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Barging Vacations Offer a Grassroots Taste of Europe

Barge travel in Europe on the Saint Louis
Towpaths along many routes entice barge guests to walk or cycle as the barge makes its sedate transition from one moorage to another.
Photo courtesy of the Saint Louis.

Canal and river barging as a vacation experience, not a transport business, is barely into its third decade in the world of European tourism. Expanding impressively during that time with many creative variations, barging has become uniquely popular as a way to sample Europe in small, savory morsels. How small? A navigation of 40 to 60 miles in an entire week may seem like an excruciating snail’s pace to travelers accustomed to planning country- and continent-wide holidays but—wait a minute!—let’s see what can happen on a weeklong barge vacation.

In July 2007, my husband and I boarded the Scottish Highlander, near Inverness on Scotland’s east North Sea coast, and settled into our tartan-decorated barge home for a waterway crossing west to the Atlantic coast. In seven days we passed through the Great Glen’s four finger-shaped lakes (lochs in Scottish) and 29 locks (in English and Scottish) as we made our way through the 200-year-old engineering marvel of its day called the Caledonian Canal. The famous Loch Ness was among the lakes traversed though we glimpsed no monsters.

During 62 miles of navigation, we enjoyed numerous morning or afternoon shore excursions to ruined or restored castles and battle sites with harrowing stories of clan battles and treacherous massacres. We explored historic shorefront towns and toured a whisky distillery to learn insider tasting secrets about the famous Scottish brew. And we occasionally jumped ship to walk or cycle along wooded tow paths through weather-worn Highland hillsides.

Back on board our cosy home with four ensuite staterooms for up to eight guests, we sampled the unlimited cellar of fine French wines, British ciders, and beers to complement every gourmet dish served by our chef at lunch and dinner, including local salmon, venison, and game as well as the surprisingly tasty haggis. In between, we visited the captain in his wheelhouse to hear colorful tales of navigating the lochs and locks, hummed along to familiar Scottish tunes when a bagpiper in full kit came aboard for a private concert, lent a hand with the ropes where we would not be a hazard, and waved from the topside sundeck to the locals on the towpaths and passing vessels with the same elegant grace of Queen Elizabeth herself.

In a leisurely morning’s drive, yes, we could have covered our 62 miles on a Highland highway in any rental car or bus, but think what we would have missed!

Scottish Highlander Barge in Scotland
The Scottish Highlander is the only vacation barge to traverse Scotland, including passage through 29 locks of the Caledonian Canal.
Photo by Alison Gardner.

Barging in Europe Has Many Variations

Of course, our Scottish waterways trip was the all-inclusive full meal deal, a European Waterways luxury cruise with four onboard staff including an expert historian and guide whose passion for Highland history enhanced each tale told. European Waterways, www.gobarging.com, based in the UK, is a 35-year veteran with ownership of 18 “hotel barges” such as the Scottish Highlander or larger (some up to 12 passengers) in seven European countries. However, there are other barging styles and budgets with a variety of European barge owners and operators. There are also barge booking specialists in the U.S. like ROW Adventures, www.rowadventures.com, and Barge Lady Cruises, www.bargeladycruises.com, which have the current, hands-on knowledge to match prospective barge vacationers with tailored interests and budgets anywhere Europe’s prolific waterways may take them.

Barging on the Seine in  Paris
With a relaxed waterside perspective, you may barge through a large city like Paris and toast the landmark Eiffel Tower as it celebrates its 120th birthday.
Photo courtesy of ROW Adventures.

Hosting six clients at a time and well established in southwest France, Saint Louis barge owners Alasdair and Barbara Wyllie, welcome guests, usually couples or family groups, into their floating home for a week at a time. The historic Saint Louis, www.saintlouisbarge.com, is a classic Dutch working vessel converted to a hotel barge in 1994. The program includes Barbara’s gourmet meals made with fresh local ingredients and owner-led excursions to medieval villages, ancient abbeys, vineyards, distillers of Armagnac, local markets, and country museums.

