A luxury canal cruise in France elicits images of tree-lined waterways, sipping champagne, and generally sitting back, relaxing and having a good time. There were plenty of moments like this aboard the barge Savannah. For those who like a little more adventure, this barge cruise offers a suite of daily activities ranging from visits to medieval villages, fresh produce markets and wine tasting from some of the lesser known wine makers in the region. It’s the perfect blend for a memorable holiday.
The cruise may take place on one of France’s most well-known canals, the Canal du Midi, however, this doesn’t equate to large numbers of tourists. In fact, many of the areas we explored were noticeably absent of large crowds. As a local to this region, Captain Adrien Bramoullé provided great insight into all the towns and villages we visited, using his strong connections with many local businesses to bring us a very personal experience. In a week of cruising it is almost hard to imagine that we accomplished so much and yet still felt so rested at its completion. These are the highlights of the daily activities aboard the Savannah.
A Morning in Narbonne, France
Even though this was the pickup location for the cruise, Narbonne is a city worthy of a visit in its own right, having once been a strategic city to the Romans. As our first daily excursion off the barge, we met an English-speaking guide, who imparted her knowledge of the strategic importance of this city to the Romans. It was in the impressive Gothic Cathedral Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur, with its imposing 42 metre vault, where we learned more about the political and religious struggles of this area. The adjacent Archbishop’s Palace is now used to house several art and history museums and the city hall. Both buildings create a formidable sight in the centre of Narbonne.
In Narbonne, we also accompanied Chef Valérie Jarlet to the 19th century covered Les Halles market. The market, usually a thriving hub of activity and organised chaos, was particularly quiet on the day we visited. This really didn’t matter too much to us as we were there to watch the chef go about her business. Buying only from those vendors who sell organic French produce, Adrien mentioned to us all “if you want something, let us know and we will get it for you”. “Do you all like fish?”, Chef Valérie asks. With a resounding “Yes”, the conversation quickly turned to the type, settling on the popular species of Daurade. This was to be our dinner. From the fishmonger to vegetables, fruit and olives, Valérie filled her basket with tasty fresh produce. Along the way, we stopped to sample various culinary delights.
Whilst in Narbonne, we enjoyed lunch at Restaurant L’Estagnol, a traditional restaurant serving up great quality French food. As this was only the second day of the cruise, it was a great opportunity for the guests to spend more time getting to know one another.
Wine Tasting on the Savannah Barge
Prior to dinner on the second evening, we were treated to a wine tasting on board. We joined Vivien from Le Clos des Jarres in the salon, whilst he talked to us with great enthusiasm about his organic wines. It was another example of the diversity of the itinerary on the Savannah, with Adrien constantly mixing up the activities to keep things dynamic.
The Fairytale Town of Minerve, France
Towns built on hilltops conjure up thoughts of fairytales with palaces and turrets overlooking the world around them. In many cases throughout Europe, the reason is less romantic and more strategic. In some cases, like the town of Minerve, it has been the impact of natural processes, with two rivers carving out deep ravines and forming a mountain.
Minerve is known as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France or one of the prettiest villages in France. It’s worthy of this title, with an impressive arched bridge leading into a tightly packed enclave of stone buildings. There are vantage points along the city walls that offer fantastic views across the surrounding land. Because it was the dry season, we were able to walk on the rocky river bed and into some amazing caves that have been forged in the rock. It’s not the easiest of walks, with large rounded stones and boulders under foot, but it’s a worthwhile one. Not only does it give you the chance to explore but it offers a terrific view back up to the village, giving an immediate sense of perspective.
Wine Tasting at Chateau Massamier La Mignarde
This was my favourite wine tasting session of them all. Owned by the same family for 400 years, we were treated to a wine tasting with the family matriarch, Madame Vènes. Adrien poured her wines for us to taste whilst she talked to us about her family business and its traditions. A perfect afternoon matched with some incredible wines.
