Barge Meanderer cruising on the Canal de Briare
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Aboard The Emma

A Week Aboard the Emma on the Canal du Midi

EMMA: Saturday - Day 1

If first impressions are lasting ones, then the EMMA hit it off just right. We were all very pleased with what we saw and experienced. We met everyone, Liz and Rene, the owners, and Anita and Christopher, the young couple working as hostess and driver/crewman. More on each later.

We had champagne and snacks, then cruised for a short time before tying up for the night. Food on the EMMA was a special experience and every meal something to write about, so I will!!

The EMMA has a fully stocked bar, so we had a cocktail, then sat for dinner on the deck under a canopy of trees in this beautiful setting on the canal. We started with an appetizer of cold asparagus served with lime mayo and shaved parmesan. For this course, a local white wine. The wines of the Languedoc-Rousillon area are very good but not as famous as Bordeaux or Burgundy. Dinner was chicken in a sauce with green beans and new potatoes, a simple start that fit eveyone's taste. We had 2 bottles of a local red with dinner. A cheese course followed along with dessert and coffee.

EMMA: Sunday - Day 2

The routine on the EMMA was very relaxed and, as we quickly found, virtually the same every day. At around 8am, Rene or Christophe would take the van and go to a nearby boulangerie for the breakfast pastries and for the daily bread needs. At 8:30 we would have breakfast. At 9:30, off on the daily excursion, returning for lunch around 1:30. At 2:30 or 3:00, we would begin to cruise and most of the time we would sit on deck and read, nap, etc. Stopping at 6 or so, cocktails became the order of the day until dinner at 8. Repeat tomorrow.

Our first excursion was to Carcassonne, a walled city that is quite remarkable. Much of it is now restaurants and tourist shops but still it amazes me that something this grand was built centuries ago. We toured the cathedral and the palace and wandered the streets, buyng a few souveners. Lunch was a real treat: couscous with mint, fresh spinach salad with peas and cheese, roasted red peppers with garlic, anchovies and olive oil, a bowl of radishes, fresh crusty bread with camembaert and blue cheeses. A local rose wine, perfectly chilled. Wow!

We began to cruise in earnest now and went through our first set of locks, a triple at Thebes. The day was sunny and we all sat on deck and enjoyed the cruise as the canal meandered rather than go in a straight line. For virtually the entire trip, the canal was lined with beautiful trees on one side and sometimes on both. This was welcome when it was hot.

We stopped for the night at Aguille lock where the lockkeeper had a number of his "works of art" on display. He takes what appears to be scrap metal and fashions sculptures. Several are of nudes, one woman and two men. Turning a crank makes the woman ride a bike and the men urinate.

We had a chance to talk to Liz. She is Irish from Belfast. Many (16-17) years ago she came to France. At that time "her marriage was not working" and she met Rene who was working in the rental boat business. As she put it, "there was the sun, the wine and Rene" so she stayed and worked with him. Around 1998, they bought the EMMA, at that time a flat bed barge. They spent 3 years making it what it is today. The first summer on the canal was 2002, just after 9/11 and they booked only 7 cruises, each with one couple. It was a tough year. In 2003, 10 weeks booked, most with 2 or more couples. Since then they have done very well. This year they will take the EMMA out of service in July and August, paint her and travel a bit on their own. July and August are crowded months on the canal as it fills up with rentals, "plastic boats" as she and Rene disparagingly refer to them.

We ate again on the deck and noted a new table cloth. She has enough tablecloths that we never saw the same one twice. Appetizer of very large figs, split and filled with goat cheese and thin slices of ham, served with a local white wine. Dinner was pork roast on a bed of spaghetti with baked onions and beets. We drank 2 bottles of red with dinner. Following the cheese course we had cherry cobbler for dessert.

