Go barging in Alsace

By | Category: Travel destinations
the Panache

the Panache

Holidaying on a barge was something quite new for me. I have already cruised a few rivers and seas on board different kinds of boats and ships but the ships were much bigger.

Going upstream on the Mekong in Vietnam from its delta and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia to visit the Angkor temples was more like a luxury cruise and a very comfortable way to discover Asia. No locks there and others to do the work. Crossing the Baltic Sea on board of any of the Nordic ferries, or being a passenger on these huge cruise ships travelling through the Mediterranean Sea were so different in comparison to travelling on a barge.

the peace of canal life

the peace of canal life

Travelling on a barge is a new way of cruising. It’s always slow, quiet and comfortable, and can – I am told – be extremely luxurious. Itcan be like a moving hotel but one geared to just a maximum of 12 passengers!

For our first cruise, we  (my wife and I) chose from a vast choice and settled on one to discover Alsace. This Alsatian one-week cruise goes alternatively up and downstream on the  Canal de la Marne au Rhin, from Strasbourg to Xouaxange (don’t even think of how to pronounce this village’s name!) and vice-versa.

The passengers meeting point was in Strasbourg at the railways station. To get there the best way is to take the Eurostar from London-St-Pancras to Paris and then a TGV (the French high speed train) from Paris to Strasbourg. No stress, and the meeting times are always linked to the arrival time of the TGV!

Right on time we met Alan our cruise guide at the station and with the European Waterways dark-blue van (the colour of the cruise company) we went to pick up the other passengers, all Americans for some reason, in their central Strasbourg hotel.

an example of Ken's cuisine

an example of Ken’s cuisine

Alan drove us to our barge named Panache that was moored in Lutzelbourg on the bank of the Canal-de-la-Marne-au-Rhin. Lutzelbourg is a small village close to the unique Arzviller boat elevator, which sadly was temporarily out of order, forcing Wally our captain, to modify the program. We had to miss the elevator, a huge transversal inclined plane that allows a barge to glide slowly up (and down) mountainside on a 41% slope.

The passage in the Arzviller tunnel where we were expecting to have a candle lunch under its 1.5 miles long vault had to be cancelled too! To avoid us any inconvenience, Wally decided to extend the cruise south of Strasbourg to show us the ‘Route des Vins d’Alsace’, the Alsace Wines’ Road and to include a long visit to the famous Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle.

After a one-hour transfer, the Panache whole crew welcomed us on the sundeck with a glass of Champagne, perfectly cooled, and served with delicate warm appetizers just cooked by Ken our Chef. We met also Tina and Eofa our hostesses and Michael, Wally’s deck assistant. The sundeck, approximately occupying a third of the barge main deck, had a large wooden table easily usable for outside lunch or dinner. Armchairs were settled all around and there was also an open-air spa-pool for two, a ‘spa-pool-with-a-view’ installed at the barge’s bow.  Fancy having a spa pool on a barge!

the dining room on the Panache

the dining room on the Panache

After the cheerful welcome drink we went into the great lounge-dining-room only to discover that the barge had been fitted out with brass and mahogany in a traditional yacht style. The large panoramic windows, more efficient than portholes for viewing the passing countryside, gave a perfect light on the long table already set for dinner. The main part of the lounge was filled with comfortable sofas, and there was, in a corner, an open-bar with a huge variety of spirits as well as soft drinks. The six comfortable cabins, all en-suite, were found on the bottom deck. All bathrooms had twin sinks and an oversize shower with massage jets.

Less than one hour later, our luggage was unpacked and we were dressed up for the dinner. Although no one in the crew was from France, we immediately knew that French art-de-vivre would be part of the cruise. The table was elegantly set so when Ken came to inform us that all meals during the whole cruise would be mainly inspired by gastronomic French cuisine, we weren’t surprised. He added that for each meal, two different great French wines would be served, but never same wine twice unless requested by a passenger.  Each day from a huge variety of cheeses we could taste at least two or three new cheeses every day. This announcement whetted our appetites, and we really enjoyed our first meal that was:

  Walnut crumbed St Maure goat cheese with raspberry vinaigrette

  Cod fillet with langoustine and a roasted red pepper coulis

  Fourme d’Ambert and Camembert

  Orange blossom crème brûlée

another of Ken's dishes. Not that I am fixated by food!

another of Ken’s dishes. Not that I am fixated by food!

