby the next day to meet other passengers and to be transported to L’Impressioniste, the 128-foot, 12-passenger barge that would be our home and mode of transportation for the next seven quiet, relaxing days. It was docked in a narrow canal partially obscured by overgrown weeds on both banks near Agde, a picturesque ancient city of 10,000 that shares a reputation with Marseilles as one of France’s oldest municipalities.
We were piped aboard with flutes of champagne distributed by the five smiling crew members who introduced themselves as natives of Scotland, England, Canada, Belgium and New Zealand. Gordy, the oldest, a middle-aged Scotsman, acted as spokesman for the crew, and outlined the upcoming routine: buffet breakfast 8 a.m.; lunch, also buffet, at noon; dinner 8 p.m. and two-hour tours most days during daylight hours in between. No nighttime travel.
"Feel free to avail yourselves of wine, beer, hard liquor or soft drinks and snacks on and in the cabinet and mini fridge," he said. "And be careful, very careful walking the plank getting off and on the vessel."
We were in the carpeted living room area, about thirty by seventeen feet, with blue and beige accents, upholstered rose-colored chairs and large drapery-framed windows. It extended into the dining section, which had a large rectangular table and twelve chairs. All meals were in the dining area except for one evening when we were driven by van into the walled city of Aigues Mortes and dined in a local restaurant.
Outside in front of the barge, there was a canvas-covered sitting area with a table and six cushioned chairs, a Jacuzzi and bank of bicycles that would later be available. Part of each day was spent in one of those chairs, chatting, taking in the sights (mostly vineyards and farm land), nibbling on goodies provided by crew members, waving "bonjour‚" to occupants of other boats and trying to stay out of a blistering sun, as the barge lazily wormed its way from one historic town to another.
Our cabin was a tight squeeze, lacking room for our two normal-size suitcases which had to be stored with those of other guests in a separate room. Twin beds were positioned in the shape of an L, and there were two windows, a small closet and a faux marble bathroom with glass-enclosed shower. No clock, telephone, television or radio. Luckily, the cabin was air conditioned, and its minimal space wasn’t a problem because most of the time was spent outside, socializing, touring and dining. Except for two slightly larger cabins with double beds billed as deluxe, the four other passenger cabins were comparable.
No cabin was what could be considered spacious, but there was more than enough room in the inside and outside common areas for mingling, dining and relaxing without bumping into anyone. And in another tiny room with a couple seats, there was a TV set where one could play available DVDs.
Each dinner, prepared by a Belgium-schooled chef in her 20s, was served with red and white locally-produced wines. Main courses included chicken, roast duck, pork, pasta, nothing really to write home about, and desserts were also rather routine except for the night a mushy soufflé topped off dinner.
Most memorable was a lunch of huge oysters in craggy shells topped with a delectable, warm cheese sauce and raw clams. That came a day after cruising by acres of stick-protruding oyster beds off the town of Bouziques.
A 70-year-old female, an Australian pathologist traveling alone, was the only non-American passenger. The other 10 came from five different states and varied backgrounds. Among them, a retired Chicago police officer with a million funny stories, a Los Angeles TV director and producer and his wife, a TV soap opera actress, who were unwinding from hectic schedules and observing their 25th wedding anniversary, and a retired teacher from Florida celebrating her 90th birthday as a guest of her 60-year-old harried Massachusetts daughter.
"She’s too damn protective of me," the nonagenarian confided at one point, out of earshot of her daughter. To us all, she was Mom, often the center of attention, a small, well-coiffed, white-haired lady with an explosive laugh who sported different fashionable outfits and unusual jewelry each day and refused to let the loss of her new hearing aid dampen her spirit and vacation. After a while, amazingly, she seemed to hear better without it.
With the barge moored at the mouth of the River Herault and Gordy leading the way, we walked through the historic section of Agde, a onetime 5th century BC Greek trading settlement with a 12th century cathedral made of thick black volcanic rock. The city may be even better known, we subsequently learned, for its proximity to Cap d’Agde, Europe’s largest nudist beach, which stretches for a mile along the Mediterranean coast. Gordy managed to steer clear of it during his two-hour tour, saving what he called "a naked beach experience" for another day. That day came later in the week on the outskirts of Sete, a Mediterranean fishing village and resort.
"You’re welcome to go," Gordy said, and everyone did except Mom. A brief walk along a path from where the barge docked landed my wife and me on a virtually deserted, prude side of the rocky nude beach. There wasn’t a nudist in sight. The sea was calm, and you could go out fifty or more yards and still be in water only waist deep. Before leaving the area the next day, several bathing suit clad shipmates returned for a pre-breakfast swim. One came back with a painful red blotch on her back, the result of a jellyfish sting that took a couple days and various applied lotions to heal.
While on the Rhone canal sailing through Camargue National Park, we spotted several white wild horses, and four more ambitious passengers than we took bicycles ashore and tried to keep pace with the barge for several miles.
Other days, with Gordy as guide, we toured the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes and viewed its preserved low houses from the town’s high walls; Arles with its 20,000-seat Roman amphitheatre and home of Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh before he entered an asylum; the quaint fishing village of Marseillan where we visited the192-year-old Noilly Prat vermouth producing plant and sampled three of its fruity vintages, and Avignon on the Rhone River; once regarded as the center of the Christian world with a 14th century fortress-like papal residence and walls 13 inches thick with 165-foot towers. The trip ended in Avignon with farewell passenger embraces, a 2 -hour, 300-mile TGV ride back to Paris and some cherished memories and fun-loving new friends.