Relaxing on Rosa.
By Lyn Funnell
Have you ever been so physically and mentally tired that you desperately need a holiday but can’t even be bothered to book it?
I’m not the kind of person who goes on holiday and spends all my time lying beside the pool.
I like peace and quiet. I like to go out and explore the surrounding areas and meet the local people. But that would mean hiring a car, driving around, finding parking places, and often coming back to a red-hot car interior.
And then I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted! A nice leisurely barge cruise.
We cruised along the Caledonian Canal in Scotland a few years ago and it was one of the best holidays that we’ve ever had! It was perfect in every way.
I contacted European Waterways to find out what was available at short notice.
As most of the barges only have four cabins, they get booked up quickly.
But I didn’t mind where we went. I just needed a holiday and I knew that it would be good!
A cruise along the Canal de Garonne, and part of the Canal du Midi was available.
The boat was the Rosa, an old Dutch Clipper barge that was used by Rick Stein in his French Odssey programme.
That will do nicely, I thought. We could relax on the deck or go ashore and walk beside the barge when we wanted to, and get back on board at the next lock for a drink or to use the loo!
Every European Waterways boat has its own minibus that follows us from mooring to mooring, and takes us out for short local trips.
We flew to Toulouse to meet at the Pullman Hotel. I’d booked our flight to get there early so that we could explore Toulouse in the morning for a few hours.
Then the Rosa’s minibus picked us up and transported us to the barge, moored at Montauban.
It did look beautiful and outstanding as we arrived. The boat was lined with colourful flowers and the attractive deck furniture was protected by large sun umbrellas.
I felt as though we’d come to our own private yacht!
There were just six of us (I’ll change their names) A French couple Frank and Frankie, and an Australian couple, Reg and Jennie.
The crew were Dominique, the Owner/Chef, Joel the Captain, Carla the Waitress/Housekeeper, and Jean-Pierre the Driver/Guide.
After a Champagne reception, we went to get organised in our cabins. Then after dinner, everyone went ashore for a walk and I sat alone on the deck with a liqueur, feeling like an Oligarch!
The Rosa was working her magic and my muscles were rapidly relaxing. Heaven! Not a sound to be heard except an occasional splash in the canal and the whirring of tree frogs.
Fresh coffee, warm bread, croissants and pastries with home-made jam were all ready when we emerged from our cabins.
As we were finishing, the engine started and the barge began to move.
We all rushed up on deck as Joel manoeuvred the boat towards the first lock.
Cyclists, dog walkers and joggers pedalled, strolled and trotted along the well-tended tollpath. Most of them glanced at our boat and some of them waved or nodded.
I started betting who would wave and who would ignore us. A nod of the head didn’t count as a wave.
Everyone joined in and within a short time it was impossible for anyone ashore to ignore us as our VIP dignity had disappeared and we were all frantically waving our arms in the air!
Red Kites soared overhead and looked down at us as though they thought we were mad!
There were 10 locks one after the other to pass through on the way to Montech. Loch number 1 opened without any trouble at a signal sent from Joel’s mobile. But no 2 refused to budge. Joel phoned the loch keepers and after rather a long wait, (we all thought they were having their breakfast) they arrived in a van and manually opened the gate.
We all sat enjoying the peace (the cyclists, dog walkers and joggers had nearly all vanished) and tried to remember how many locks we’d passed through. Then we realised that the lock keepers’ cottages, about half of which were unlived in, but used for storage and staff breaks, all had a number on them.
Straight after lunch we were going out in the minibus to visit the Chateau Bellevue la Foret, a small vineyard in the Cotes du Frontonnais wine region.
The chateau was built in 1850, but it has only been a vineyard since 1976.
It’s famous for the Negrette grape, which grows just in this region. It was brought here from Cyprus and the Lebanon in the 12C by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
Philip Grant bought the Chateau in 2008. He comes from Belfast, in Ireland, so it was a big change for him. But he’s made a great success of the business, and 45% of all the wine is exported.
Then we drove back to the Rosa for a leisurely dinner on board.
After breakfast, we all stepped ashore and walked along the towpath, followed by our floating hotel.
We turned to the right where there is a parallel canal, completely blocked by the amazing Water Plane. It took me a while to understand what it did, but when I finally grasped it, I realised what a brilliant invention it was!
The trouble is, it was opened in July 1974 but it only worked until 2010, then it packed up and it will probably never be repaired as it’s so expensive. So it just sits there, blocking the canal as it’s also much too expensive to dismantle and take away.
Here’s a video of it when it worked.
The machine by-passed five locks, and it only took two huge locomotives 20 minutes to drag large boats up the slope.
Rosa was now ahead of us, and waiting to go through one of the locks. So we all stepped back on board, ready for pre-lunch drinks.
While we were eating, the Rosa moored at Castelsarrasin and it began to rain heavily. But it wasn’t a big problem as we were off on our next trip; this time to the newly-restored Abbaye de Belleperche.
