This blog will be different from my normal because actually it’s not written by me! We recently had a guest on board who kept a daily diary. She was lovely enough to send it to me and after I read it I thought it would make the most wonderful blog. She graciously agreed to allow it to be published after some editing. I think you will enjoy it as much as I did. Remember to click on the photos to enlarge them for better viewing.
All thanks and credit for the beautiful writing below go to Kathryn H. Hug
Meandering in France • Day 1 • 7/6/2014 • Paris to Montargis to Amilly
George, our host for the barge adventure, picks us up at the hotel at 2 p.m., and we make a couple of circles (one intended, one not) around the Arc de Triomphe before heading to Montargis. We leave Paris in a drizzle, not a sizzle.
“I love Paris in summer, when it sizzles.” –Cole Porter
Our destination was the Briare Canal, built from 1604 to 1642, to connect the River Seine and the River Loire, allowing barges to transport food, wine, wood, coal, iron, etc. Between Paris and Montargis, the fields were gold and green—wheat, corn, sunflowers . . . a Van Gogh painting. The crew of the Meanderer hotel-barge met us with umbrellas and a warm welcome. George and Susan, the owners, are our hosts, assisted by Maxime (chef), Amanda (hostess), Colin (host//matelot), and Corey (pilot). Within minutes, we had been made comfortable on sofas in the lounge and received safety instructions and the week’s agenda from George and Susan. As Susan delivered her final remarks, the sun began to shine. Maxime and Amanda appeared and reaffirmed our culinary preferences. That was a prelude to the first food presentation: trays of petite salmon puffs, tomatoes stuffed with shrimp, prunes wrapped in bacon, and cucumber gazpacho with mint and feta. As the barge turned around for the week’s trip down the Briare, we made ourselves at home—on deck, in the lounge, in our rooms. Suddenly, dinner was ready, and we were treated to two hours of fine cuisine: red and white wine, shrimp and sweet potato puree, two kinds of bread, quail, tiny potatoes, green beans wrapped in bacon, tomatoes, cheese, apricots, walnuts, crackers, and a dessert of ice cream, pear, meringue, and chocolate. As I said, we have been welcomed!
“We definitely have a plan in mind, but at the same time, maybe things will meander, and we’re open to that, too.” –Craig Thomas
Meandering in France • Day 2 • 7/7/2014 • Amilly to Montbouy
French bread and pastries have been previously extolled, so this morning I sang the praises of the chef’s jam—a combination of cherries, strawberries, and raspberries. The first member of our party to awaken started us off with a fine pot of coffee. As the barge pulled away at 9 a.m., two of our party decided to walk to the fourth lock to rejoin us before lunch. The rest of us gave our full attention to the entering and exiting of the locks.
The thick and lush foliage was filled with birdsong. As lunchtime neared, the crew realized that our two walkers had not returned. After some looking and blowing of the barge’s horn, the missing duo was sighted and stopped beyond the fourth lock. The barge pulled near enough to the bank for them to come back on deck—the first rescue of our voyage. Lunch was served on the deck, and all five of us agreed that the quiche was the best that we had ever eaten. Amanda told us that the passengers last week requested that Maxime change the menu for a repeat of the quiche. At dinnertime, Maxime told us that he was serving his favorite dessert: a flaming lemon tart. Again, our group agreed.
Susan took us to a small church in Montbouy for which she acquired the key—an antique piece that she called the “Harry Potter key.” Inside, we found a simple sanctuary with a mixture of stained-glass windows and ancient pews. Montbouy is so tiny that the church is only used a half-dozen times during the year. The key is left for access for interested and trusted persons such as Susan. George took us to Fontainebleau Palace where we toured the elaborate private and public rooms of popes, kings, and queens. Napoleon left his mark on Fontainebleau with both his triumph (throne room) and his defeat (abdication room). Fontainebleau’s site dates back to 12th century royalty, and the present edifice dates from Francois I. Fontainebleau is currently home of Ecoles d’Art Americaines—art, architecture, and music school for USA students—established by General Pershing in WWI. When we returned to Montbouy, two teen-aged boys were fishing near the barge. Other teens came by to assess the success of the two fishing buddies. There seemed to be an endless tale of the one that got away. By sunset, the group of five or six had gathered on foot, scooter, bike, and car. Everyone loves to hear a fish story. The group are playing cards as I write. We had no internet access today. The promise is that tomorrow will be better. It is really hard to worry about internet in this idyllic setting. Here we are in our barge living room with a Josh Groban CD playing in the background. We are already talking about the diets that will be necessary when we return home . . . just talking.
“Let your thoughts meander toward a sea of ideas.” –Leo D. Minnigh
Meandering in France • Day 3 • 7/8/2014 • Montbouy to Rogny
The church bells in Montbouy were our alarm clock. Someone rings them daily at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The bountiful, beautiful, and fresh breakfast buffet is a wonderful motivation for getting out of bed. Susan took us on a morning tour of Montargis. This Loire Valley community is a Four-Star Flower Town, a designation made by a national committee to inspire and support public beautification. The result is spectacular. In addition to flowers, Montargis has a network of ancient canals, earning the town the name of Venice of the Gatinais. In addition to strolling the cobblestone streets, we visited the shop where pralines (almonds cooked in sugar) were “born” during the reign of Louis XIII and the Church of Mary Magdalene where stunning stained-glass windows were undergoing renovation. We have been wondering about the trees with the enormous trunks and maple-like leaves. Susan enlightened us. They are plane trees. The huge trunks are caused by annually cutting out the tops of the trees. In an outdoor space in Montargis, we saw another version of the plane trees. On these, the trunks had been kept slim, and the tops stretched horizontally to form a natural cover for the space. On the way to and from Montargis, we passed huge fields of sunflowers. Susan made a stop on the way back in order for pictures to be taken.