And day after day, meal after meal, the Chef provided us with a great gastronomic cuisine. The choice of wines was at the same quality level:

St Emilion Grand Cru 2007, Château Neuf du Pape 2010, Côtes de Nuits 2009, Pommard 2009, Meursault 2009, Chablis 1er Cru, Alsace Pinot Noir 2011… just to name a few.

But this cruise was not only a gastronomic one. Our days were passing slowly with a pleasant combination of visits to villages and anything interested we passed, relaxation as we watched the world go by or helping with the locks. All along, the canal makes its way between two flat paths, often shaded by lines of beautiful trees. Time after time, one passenger went ashore at a lock and then either walked or cycled to the next one, where we would pick them up. The barge carried up-to-date mountain bikes for its guests and the distance between two locks was quite short.

But generally, we stayed on the sundeck to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the Alsace countryside, drinking tea or coffee, or, being decadent by sitting in the spa-pool, a glass of champagne in hand. And when the sun became too strong we retreated, back to the lounge, seeking the comfort of the sofas and the coolness of the air-conditioning.

the Katz House in Saverne

the Katz House in Saverne

Everyday, we had morning and afternoon activities. We visited some small villages like Lutzelbourg, Walthenheim-sur-Zorn, and the picturesque Dettwiller, or larger towns such as Sarrebourg with its 13th Century chapel containing the remarkable stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. One night we moored in Saverne just in front of the beautiful Rohan Castle, the former bishop palace, and then explored it all the next morning. There were numerous half-timbered houses, from which the heavily decorated ‘Maison Katz’ stands out.

One afternoon we visited a brewery that just cried out for us to stop-off and sample the wares. They offered us nine different kinds of beer! No need to say that after drinking nine glasses of beer a mid-afternoon snooze was obligatory. Thank goodness – no driving. You couldn’t holiday like this in a car. A stop in a typical Hansel and Gretel style Alsatian Inn let us sample one of the most traditional delicacies, the Flammekeuche -Tarte flambée, before the on-board dinner…

On another day we went to the Pfister Estate in Dahlenheim, owned by a family of winegrowers, to learn about the local grape varieties and the Alsace wines. We enjoyed the visit and the quality of Domaine Pfister wines and everyone took the chance to buy two or three bottles from the Domaine Pfister’s cellar.

the work of Lalique

the work of Lalique

Alsace is also an old glassblowing area. Stopping by one such workshop, both of us were impressed by the delicate techniques needed to transform a raw and blazing molten glass into a little fragile piece of art. This was a perfect introduction to a visit to the spectacular and unique Musée René Lalique who was the grand master of Art Nouveau and Art Déco glassware.

One day, after a full morning cruise, we arrived in Strasbourg passing in front of the modern district of the European Parliament before mooring not too far from the old centre. Alan guided us to the amazing Notre Dame gothic cathedral, built in the 12th century of pink sandstone and which has the highest spire in France. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage monument.

Our stroll continued through pedestrianised streets to finally reach another Strasbourg gem, ‘La Petite France’ district. Here the area is divided into large blocks by small canals and is brimming with beautiful and impressive half-timbered houses. Everywhere boutique shops, restaurants and welcoming cafés attract the tourist crowds. After a last glance at the three old middle-ages towers and the Vauban fortification works which were protecting this side of the old city, we walked back to the Panache for one more delightful dinner on board. But tonight was special. We walked back to the cathedral to enjoy a spectacular light show. Some of us stayed around to look after the Strasbourg nightlife. And we may even have sampled some more wine and beer before turning in for the night!

Strasbourg Cathedral

Strasbourg Cathedral

The next morning Panache continued on its quiet, unassuming route on the canal all the way through the Alsace plains until we reached the great vine-growing area. After lunch we left the barge for a one-hour drive through the vineyards to arrive at the huge ‘Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg’ and its strong walls. Built 700 metres above the plain, it offered incredible views over Alsace all the way to the German Black Forest. On the return, stops at a gingerbread shop (another Alsatian speciality) and at a Grand Cru vineyard had been scheduled before the farewell dinner on board.

Haut-Koenigsbourg

Haut-Koenigsbourg

After breakfast, we had to leave the Panache and its friendly crew climb into the mini-bus and set off to Strasbourg and the end of our barge holiday. Yes I worked – just a little – but I enjoyed and relaxed. By journey’s end I was filled with panache as well!

Text and images ©Frederic de Poligny

 

 

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