Barging at its Best

Partake of the pleasures of Provence aboard L’Impressionniste

By: Jonathan Siskin

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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.

Congenial Crew
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 and cathedrals.

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.

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The Pope’s Palace in
Avignon is a trip highlight.
Salubrious Sunsets
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.

Memorable Moments
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 combat.

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.

Good Value
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.