It’s quite a new addition to the tourist trail, and there don’t seem to be any books or brochures explaining its history.
I’d like to return in a few years’ time to find out about the elaborate graffiti that covers the huge dormitory. It tells an interesting story. Obviously troops and people have been put up there through the centuries.
There’s a Museum of Table Settings there, but it’s still a Work in Progress. Interesting though! I wonder where they’ve got it all from. Again, there’s nothing to read about it yet.
It was still raining steadily, but we were happy to sit in the lounge and read.
We crossed the amazing Pont Canal du Cacor, which is a 1,000-ft long aquaduct.
How strange to be travelling along a canal that crosses a river!
We began to descend instead of ascending, through a staircase of locks towards Moissac and we moored on the River Tarn.
It had stopped raining and after lunch we took the short walk through the old traditional town to see the Abbaye St Peter de Moissac and the nearby church. Its walls had the most amazing painting over it which looked just like wallpaper.
In the evening we strolled back to the Abbaye again as we were having dinner next to it, in Le Florentin, an excellent local restaurant.
I’ll be writing about the food in another article soon.
We went in the minibus to Castelsarrasin’s morning market, which I loved! I always enjoy seeing the lovingly set out displays of colourful fruit and vegetables in markets.
Dominique drove us as he had some food shopping to do. He warned us that there were live animals for sale, as some clients get upset when they see fresh meat!
Our boat had started moving when we returned and we had a small audience as we climbed on board and set out on our journey again.
I noticed that I’ve got a natural royal wave as I acknowledge my public!
We moored at Pommevic where we had lunch on board. And we carried on to Valence d’Agen. Then we were off on another trip in our minibus, to the 11th Century Chateau do Gourdourville.
Privately owned, it’s a wonderful building with a very colourful history. It even has a secret staircase where various kings and their mistresses/boyfriends used to creep up and down when everyone was asleep.
There are 10 bedrooms, all totally different, and 30 beds.
You can rent the whole Chateau for a week, for weddings, family birthdays, conferences, or other events. And I highly recommend it. It’s a dream of a place!
On we went to Auvillar, a 15th Century village overlooking a gorge. It has an old roof-covered market place and a public wash-house where swimming fish now replace the garments that were smacked against the stones to get them clean.
The streets are very steep and probably hard to walk up and down in bad weather.
There were a lot of properties for sale there.
Our final day.
We cruised to Agen. Then in the afternoon we drove through beautiful countryside to the Cerveara family’s Armagnac depot.
The surroundings were lovely, but it’s probably some of the worst building work that I’ve ever seen, and hardly suitable for a tourist outing!
But the rest of our group were happy, sampling various types of Armagnac, while I admired the brickwork.
We travelled on to the Medieval town of Nerac.
I was looking forward to this trip as we visited Henry of Navarre’s castle
Henry was a Protestant, but the heir to France’s throne.
When he went to claim it, he wasn’t allowed in unless he converted to Catholicism. So he thought for a while and then said, Paris is worth a Mass.
Nerac is my idea of holiday eye candy! Every street reveals more Medieval houses, all totally different. I’d love to go back and spend a night there.
It was our final night on the Rosa. Traditionally it’s the Captain’s Farewell Dinner on board.
We all dressed up for the occasion. The temperature was perfect and we ate on the deck.
Reg and Jennie, who are wine connoisseurs, had brought along some very expensive bottles of wine and one bottle of Piper Heidsieck Champagne for the occasion. And Dominique had chosen some good wines to go with the meal as well.
Reg and I had a discussion about wine. To me, wine is about atmosphere and memories.
I think a cheap rose wine drunk at sunset outside a Spanish bar with tapas and a salad tastes better than a glass of so-called high-quality wine in London in an expensive restaurant.
But I must admit that I loved sipping his expensive wines, sitting on the deck of Rosa on the Canal de Garonne with our new friends as the sun set and the stars came out, serenaded by the tree frogs.
As I said, it’s the atmosphere and the memories that count.
Our final breakfast, then we all piled into the minibus with our luggage and Jean-Pierre drove us back to the Pullman Hotel, first dropping off Frank and Frankie in Montauban where their car was parked.
Reg and Jennie were touring Europe for a few weeks and staying overnight in the Pullman.
We left our luggage there and went into Toulouse with them for a lovely lunch in a Brasserie.
Then we returned to the hotel and Hubby John and I left to catch our bus to the airport.
Our perfect holiday was over. But it was just what we’d needed to re-charge our batteries!
We caught a taxi to the Pullman, costing 23 euros. But we caught the airport bus on the way back, which stopped almost opposite the Pullman Hotel and cost 7 euros each.
We went in the No 1 Lounge at Gatwick. Drinks, food and newspapers are all included, and the seats are comfortable.
It’s well worth doing, and can work out cheaper than buying everything separately in the main Departure Lounge. And it’s a great stress relief if your flight’s delayed!
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