Cruising Aboard Emma: Day 2

EMMA: Monday - Day 3

Now we are into the daily routine, breakfast at 8:30 and in the van by 9:30 for our excursion. Today we went to Legrasse, a small village not far from Carcassonne. It was about an hour away and I confess it may not have been worth the drive. There was a small "halle" or marketplace with a few shops and an old cathedral, St.Michel de Legrasse, dating from the 13th century. I'm sure it was beautiful at one time but it had fallen into a sad state of repair, with pieces of plaster missing and large parts of once-lovely murals gone. We walked across a lovely stone bridge to go to the Abby St. Marie d'Orbieu. On the way we went into a cemetery. They do something I've never seen before by placing plaques on the grave that say "brother" or "friend", etc. We toured the Abby and found it interesting, dating from the 8th century.

Back at 1:15 for lunch, another feast! Quiche of cheese, bacon, veggies along with a salad and bread. Next the cheese course, goat cheese and a soft cheese eaten with fruit. We managed to knock off 2 bottles of rose. At this point we began to keep track of our wine consumption. For the time on EMMA, we drank 32 bottles. Added to the wine off EMMA, Paris, St. Emilion, etc, we hit 55 for the trip.

The canal continues to meander and along side is a trail, a long-ago tow path that now carries walkers, joggers and bikers. The canal was begun in 1667 and took 14 years to build using 12,000 men (roughly the same time as US 41 in Bonita for all you FL residents!!). As we went through one lock today, there was a small bulldog-like dog, Cece, who knew to beg for food from the barge. Later on, a few miles away, there was Cece, working the canal at another lock.

We docked in Homps around 5pm and walked into town. It was small and since cocktails beckoned, we did not see much of Homps. The port at Homps was bustling, mostly with "plastic boats" but there were a few that were very nice.

Since the weather had turned cool and the breeze had become a wind, we ate inside. Appetizers of goat cheese round, breaded and fried and served on a bed of lettuce. Naturally, a local white was served. Next, broiled salmon over mushroom risotto along with local red wine. Following the cheese course, we had a fruit tart with creme fraiche, excellent.

Aboard The Emma: Day 3

EMMA: Tuesday - Day 4

We left Homps at 9:30 for the market in Olzenac to be followed by a visit to the village of Minerve. Liz thinks today is the best excursion day. I know now she was right as we enjoyed both, especially the market. Like many small towns in France, the market comes once a week. This one had clothes and other "stuff" as well as a veritable panoply of foodstuff: Cheeses, sausages with a variety of casings like pepper,cheese,olive, every kind of olive, breads fruits veggies,meats,fish. You can also buy ready to eat "stuff", like paella. My favorite was the chicken roaster with the drippings going onto either potatoes or onions.

Minerve is an old walled city built into the wall of a cliff. We wandered a bit and did not stay long. Back for another outstanding lunch: a grilled sausage about 3 feet long,curled on a platter, salad of "lamb's ear" lettuce, a fabulous casserole of escarole baked under a crust of bread crumbs, bacon and onions. for cheese, we had two, a Basque cheese with cherry jam and a blue cheese. Naturally, 2 bottles of local rose.

We got underway about 2:30 but as we approached the Homps lock, we got into a bit of a problem with 2 "plastic boats". There is a canal rule that commercial vessels (i.e.,EMMA) have priority at the lock. As the lock began to open, 2 plastic boats began to go in, saying they had been there first. The lockkeeper closed the gate, trapping them between the lock and EMMA. Then the yelling started, especially from a scrawny old fellow on one of the boats. Liz came up from the kitchen and gave it right back to him. Eventually, they moved and we got in the lock.

We anchored at a lovely spot, not far from the oldest canal bridge on the canal. Ron, Grag and I walked to the bridge.For dinner we had warm shrimp in a cream sauce in a crisy,open wrapper. A local white with this course. Our entree was cubes of lamb with ratatouille and a "sausage" made by stuffing eggplant with ground lamb and spices. After the cheese course, we had creme brulee which was excellent. Our dinner ed was a simple "vin du table" but it was excellent, our best yet on the cruise. .

