Slow cruising in the French sun

John Westbrooke takes his time on the canals

Chugging across the South of France at eighty miles a week may not sound like much of a cruise. Cars passed us. Cyclists passed us. Joggers passed us.

That’s the point, though. CroisiEurope’s Anne-Marie is in the leisurely-motion business, making her way calmly though the canals of southern France from Sète to Arles – a distance of maybe 80 miles, in five days on the water.

No sailing at night, so you don’t wake up and find you’ve missed something vital. The cruising is mostly done between breakfast and lunch, with the afternoon left free for the included excursions, then back for dinner, followed by a stroll or a few nightcaps.

She’s a purpose-built passenger barge, two years old, not a cruise boat, and she’s not big: just 24 guests, and six crew: captain and deputy, Zoltan the manager, chef, waitress and housekeeper. It doesn’t get much more intimate than this, and you soon get to know everyone, most of them our somewhat advanced age. The dining room is specially cosy: you can barely get to a chair without sucking your stomach in. The cabins are just big enough for two, with a TV, safe, hair-dryer and air conditioning (there are duvets on the beds), and take two-prong French plugs.

Apart from one easy-access cabin on the entry level, accommodation is all in the basement, though everyone gets a window. The main deck is taken up by the dining room and lounge, where we gathered for Zoltan’s cocktail of the day every morning. Outside are a sun terrace and a jacuzzi. On top is a long sundeck and the captain’s cabin.

It all worked well, though a nippy Mistral wind whistling down the Rhone meant the sundeck didn’t get much use for a couple of days, and the jacuzzi and bicycles were barely used at all. Sometimes the canal was just a narrow waterway walled off by rocks from lagoons on each side; further east it flowed through fields and forests. Birdwatchers on board found plenty to see.

Every so often we passed a herd of the wild white horses of the Camargue. They’re not really wild, but their owners give them lots of room and they’re free to consort with members of the opposite sex without anyone being paid for it.

One of the best excursions was to Sète – we happened on a naval joust, the local specialty where two boats are rowed at each other while musicians sit up front playing encouraging tunes and men with a lance and shield perch on a sort of ladder at the back and try to knock each other into the water.

The sport is said to have been invented by Crusaders waiting to embark from nearby Aigues-Mortes for the Holy Land. This medieval walled town in the marshes is still in good order and much quieter than the better known Carcassonne.

At the end of the trip, after the canal had turned into the Little Rhone and then the main Rhone, Arles is also worth a walk: Van Gogh lived here for a while, though the locals called him the red madman and many of the places he painted were destroyed in the war. The night cafe he depicted has been reconstructed, but the Yellow House he shared with Gauguin has gone for good.

Some of the trips weren’t all that intriguing unless you’re fascinated by local produce – salt fields, an olive oil factory and an oyster farm. A visit to a mas (ranch), where riders on horseback sort out the local black bulls, wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. I wouldn’t have minded a chance to visit places like the hilltop town of Les Baux and the Roman Pont du Gard, but there’s not much room for options with so few passengers. I did enjoy the coach tour of the Camargue, the vast wetland south of Arles, where the bulls and horses roam and flamingoes feed.

The crew were all friendly and efficient (I’m not sure when they got to sleep) but special mention to Benjamin, the chef, who prepared high-class French cuisine every day in luscious sauces, and even managed to cope with non-fish-eaters like me. Each lunch was accompanied by a talk by Zoltan on two new cheeses offered up for dessert, which was an unexpected highlight. We’ve found some of them in British shops, but there were lots we’d never heard of – as De Gaulle said, how do you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese? Except for some high-end brands, all drinks were free all day.

The “Péniche Provençal” charter package with Voyage Jules Verne included return Eurostar travel to Avignon (about six hours) and transfers between there and the Anne-Marie. Stopping for customs and immigration at Lille on the way back was the only tiresome thing all week.