VIVE LE FRENCH CANAL
August 30, 2010 6 Comments
We just had 10 days in August with one of our closest friends from Australia, celebrating a significant birthday, on a barge in the Marne au Rhin canal, in the north-east part of France. You pick up the barge in Lutzelbourg in the Lorraine region (… and yes, the quiche is great), and have a choice of heading east to Strasbourg or west to Nancy, either destination being about 60 kilometres away. Whilst you could do the return trip in about 2 hours in a car, at a maximum speed of about 6 knots (about 10 kph), and numerous locks to get through, it takes considerably longer in a barge.
On a barge it takes a while to sort out who will do what and when, particularly when you have 3 “skippers” on board, which means that the first few locks are akin to dodgem-cars-on-water. It is always fun to watch the first time renters literally “hit” their first lock as they wrestle with their barge’s sluggish rudder, and the competitiveness of other bargers. We were a bit more experienced (and therefore felt somewhat superior) as Victoria and I had done it a number of times before over the last 35 years.
Cruising the French Canals on a barge was actually how we had discovered, and fallen in love with France in the first place. Over the years we had done trips in Burgundy (Nivernais and Bourgogne canals) and Launguedoc (Canal du Midi).
Burgundy has the best food in France. Every small turn of the canal exposed another chateau, another winery, another small village to explore, another inexpensive but memorable eatery. The Canal du Midi wasn’t quite on par, but we had some of the best fish soup on a 2 week trip from spectacular Carcassonne to Aigues-Mortes (2 ancient walled cities), with two must-see seaside villages along the way, Sete and Meze, which sit on opposite sides of a large lake (l’etang de Thau) by the Mediterranean.
The French have taken Lunch to a whole new level of importance, and on this latest cruise we established the habit of cycling off to an interesting looking restaurant (you can buy great canal and environs information books) for a 2-3 hour food and wine discovery experience each day. The menu of the day which normally has considerable choice tends to be around €12-15, for 4 courses and often includes some house wine, though if you want a Michelin star or two (and France has many) this can increase 3-4 fold. I have to admit that the cycle back to the barge after lunch always seemed somewhat slower than getting there.
The food in Lorraine has its own style and flavour, and as one would expect, quite some Belgian and German influence. I have never been a great fan of German food, and over my years of travel to Germany with SAP cannot really pinpoint any memorable meals other than some reasonable Indian and French in Heidelberg and some passable Italian in Speyer.
I sometimes have cravings for a particular nationality’s food … a spicy Malaysian laksa, some Singaporean black pepper crab, some Japanese sushi, an Indian rogan josh or an Italian penne arrabiata, but I have never woken up thinking that I could kill for a Bratwurst and sauerkraut, so I wasn’t expecting much being so close to the German border. While I am being nasty about German food, I must admit that the Germans do a great breakfast with the world’s best breads, and everything that you would ever want to go beyond that, whereas in France were we live breakfast is a cup of coffee and a cigarette … 2 cigarettes for a big breakfast.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that this German/French/Belgian influence in Lorraine worked really well and we had some memorable meals. One restaurant (Le Clos de la Garenne in Saverne) was so good that we went back for a second time and were not disappointed. There was generally the ubiquitous Bratwurst and chips as well as choucroute (sauerkraut with various pork cuts), but they were easy to bypass.
The area we were in covers cities like Strasbourg, which has to be one of the most attractive in France being surrounded by water and with some of the best medieval architecture that you could hope to see in one place, and Nancy, the home of Emile Galle (1846-1904) with great Art Nouveau and 18th century architecture, and which is going through a major urban renewal, starting with the spectacular Place Stanislas. We even found an incredible Chagall stained glass window in Sarrebourg, a small village along the way.
The Marne au Rhin canal also has its own style with the canal crossing over major roads, a 2 kilometre narrow tunnel to navigate through and an elevator (le plan incline de St Louis/Arzviller) that lifts the barge (with water) about 45 metres and which has replaced 17 locks that used to take a full day to labour through before its construction.
It’s a great way to see the country, and if you want a break which forces you to relax and to be able to keep moving without having to unpack and repack, then barging is perfect, and whilst you are only moving at the pace of a brisk walk, you are active all the time with locks to pass through with their individual peculiarities, lifting bridges, pedalling off to buy the morning croissants or to a restaurant for lunch or cycling off to an interesting site or village.
Europe is crisscrossed with canals and waterways, mainly used for pleasure rather than commerce these days, and it is possible to go from the southwest of France to the Mediterranean and even on to Russia.
It was so much fun that it has even re-opened our discussions on whether it is time to get our own canal boat in France.