Aboard The Emma: Day 4

EMMA: Wednesday - Day 5

Our excursion today took us to Narbonne, a city of 48,000. First we went to the market. Unlike Olzenac, this a daily market where all the basics can be bought -- bread, fish, meat, etc. From there we went to the Cathedral of St Just and St. Pasteur. Like the one in Legrasse, it is also in disrepair. Sad. We went back to the main square, checked e-mail, had cappucino.

Back now for lunch. When we went to the market, Christophe had picked up a large bag which had all the fixin's for lunch. We were presented with a huge boat of ice topped with 3 dozen oysters and probably as many shrimp. There was also a bowl of steamed mussles along with a pasta salad and a local white. Bread and cheese rounded out a fine lunch. We cruised uneventfully until stopping for the night. Cocktails followed by dinner. We started with a fish soup and admit it was not our favorite. Dinner, however, made up for it. Sea Bream on a bed of fennel, grean beans and carrots. Following cheese, a lemon tart that was excellent. A couple bottles of local red were very good.

We spoke with Anita a bit today. She is a very interesting young lady from Tasmania. She is now 30 but as a teen, she was on the Tasmania National soccer team and was picked for the Australian squad. However, knee problems put her in a wheelchair for 18 months until a surgeon was able to correct the problem. She met Christophe while wandering through Australia on her way to a teaching job in Taiwan. She ditched the job in favor of him and came to France. They joined EMMA this year and have already been asked back for next year. She even convinced her sister to come here and work the canal. Her sister will join one of the other barges like EMMA next week.

EMMA: Thursday - Day 6

For the first time on the cruise, we got underway right after breakfast. Shortly we came to the smallest bridges, a semi-circle that was so small that we had to move the deck chairs to the center of the boat. About 11:15 we stopped and walked into Capestang. We had seen it from afar and from several different angles as the canal circled the town while approaching. There was a charming square with lots of shade trees. Greg spoke with a Dutch fellow who was able to translate a monument for us, a monument to 176 members of the French underground who were executed by the Germans. The monument was just outside The Collegiate of St. Etienne. The Church was lovely with beautiful stained glass windows.

Lunch was again something different. We began with whole artichoke open with the top of the heart containing vinegrette for dipping. Next, a platter of various sausages with cornichons and olives. A green salad with tomatoes, onion, etc. Two bottles of rose mellowed us for the afternoon ride. The cheeses were petit billy (goat cheese) and "Napoleon's" cheese with honey. We got underway at 2:45 with the best weather of the cruise. At about 3:45 we entered an area that presented us with a great panoramic view, vineyards below us, stretching to the hills in the distance.

We stopped in the late afternoon and went on another excursione but I think we were just about excursed out by now. We drove to the top of a nearby hill, the Oppidum and it offered a nice view as we could see all the way to the Mediterranean. We drove to the sea, walked through a small resort town to the beach, then went back to the EMMA. Rene, Liz, Anita and Christophe joined us on deck for cocktails. It was a perfect evening and we enjoyed talking about or week with them. We had our dinner on deck. appetizer of fois gras and a bottle of local white. Dinner of filet with potatoes and veggie. Cheese followed by a decadent triple chocolate cake.

Aboard The Emma: Day 6

EMMA: Friday - Day 7

"All too soon your week is over, but we will still manage a short cruise before we say our good- byes and after your breakfast you will be taken to your next destination to continue your onward journey, taking with you lasting memories of this most beautiful countryside."

Aboard The Emma: Day 7

"Photography and text by Ed Young (Illinois) celebrating a charter cruise for 6 aboard the hotel barge Emma, cruising on the Canal du Midi from Carcassonne to Beziers. Web Design by Special Places Travel LLC. Copyright © 2007 by Ed Young. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No use or adaptation without permission from the author. For further information, or to book your cruise aboard Emma, call Special Places Travel at 1-877-642-2743, or from outside the USA at 001-443-321-3614 or click here to contact us.

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