By Marilyn Heimburger
Photos by Don Heimburger
The word “panache” means style, energy, verve — and it’s also an apt name for a luxury hotel barge from European Waterways that cruises the canals of France.
Why cruise on a canal? Why are the canals there at all? Of France’s more than 5,000 miles of inland waterways, half consist of a vast network of canals, some built as early as the 17th century, to connect France’s rivers and provide a freight transportation route from the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean. Narrow locks raised and lowered the barges over land elevations between the riverbeds. When trucks and railroads provided a cheaper and faster means of freight transport beginning in the 1970’s, the idea of redesigning commercial freight barges for passengers was born.
Our home during the six-day cruise on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin of Lorraine in eastern France was the 129-foot Panache, built in 1959 as a commercial freight barge and converted to a luxury hotel barge in 1998.
The six person crew — captain, pilot, deckhand, chef, hostess and housekeeper — greeted us on the sun deck with a Champagne toast and three appealing appetizers, and led us to our air-conditioned suite, with a queen-sized bed, private bathroom, plenty of storage space, desk, bedside tables, lamps and a television for watching onboard DVDs. Six roomy suites on the lower deck accommodate up to 12 passengers.
The main deck held the dining area with a gorgeous granite table that seats 12, a lounge area with a sectional leather sofa and coffee table for relaxing and reading, a fully stocked open bar, books and games, all surrounded by panoramic windows so guests can watch rural France glide by.
Another large table and folding chairs and a hot tub were on the sun deck, along with a supply of bicycles for guests to ride on the paved towpath that runs alongside the canal.
Each morning a continental breakfast of fresh fruit, juices, cheese and meats, coffee and fresh breads and pastries awaited us in the dining area. A made-to-order hot dish, such as scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, French toast, or an egg-in-ramekin creation, was also offered. By the second morning we were invited to accompany the captain on his early morning visit to the local patisserie to help select the freshly baked French pastries, croissants and baguettes for the day.
Both red and white wines were served with lunch menus that included mussels, a pesto and mozzarella tart, slices of smoked duck, carrot soup, mullet fish, chicken with wild mushrooms, sea bream, and fresh salads and cheese.
Each day ended with a four course, candlelit dinner in true French style. Red and white wines were presented to accompany each course:
- Appetizers such as goat cheese and sun-dried tomato tart; crab, avocado and mango stack; chicken livers with shallots and capers; or seared scallops in cauliflower puree with crisps and chive oil.
- Entrees including filet mignon wrapped in parma ham, rack of lamb, pork loin with dauphinois potatoes, beef filet with seared foie gras.
- A cheese course with two or three selections meticulously paired with complementary dried fruits, jam or nuts.
- And a dessert course – ah, the dessert course – banana souffle with double chocolate glace, chocolate mousse with iced amaretto, a fresh, citrusy lemon tart, a ramekin of molten chocolate lava with vanilla ice cream, and a strawberries and cream confection with crumbled merengue called the Eton mess.
One meal not prepared on board by Chef Todd was a special dinner at the intimate Table la Viktor in nearby Lucy on our second-to-last evening of the trip. With Captain Arnault as our genial host, we ordered local French cuisine – appetizers, entrees and desserts – from the menu, paired with appropriate wines, of course! It was a delicious dinner in an intimate setting.
EXCURSIONS ON LAND
The shady towpath alongside the canal immediately tempted us to take advantage of bicycles available for guests. The crew gave us bicycle helmets and readied the bikes for off-loading as we approached one of the many, many locks. Just as the deck reached ground level, we stepped out with our “wheels,” and rode off, easily out-pacing the barge (whose maximum cruising speed on the canals is 3 mph) past flower and vegetable gardens, through a small town and a playground filled with children, eventually meeting the barge at another lock to re-board.
The crew somehow managed to hopscotch two multi-passenger vans from dock to dock each day, so that a vehicle was always available for excursions and errands. Hence the early morning trips to the patisserie for fresh pastries, and the crew’s ability to shop for fresh local ingredients for our gourmet meals.
During the first afternoon we enjoyed an excursion to the Domaine Trepo Leriguier family-owned Champagne house for a private tour and tasting.
The next day featured a trip to the town of Vaucouleurs and the Musee de Jeanne d’Arc. The museum is filled with statues and paintings from artist’s imaginings of how Joan of Arc might have looked. There was even a pristine framed WWI poster with her image, asking for support for the war effort. We also sat in the Castle Chapel where she prayed before departing with an escort in 1429 to request an army from Charles VII to fight the English in France.
(left to right) Joan of Arc Castle Chapel; Joan of Arc statue in Vaucouleurs; Armored head; Stained glass windows in Castle Chapel
One morning, while the barge traveled through a three-mile tunnel, we drove to the town of St. Mihiel and had an excellent, informative tour guide show us the WWI trenches preserved nearby. Since it had recently rained, he easily found German and French bullets, barbed wire and shell remnants washed up in the mud. The majestic hilltop World War I Montsec American Monument dominates the landscape, and commemorates, among other things, the four-day battle in September 1918 when the American army liberated the St. Mihiel Salient.
Viewing the trenches of WWI; A U.S.-led WWI attack occurred in the strategically important Saint-Mihiel Salient, a triangular area of land between Verdun and Nancy occupied by the German army.
Our second-to-the-last day of cruising brought us to the town of Toul. A tour of the cathedral was followed by a private wine tasting at Domaine Lelievre. In addition to offering several of their wines, our hosts served us a traditional Lorraine meat filled pastry called Pate Lorraine.
Bertrand Trepo of Domaine Treop Leriguier offers tours of his Champagne vineyards. Domaine Lelievre in Lucey is a family-owned winery producing floral AOC Côtes wines.
By now we had switched from the canal to the Moselle River (where cruising speed increased somewhat) and our last stop was in Nancy, the ancient capital of Lorraine. We walked from the dock through beautiful gardens to the immense Saint Stanislas Square, which is surrounded by ornate gold and wrought iron and gates and stately buildings, and then used English language audio guides for a tour of the old town. A visit to the covered market and a stroll through the high end shopping district showed Nancy to be a popular stop for locals and tourists alike.
Saint Stanislaw Square; Porte de la Craffe in Nancy, built in the 14th century.
The Panache lived up to its stylish name in accommodations and gourmet food, but every trip is only as good as its crew. Their energy and attitude were first class every day.
Chef Todd from England left an office job to study and follow his passion for cooking, and surprised us each day with menus derived from local ingredients, all with a perpetual smile on his face that revealed how much he loved his job.
Pilot Andre skillfully guided the barge through locks and tunnels with literally 2” of clearance on each side. He was phenomenal.
Hostesses Gabi and Kim enthusiastically presented wine selections, tempted us to try new cheese courses, delighted us with napkin folding and table-settings, and put fresh towels in our rooms every time we turned around.
Deckhand Anteo energetically did whatever needed to be done…from securing the barge inside each of the many locks, to off-loading bicycles, to painting scrapes on the boat when the pilot didn’t quite make it unscathed through the locks, to entertaining us with his guitar on the sun deck after hours.
Our unflappable captain Arnault, mini-bus chauffeur, evictor of spiders from air-conditioning units, tour leader, and story teller, met every challenge with tenacity and good humor, insuring that satisfaction was guaranteed on the cruise.
Consider a luxury hotel barge trip for a relaxing, comfortable week of gourmet meals and informative excursions while gliding through the backwaters of France. You won’t be disappointed.
Note: The itinerary for our cruise from Tronville-en-Barrois to Nancy was unique in the European Waterways system because a damaged lock prevented the barge from navigating its originally planned route.