Entertainment Onboard the Savannah Barge
As if a day couldn’t get any better, we arrived back to the barge one evening, following a day packed full of great experiences, to Virginie and Yannick welcoming us with their music. It wasn’t long before we were all settled into comfortable chairs on the upper deck of the Savannah, drink in hand, listening to the dulcet tones from this musical pair. As day gave way to the evening stars, their music drifted over the waterways, and I couldn’t have imagined a better end to the day. Following dinner, we retired to the salon on the lower deck of the barge, where the musicians continued playing their beautiful music, with Virginie singing in French, Greek, Polish and English on occasion. We all felt very spoilt at this stage.
The Fortified City of Carcassonne
If I thought towns on hilltops were the things of fairytales, I had this confirmed when I saw Carcassonne. I have seen many castles, châteaux and fortified cities during my travels, but the Cité de Carcassonne was one of the most beautiful and most intact I’ve seen. With 52 towers and barbicans, and the original ramparts completely encircling the city, the ancient fortress still looks as though it could keep any unwanted visitors out. Today, it’s one of the most visited cities in France, with millions of people flocking there each year. Once again we had a private tour guide explain all about the history of the city and its fortifications. Wandering the narrow, cobbled streets with her, we stopped at various key locations along the way to learn more, finishing at the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus, where we were treated to a performance from Russian Orthodox singers.
Driving Vintage Citroen 2CV Cars in the French Countryside
As my husband put the Citroen 2CV through its paces, I marvelled at how vintage this car really was. The gear stick, coming directly out of the dashboard, had required a quick lesson in how to find the gears before we got started. I was delighted when Adrien gave us the shiny bright red vehicle. Afterall, red ones really do go faster. The windows, divided into two parts, were folded up from the middle and held in place by two rubber connectors outside the vehicle. The sunroof, void of today’s technology, had to be manually wound back prior to driving. No buttons to close and open in a few seconds here!
With little suspension, she creaked and groaned her way over the country roads and we couldn’t have had more fun. This was a quintessential French experience and we were so glad to be having it in such a free-flowing and carefree environment. Adrien’s inclusion of such vehicles into the Savannah’s itinerary was surely a moment of sheer brilliance.
We drove them to small towns where we got out and walked around. I couldn’t help but feel a little French for those few moments as we parked it in amongst all the BMWs and Peugeots. I laughed when I realised I was getting out and locking the windows, only to see the sunroof was still open, making no difference at all to the car’s security. We drove them to a château, where we sadly bid them farewell.
Touring Le Château de Pennautier
Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the Château de Pennautier, was built during the 1600s. With many palaces, castles and château now under public ownership, it was a surprise to learn that Château Pennautier is still privately owned by a tenth generation family, who also run the same winery developed here in 1620. The Lorgeril family, now open the château for historical viewing purposes and for weddings, conferences and other events. It also contains 24 apartments available as an alternative to hotels. A tour of the château is recommended. Not only do you receive interesting historical information, but you get a chance to see first hand some of the rooms inside, complete with original paintings, tapestries and furniture. It’s a step back in time and a million miles away from how many of us live today.
Following the visit at the château, we were then treated to a tour of the Lorgeril winery and wine tasting. As well as owning the château, the Lorgeril family has an impressive portfolio of vineyards across France. The resident winemaker took us through tastings of six wines, explaining the correct way of preparing the wine prior to tasting, and then the tasting itself. Adrien spoiled us that night, buying a few bottles of those that we loved.
The Mysterious Rennes-le-Château
Many conspiracy theories abound about the town of Rennes-le-Château and its one-time priest, Bérenger Saunière, who was said to be in possession of a long-lost treasure. The priest went from being penniless to owning an impressive property portfolio. It was said he could have only done this if he had indeed uncovered the treasure. Such myth brings tens of thousands of visitors to the town each year, even though its location makes this seem unlikely.
The activities are planned as part of a general itinerary for the week-long adventure on the Savannah luxury barge. However, like all aspects of this cruise, guests may opt in or out of any activity they choose to. Private transfers are arranged for all visits, taking away any need to plan or worry about logistics. We loved the activities. As much as we loved being on the Savannah, it was wonderful to be able to explore new cities and be involved in some unique experiences. Each and every one of these added to the richness of the cruise and our time on board.
Savannah Canal Cruise in France
via Barge Lady Cruises
The Fit Traveller was a guest of the Savannah and Barge Lady Cruises for this cruise. As always, the opinions, words and images are authentically our own.