Another variation that offers both flexibility and tighter control of the travel budget is to be found aboard John Wilson’s Barge Johanna, which cruises the rivers and canals of Belgium and northwest France from May through September. Built in 1923 as a Dutch transport barge and converted to tourism in 1990, this 6-passenger vessel is crewed to navigate and manage the barge, but guests handle their own meals and excursions, reducing the cost of a 7-day cruise substantially. As John says, “We do the hard work while our guests take care of the fun. They can prepare meals in the barge's well-equipped kitchen after shopping for superb local products, or dine out in quaint villages on traditional French cuisine.”

Bicycles on Johanna barge
With a fleet of modern bicycles and bike riding accessories aboard many barges, cycling is a great way to explore towns, towpaths and countryside.
Photo courtesy of Johanna Charters.

Kevin Hartwell, owner-operator of Barge Nilaya, www.bargenilaya.com, actually abandoned traveling around the world when he fell in love with his 87-year-old Luxemotor Dutch barge. He has created a signature barging style that he calls “an informal voyage of discovery” exploring several different French waterways throughout the season with rates depending on number of passengers, the month, and what clients wish to do. With one additional crew member, Kevin keeps services less expensive and flexible by offering a continental breakfast, a light lunch and one dinner only during the barging week (otherwise you eat ashore or self-cater in the barge’s kitchen). There are no shore excursions or included transfers to and from the boat.

The difference between barging and river cruising

European barging and river cruising are two very different experiences. Barges usually navigate human-built canals that have no current, covering 40 to 60 miles in a week. They move so slowly that passengers may literally step off the barge, walk or bike into town, and catch up with the barge again. Generally, barges are historic restorations accommodating 4 to 20 passengers which makes them ideal for families or groups of friends who want to occupy the entire vessel. The cuisine and local wines are usually of high quality, but entertainment is minimal.

River cruises, on the other hand, can traverse one or several countries in a week, stopping in the major heart of cities like Paris, Cologne or Budapest. Generally accommodating 100 to 180 passengers, a river cruiser is really a miniature model of the big ships that do Alaska and the Caribbean. They have amenities like a separate restaurant, lounge, perhaps a library, gift shop or hair salon, small pool or spa, and modest live entertainment in the evening.

Several patterns have emerged in 21st century European barging: undoubtedly, the Dutch have constructed the best working barges for conversion to a new tourism incarnation, most vacation barges are operated by British or American owners, most barge travelers are active older explorers, and they come from English-speaking countries. People choose a barging vacation to immerse themselves in a distinctive culture, cuisine, history and natural surroundings which in most areas of Europe doesn’t require covering great distances. There are even barging vacations now programmed around specific European festivals and special events such as European Waterways’ La Dolce Vita cruise dates in Spring and Fall, www.gobarging.com/italy-venice-cruise.html, that ensure exciting front row canal seats on the barge sundeck for two of Venice, Italy’s most colorful medieval regattas.

Barging in Venice on the Dolce Vita
La Dolce Vita is the only hotel barge navigating the waters of Venice and the nearby Brenta River, including a stop at the elegant Villa Pisani.
Photo courtesy of European Waterways.

Many European canals and locks still in use were constructed as early as the 16th century, long preceding highways as reliable transportation between villages and market towns. Revived and preserved in modern times, they are like time capsules, often with intricate lock systems and tunnels, representing astonishing feats of engineering for their time. Since the canals were the main streets of nations, impressive buildings were frequently designed to display their best face to the action, a feature which cruisers get to experience at very close quarters.

Shoulder or “value” seasons undoubtedly provide the best deals, with dates varying from country to country. It is also worth inquiring about discounts for second and subsequent weeks aboard the same vessel. Singles especially appreciate these vacations because there are often single cabins with little or no surcharge. Some barge operators welcome small children or extended families, often with designated “family weeks,” while others offer theme sailings for golfing, birding, or the ever popular wine and cuisine focus around which to build excursions and gastronomic tastings.

When you slow down to an average of four miles an hour, maybe ten miles of waterway covered in a day, you notice a lot more than you will from the window of a bus or car, never mind a plane. As a formula for a relaxed, yet engaging, holiday, barging is hard to beat.

Barging in autumn in France
Autumn is a colorful, tranquil season for canal cruising the French countryside.
Photo courtesy of European Waterways.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com. See her bio for many more articles she has written for Transitions Abroad.

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