Are you ready for one of life’s more laid-back travel experiences: an ideal mix of relaxation, scenery, history, exercise and fine food-and-wine dining in the Languedoc region of France’s southwest?
Then you are ready for Anjodi.
Barge cruising is the absolute antithesis of today’s 5,000-passenger cruise ship experiences. For example, it takes all seven of us on this trip only a couple of minutes to step on or off the barge, or set out on an excursion. And as you will read here, the Anjodi experience stands out in so many ways.
Although it’s a small group to travel with in relatively close quarters, we have a fair bit in common. And there’s enough space if you want some privacy, and enough to do on your own if you choose.
Whether the barge is cruising along or has tied up to the shore, you can hop off to go for a stroll or a run, or jump on a mountain bike to ride along the towpath to explore local villages and countryside.
Half-day excursions via Mercedes minibus allow you to walk where perhaps the Gauls and Romans walked – at Carcassonne, for example, perhaps the most complete medieval fortified city in existence today. With its 52 watchtowers, portcullis and extraordinary repertoire of defences, it resisted the many attacking armies.
Back on board, you can reach out to almost touch the passing scenery – the giant plane trees lining both sides of the canal, the vineyards, the fields dotted with red poppies, the stone farmhouses, the other barges and boats.
Families and groups often rent a whole barge. Founded in the mid-’70s, London-based European Waterways is the largest operator of hotel barges in Britain and Europe, owning or contracting 17 barges carrying six to 20 passengers each (www.gobarging.com)
And with this barge, you are travelling on a bit of a celebrity. Anjodi was built in Holland in 1929 to carry grain and refitted/renovated several times since 1982-83 by current owners European Waterways as one of France’s first luxury hotel barges.
She appeared in the 10-part Rick Stein’s French Odyssey TV series which took celebrity chef Stein on a 700km voyage of culinary discovery in southern France, from Bordeaux to Marseille.
But let’s fast forward to this trip as I invite you to join me on some typical days here on the Anjodi, EW’s first barge.
Because I’m an early riser, first mate/sommelier/driver/guide Steve has prepared one of the mountain bikes for me and locked it to the gangplank. (We tie up every night – sometimes to a pier in a town or village, sometimes to a tree in the country.)
Off I pedal along the towpath, luxuriating in a smooth ride if the path has been paved, otherwise trying to avoid the occasional roots and ruts.
I have some stretches of the canal to myself, shaded from the rising sun by the plane trees. In the busier areas, work and pleasure craft – barges, owned or rented boats – cruise by or are tied up to the shore. I exchange “bonjours” with early risers on these boats, with other bikers, with walkers.
I particularly enjoy my visit to Portiragnes, not far from our final port of Marseillan (where a pirate flag is incongruously waving from the top of a large building), just west of Marseilles.
It’s a 10-minute ride down to the sandy beach on the Mediterranean, all but deserted except for early morning dog walkers. I follow a track leading into the wetlands – and find several dozen flamingoes feeding in the shallow waters.
Now my stomach is also saying “breakfast” so I return to the barge in time to meet Steve climbing aboard with a bag full of goodies from the local bakery: crusty white and multi-grain baguettes, croissants, chocolate and almond Danish.
Aneta (foodservice, housekeeping) has set up the breakfast buffet with coffee and tea, fresh fruit, cereals, slices of ham and cheese, freshly squeezed orange juice, grapefruit juice, yogurt, jams, butter. Some mornings I order an omelette or a poached egg on toast (a toasted slice of baguette).
Excursions happen in the morning or afternoon depending on the day’s cruising schedule.
“We have to be on time so we don’t miss our reservation at the locks,” says Laurent, our erstwhile skipper. And indeed, we traverse eight locks on our 75km trip from Le Somail, near Narbonne, eastward to the ocean at Marseillan.
At Fonserannes, we descend 14m through seven locks and then float high above the River Orb in our canal cum aqueduct.
You realize how much planning goes into even a relatively short cruise like ours when you see Steve continually disappearing and then reappearing. He puts a bike into the back of our minibus, drives to the next place where the barge will tie up ahead of an excursion, then rides back to meet us somewhere along the canal.
No visit to France would be complete without a winery tour and tasting. We visit the 14th century Château de Perdiguier, famed for its frescoes and cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay wines – and local guide who sticks his head into an oven-like opening in a wall and sings into a deeply resonant chamber.
Another day we visit Minerve, the ancient capital of Minervois, which boasts a 12th century Cathar fort surrounded by deep limestone gorges. Besieged by Simon de Montfort in 1210, its hilltop location affords spectacular views.
Here our group finds a Real Chocolat shop, where the proprietor breaks up some of his stock to heat up in a saucepan of milk for some very real hot chocolate drinks.
So much of this barge cruise is about the gourmet wine and food – thanks to chef Tom who creates a variety of salads and lighter cooked dishes for our various lunches, with a cheese course or dessert, and always with unlimited white and red wine (as well as other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages).
Dinner is a four-course affair; Tom, Aneta and Steve take turns introducing the dishes and wines. And in between meals, any of the crew will bring you tea, coffee or any other libation in the lounge, up on deck or in the Jacuzzi.
The four crew members do everything they can to enhance the trip for the seven of us.
“We’ll go slowly and can stop again to pick you up whenever you like,” says skipper Laurent when three of the passengers say they’d like to go for a walk along the towpath for an hour or so.
Then there are the special touches, like the L’Occitaine products in the bathrooms. Like having Philippe (sax), Roger (keyboard) and Mel (bass) show up unexpectedly to serenade us during pre-dinner drinks and nibbles one evening where we are tied up just through the world’s oldest canal tunnel of Malpas.
And like, for a change, dinner ashore at l’Ambassade, TripAdvisor’s #1 restaurant in Beziers, with its impressive cheese trolley.
All too soon it’s time for the Captain’s Farewell Dinner. The next morning Steve drives us from Marseillan back to Narbonne where he picked us up almost a week ago. Six days and 75km? No specific time and distance can ever encompass all our experiences and memories from a voyage like this along the Midi Canal.
when you travel, you have to be flexible. in the case of anjodi, this means fitting into a relatively small cabin - the reason i gave the cabin category four instead of five stars.
i'm tall and was travelling by myself, so i asked to have my bed in the smaller, "basilic" cabin made up as a double. that meant it filled the cabin from side to side, with only a fairly small open area at the foot of the bed.
the tradeoff is travelling in a character-full, venerable old barge that has been refitted to accommodate four cabins.
so note the advice in the preparatory material to consider having the beds made up as singles.