When it was time to join the coach at Montpellier and travel to Anjodi, my hotel barge moored half an hour away on the Canal du Midi at the tiny waterside village of Le Somail. I was tempted to stay behind.
I had arrived in Montpellier on Saturday, the day before embarkation, and decided that I would never leave that delightful town. I’d send an email home to say I was never coming back. My hotel was just by the Place de la Comedie, a broad meeting place bordered by restaurants flowing out onto the pavements, and I was to spend the next day exploring the town’s ancient and busy streets, enjoying dinner in a leafy square, dining in one of the many restaurants serving, as you would expect, exquisite food at by no means unreasonable prices. I took my breakfast of coffee and croissants the next morning in the Place, returning there for lunch after more explorations. Bliss.
But catch the coach I did with just three other couples, two from Australia and one from the USA – Anjodi carries a maximum of eight, in four cabins – and soon after we were relaxing with a glass of welcome champagne on deck in the spring sunshine, as Julian the skipper took us through the week’s program and described life on board.
Montpellier was already in the past, as I looked at the ancient stone bridge over the canal a few yards away, confident that Anjodi could never get through that narrow arch. Shortly after, the passengers were holding their collective breath as we headed for the arch and what would surely take us to a watery grave. Julian’s face was unmoved as we slid through with what would once have been called a fag paper between us and the stone walls.
And that was how it was going to be for a week, which combined total relaxation and exceptional gastronomy with exploration and excitement, seven days on the tree-lined, picturesque, and historic canal, built originally in the 17th century not as the leisure attraction which it had now become for visitors from around the world, but very much as a trade route, a short cut from the Channel coast to the Mediterranean, to avoid the long-haul round the Spanish and Portuguese peninsula. We glided past old villages; historic towns; waterside mansions; and extensive, family-owned vineyards (several of which we visited to run a quality check on their product you understand – this was after all a fact-finding mission), often ducking as we slid under narrow bridges, many built at the time of the Canal’s construction. For exercise, we might wave to occasional locals on the canal bank, or if we felt something more strenuous was called for, we could disembark and stroll along the tow path, easily keeping up with Anjodi, to rejoin the ship at a lock or some stopping point a mile or two along the canal. A few bikes were kept on deck for those who wanted to explore further in the countryside.
Anjodi is, of course, the barge upon which celebrity chef Rick Stein sailed in his now famous BBC TV series a few years back. The galley was just as tiny as the TV series showed it and although the man himself was not cooking for us, we had Sarah, Anjodi’s own top-notch chef on board whose menus were often mini masterpieces.
The fine food we enjoyed each day was accompanied by wines chosen by a captain who clearly knew his “viticultural” stuff as well as he knew the size of those arches. Lunch was usually served round a table on deck while dinners, a longer affair with several courses, would be taken in the large comfortably-furnished saloon below. Here we would meet for cocktails before sitting round a large, elegantly-laid table. Menus and wines were introduced by the captain or Lauren, in charge of the “hotel” arrangements, passenger comforts, cabin preparation, etc., and whose special delight was to present locally-produced cheeses after dinner. There was no menu choice, although one could request favorite dishes to appear during the week – we simply ate carefully-crafted meals, enjoying them with wines selected by Julian from local, family-owned vineyards along the way.
Cabins and bathrooms are inevitably compact but comfortably furnished, although with the glorious views between the tree-lined banks and the spring sun glittering through the branches, none of us spent time in our cabins or in the large communal lounge with sofas and easy chairs, preferring to laze on deck or walk ashore.
The itinerary over the six-night cruise from Le Somail to Marseillan, on the large inland saltwater Lake Thau, was exactly the mix you would expect. Some days there were simple stops at a sleepy village to stroll past old houses, which seemed not to have changed in hundreds of years. Other days would feature a trip out by Anjodi’s own minibus, which appeared each day as we tied up.
In the bustling provincial town of Narbonne, we took coffee in a leafy square then explored the busy market. In Bezier we strolled through the ancient center, carefully preserved with many buildings still private homes, and in Minerve, we looked down into the deep limestone gorges surrounding the town as our French driver and guide Laurent told us of the town’s bloodthirsty history, it’s sieges, and rebellions stretching back over 700 years and more. At one village stop, we could see the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance.
The trip to Carcassonne was simply stunning – from a distance across the countryside, the walled town with its many turrets looked almost as they must have appeared when the medieval town was built. Within the walls and despite the inevitable tourist cafes and shops, the atmosphere remained of a fortified town, whose massive stone fortifications could even now resist any attack.
On deck as we drifted through the quiet waters, usually with few other vessels passing, passengers chatted and Lauren made sure we had refreshments, coffee perhaps, soft drinks, or before lunch, a glass of wine. One day, a couple of our Australian companions explored the French “outback” on the bikes, and on another, we stopped to see the wild horses of the Camargue. We all could have stayed a lot longer.
Anjodi is one of the European Waterways fleet of luxurious barges traveling on the rivers and canals of France, Italy, Holland, and Belgium, with UK trips along the Thames, the Caledonian Canal, Scottish Highlands, and Ireland’s river Shannon. Because they carry between only 4 and 13 passengers, they are ideal for chartering for celebrations and family holidays, and it is possible for two barges to travel together for larger groups. From the UK there is air access to Montpellier, Marseille, and the smaller airports of Beziers, Carcassonne, and Tours, or the holiday can be combined with a longer stay in the south of France by flying to Nice or Lyon.
There are good rail services combining Eurostar and the very efficient French national rail service to Avignon and onwards to Montpellier . An all-inclusive, cruise-only fare aboard Anjodi, including all meals, wines, an open bar, and all excursions, costs from £2,250 per person, based on double occupancy. Full details are available on www.GoBarging.com although your preferred agent will efficiently handle all cruise bookings plus air/rail/road travel and transfer arrangements for you.