No flying today
The downside of so many holidays is the airport experience. The barely suppressed panic of getting stuck on the motorway, parking miles from the terminal, queuing to check-in, queuing at security and finally, a cramped flight to your destination with the hope that your bags arrive with you.
My European Waterways hotel barge trip on the Canal du Midi in the south of France was nearly 1,000 km but I still felt there was no need to fly – I boarded the 8.30am Eurostar train to Paris. Within an hour we were in France and an hour and a quarter later in the heart of Paris.
Onward rail travel to Spain, Italy or the south of France requires a change of station from Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon. I bought 1.80euro metro tickets at the cafe on the Eurostar, which saves time and hassle in Paris and took the RER instead of the standard metro. The RER is an alternative underground regional suburban train system, which directly links the two railway stations and saves having to change trains which you would have to do on the metro system.
Stay inside the Gare du Nord and follow the signs for the RER, use the metro ticket to pass the automatic barriers and keep following the signs for line D. Check you are on platform 44, travelling towards Melun/Malesherbes and then it’s just 6 minutes on the double decker train to Gare de Lyon. Follow the signs for the exit and ‘grande ligne’ (mainline trains), pass back through the automatic barriers and you are inside the Gare de Lyon. It’s a straight forward journey although if you have a lot of luggage or are not as nimble as you used to be, a 20 euro taxi transfer might be a better option.
With an hour and a half to spare we left the station for a leisurely light lunch and glass of wine before departing.
There are three departure halls at Gare de Lyon so make sure you’re in the right one, we were in Hall 3 and the departure board confirmed our train number 6065 was departing at 2.07pm (remember France is +1 hour GMT) for Perpignan, stopping at our station Montpellier.
Our bullet nosed TGV slid quietly out of the station at 2.07 and was soon racing across fields of bright yellow oil seed rape, wheat and grape vines at a steady 280km/hr. The high speed TGV route is relatively new so it doesn’t pass through major French towns like the older Regional network.
Further south the landscape becomes more attractive with small farms, fields and hedgerows, picturesque hilltop villages and lakes attracting fishermen, pleasure boats and campers. At 4.30 we passed through tunnels, arriving in Nime at 5.10 where cypress trees, colourful flowers and red roof tiles indicated the Mediterranean was close. We get off in Montpellier at 5.30 and our Apart’hotel Odalys les Occitanes is conveniently close to the station. It had great facilities, large bathroom, TV, phone, free WiFi, microwave, dishwasher, coffee maker, kettle, ceramic hob and a surfeit of cooking and eating equipment – from 85euro/room.
Montpellier was well worth a stopover and I was surprised to find that UK tourists top its list of visitors. It has year round festivals and events but for UK visitors the attraction might have more to do with the city being completely surrounded by vineyards. Tourist Office guided tours are a good idea as the city is full of secret medieval places hidden behind 19th century facades – mansions, courtyards and a rare medieval mikveh (ritual bath for the Jewish rite of purification).
Cruising the Canal du Midi
The captain of our hotel barge the Anjodi collected us from Montpellier and transferred us to Le Somail where a champagne welcome awaited. Inside it has a classic yacht-style finish with sumptuous hardwoods and gleaming brass portholes but with comfortable sofas and a dining table for all 8 passengers.
On board we have a captain, a chef, a hostess and a tour guide – what else could anyone need on holiday? All we have to do is drift through the gorgeous Languedoc countryside, so this cruise is for passengers seeking relaxation, pampering, daily gastronomic delights, cultural insights and perhaps a bit of walking or cycling.
A significant part of the trip is the food. There is a single Captain’s table for all 8 passengers so meal times have a dinner party ambience. Lunch and dinner menus are generally international in style but with an emphasis on local Provençal and Mediterranean flavours. Although menus are set the chef regularly asked for special requests and catered well for special dietary requirements. The food is an absolutely stunning gastronomic treat and would sit well in a Michelin starred restaurant. Here dining was not just eating, it was an experience of how wine, cheese and specific dishes combine to create a unique experience that’s more than the sum of its parts.
A great touch of quality was that the chef came to the table with every course, explained the dish and how it had been prepared. After the chef a sommelier explained the region and qualities of each wine that was served and why it was chosen to accompany each course; however guests were free to select an alternative wine if they preferred.
One example evening meal was:
Poached egg, griddled asparagus with Hollandaise sauce
Pan fried Sea Bream, Carmague rice, haricots wrapped in bacon, dill butter
sauce, crispy leek julienne
Cheeses for this menu are Pico don and Comte
Local wine from domaine Perdiguier, chardonay and pinot noir
Floating serenely along the canal, the banks a riot of colourful wild flowers and the over hanging plane trees providing dappled shade had a dream like feel, or maybe that was the gin and tonic.
Every day there was an optional excursion of 3 – 4 hours accompanied by our personal guide in our own smart minibus.
Monday: Carcassonne was a highlight for me as I’ve long wanted to visit Europe’s most impressive fully walled medieval city – and it didn’t disappoint.
Tuesday: Minerve has been called one of the most beautiful and best preserved villages in France and its stunning position in a limestone gorge is a real treat and it’s no wonder that Stone Age man choose to live in this spot.
Wednesday: Narbonne was a Roman capital of the Mediterranean with a marvellous cathedral and a wonderful Victorian indoor market – dozens of delicatessen, fruit and veg stalls, prepared foods and little cafe bars with the most vibrant atmosphere – worth visiting for this alone.
Thursday: Pezenas a charmingly picturesque town that had been the 14th century capital of the Langeudoc region. Its alleyways, cobbled squares, cafes and small artisan shops made a wonderful afternoon of exploring.
Friday: due to family illness our wine tasting at Chateau de Perdiguier had to be cancelled but an alternative tasting excursion was hastily arranged at Noilly Prat in our final destination of Marseillan. This famous aromatic French dry vermouth has 32 herbs and spices added in secret combinations but the cellar and tasting room guides wouldn’t give away any of their secrets.
Surprise treats that will never be forgotten include sipping champagne in the Jacuzzi whilst drifting through endless vineyards; cocktails greeting our return from a busy excursion and being joined onboard by a professional jazz trio, seranading us into the twilight.
Anjodi barge trip
I booked my return rail tickets from London including an overnight stay in a 4 star hotel in Montpellier for £189 pp. Check out “www.railbookers.com”:http://www.railbookers.com for rail holiday ideas or contact them on 020 3327 2447 for a tailor made quotation for this or any other European (and beyond) rail holiday.
The cruise was separately arranged with European Waterways, prices for a 6 night cruise aboard the hotel barge ‘Anjodi’ are from £3,150pp in a twin/double cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, daily excursions and local transfers. Charters are also available. Tel: +44 (0) 1753 598555; Website: “www.gobarging.com”:http://www.gobarging.com