L’Impressionniste sails from
April through November.
Barging on the canals and inland waterways of France provides
clients with the ultimate R & R enhanced by plenty of fine food
and wine and some terrific shore excursions to cities, towns and
villages. Last summer I was a guest of European Waterways aboard
L’Impressionniste, a deluxe barge carrying a maximum of 12 guests
that cruises the canals and rivers of Provence from April through
mid-November on six-night cruises between Avignon and Montpelier.
There were three couples from the U.S. and one from the U.K. on
my particular cruise, and we met for the first time at a hotel in
Avignon where we became acquainted over afternoon tea. Later in the
afternoon, we were transported by minibus to the barge, which was
anchored on the Rhone River, just a five-minute drive away.
As we boarded L’Impressionniste, we met the four members of the
crew who would take very good care of us for the next six days and
nights. The vessel was piloted by affable captain Roger Gronow, an
easygoing Brit who, in addition to his navigational skills,
possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and culture of
the region and did double duty as tour guide/escort on our daily
excursions off the barge. Assisting Roger were two stewards, Lauren
and Sophie. The versatile, energetic duo performed a multitude of
tasks, including setting and waiting on tables, making up cabins
and keeping the ship’s interior sparkling clean.
Foodies would find the Impressionniste especially to their
liking due to the efforts of chef Louie Dutton who prepared one
excellent meal after another featuring everything from oysters to
ostrich. Daily menus often included regional specialties such as
pate de fois gras, bouillabaisse, and cassoulets (stews of meat and
beans), while local vegetable gardens supplied the ingredients for
salad nicoise and ratatouille (mixture of tomatoes, eggplant and
squash). All lunches and dinners were complemented by vintage wines
and cheeses from Provence.
There was at least one, and often two, stops every day during
which guests had the option of joining escorted excursions led by
the captain or exploring on their own. Excursions included visits
to medieval villages, antique stores, museums, castles, chateaux
We were also hosted at private wine tastings and had time to
shop in the local markets. Those who wanted to combine sightseeing
with a bit of exercise could use one of the bicycles onboard and
pedal into town or take a ride through the countryside. The barge
always moored at night, giving guests the option of leaving for a
while to check out the local nightlife.
The Pope’s Palace in
Avignon is a trip highlight.
After a few days of “barge drifting” through the lush country side
of Provence I occasionally lost track of the time and day of the
week. Several of my fellow guests experienced a similar sensation,
which was a delightful respite from our usual time-obsessed,
big-city state of mind.
I would often go on deck and watch the passing scene from the
comfort of a deck chair and/or curl up with a good book or bask in
the warmth of the Mediterranean sun. Sunset was always a special
time, as everyone would meet on deck for a glass of wine and share
their experiences of the day.
The barge’s lounge served as the main gathering place, and
passengers dined together at a large rectangular table situated at
one end of the room. The lounge and galley are on the barge’s upper
deck while the accommodations are located on the lower deck along
with a small exercise room and sauna. Accommodations included two
suites and four junior suites that were actually quite roomy.
Among the highlights of the itinerary was a visit to the Pope’s
Palace in Avignon where we spent part of the first morning prior to
setting off down the Rhone River. We spent the second morning on a
walking tour in Arles, the city where Vincent Van Gogh created over
200 paintings during a frenetic 15-month period from 1888-1890. The
Roman Empire also left its mark on Arles as there are remains of
Roman baths, a Roman theater and an impressive arena built in the
1st century A.D. that was once the sight of circuses and gladiator
The barge also passed through a section of the Camargue, a
marshy wilderness covering 300 miles that is one of the largest
wetlands habitats in all of Europe. It’s a place where wild horses
roam free and black bulls graze in the fields, and is also home to
pink flamingos and thousands of sea birds. One night the barge was
moored near a small village where several horses were grazing and
we were able to get up close for some fantastic photos.
The price of a six-night barge cruise includes accommodations, all
meals aboard and onshore (there are usually one or two meals on
each cruise at restaurants in port), open bar with unlimited
alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, shore excursions, use of
bicycles and other facilities such as the sauna and Jacuzzi. Some
of the best deals are available late in the barging season during
October and November.