When we returned to the Meanderer, lunch was waiting on deck for us. Today’s highlights:croque-monsieur (grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich) and heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella.
Sunshine and rain alternated today as we moved down the Briare Canal from Montbouy to Rogny. At one of the locks, Amanda and Colin fed ducks, geese, and goats at the residence of the lock-keeper. The expectation of the animals is that they will be fed when the Meanderer arrives. The competition for attention was keen. The barge travels so smoothly and slowly that by now—Day 2 1/2—we are completely relaxed. Of course, a lot of our relaxation is the fact that the crew takes care of every need.
George went with us to see the Seven Locks in Rogny—the original locks of the Briare canal. These steep, adjoining locks have stairs on either side. Nearly everything in Rogny capitalizes on the old locks: Rogny-Les-Sept-Ecluses.
At our request, dinner was served on the deck tonight. The menu featured mushroom soup and duck. The menu board stated that dessert would be “La Surprise!!!” The surprise turned out to be a spectacular birthday cake for my sister, celebrating her 75th birthday. Three sparklers “flamed” from the top of the cake, a five-layer concoction that alternated cloud-like layers of white cake with layers of raspberry and whipped cream. A super surprise!
“It is a great art to saunter.” –Henry David Thoreau
Meandering in France • Day 4 • 7/9/2014 • Rogny to La Gazonne
After the “obligatory” continental breakfast, George and Susan took us to the Chateau of St. Fargeau. Originally a hunting lodge, the Chateau grounds dates back a thousand years. Its present owners, Michel and Jacques Guyot, purchased the chateau by paying its back taxes in 1979. The chateau had been stripped and looted of everything, even the marble spiral staircase. The owner works at constant restoration but makes no pretense that the former grandeur will emerge. The community has embraced the idea of keeping the chateau active—tours, exhibitions, lessons, etc. Eight elementary-age children were taking a fencing lesson, and an equal number were engaged in a horseback riding lesson. In addition to touring rooms and imagining what might have been, my sister and her husband went to a café for hot chocolate with Susan, while the rest of us climbed into the rafters with George for an amazing walk in the clock tower, turrets, storage rooms, and servant’s quarters. As we circled in the enormous “attic” and admired the elaborate wood construction, we could reach out and touch the backs of the roof’s slate tiles. Sunshine and rain continue to alternate. We left in the sun, and when we returned to the Meanderer, the crew met us with umbrellas. Lunch was served inside, today featuring salmon tartar wrapped in smoked salmon and a pastry “pizza” with duck “bacon.” To balance the main dishes each lunchtime, two salads are served—one a bowl of greens and the other a mixture (today lentils and tomatoes). After lunch, we were underway once more, moving by the Seven Locks area through newer locks. At each lock, there is a two-story house marked “Écluse No. __ “ and then the name of the district. For example, at Écluse No. 15 • St. Joseph, a trellis of roses stood at the gate to the éclusier’s (lock-keeper’s) cottage. A sign on the gate read “Attention au Chien.” A giant dog barked twice but never moved from his sleeping position at the front door. Each Écluse has flowers, a vegetable garden, and bird feeders—at a minimum. My niece and I enjoyed the hot tub in the late afternoon. Warm water and rain drops falling on our heads . . . “these are a few of our favorite things.” We stayed in until thunder and lightening threatened. My advice: Never miss an opportunity to float down a canal in a hot tub (on the deck of a barge, of course). Dinner began with eggplant, progressed to red mullet with rice and carrot puree, and ended with chocolate mousse (or another slice of last night’s birthday cake if you preferred). As we dined and played cards, the rain increased in intensity, and we even asked for a bit more heat in the lounge. I will remember the ambiance of wet and cool in the Loire Valley when I return to the dry and hot of the California desert.
“Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.” –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Meandering in France • Day 5 • 7/10/2014 • La Gazonne to Briare
Rain. With a capital R, and that rhymes with Loire, and that stands for RAIN. Raincoats and umbrellas were necessary throughout the day, and we requested heat in the lounge. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the month is July. At the Chateau La Bussière, the two clerks in the souvenir shop confessed that their home fireplaces were being used every evening. Nonetheless, neither our touring nor our spirits were dampened. For two days in a row, the pastries and breads have come from a bakery in Briare—one that the crew describes as “the best.” We cruised during the morning from La Gazone to Briare. This time, the canal locks took us down rather than up. My niece and her husband came back on board from their morning walk absolutely soaked and sought the hot tub for warmth. I gave up on a collection of Nancy Mitford’s letters to Heyward Hill and started an Alexander McCall-Smith No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency selection: The Miracle at Speedy Motors. Books (including the Meanderer’s library about the Loire Valley), cards, conversation, music, and our devices wind their way through our exclamations: “Look at that!” “Did you see ___?” “Come here. Don’t miss this!” After a lunch featuring a fish cake with lobster sauce and radishes to dip in butter and sea salt, Susan took us to the Gien Pottery factory, a mammoth building where fine dishware and vases are made. We saw every stage—from rolls of clay to the finished porcelain-like pieces. Some workers were assessing the quality of machine-applied stencils, some were hand-applying stencils, and others were hand-painting pieces. A shop on the premises featured seconds that looked like firsts. Our next stop was the Chateau de la Bussière, a large estate constructed in the 12th century and originally surrounded by a moat.
The Chateau houses a fishing museum— everything from real fishing gear to paintings and etchings of fish. The collection was installed in 1961 in the existing rooms. The most outstanding feature of the Chateau is the grand garden, a working garden of every imaginable fruit and vegetable. The resident Countess was in the garden, and she picked rhubarb for Susan to bring back to the barge.
Photo courtesy of R.C. Staab
At the mooring in Briare, ducks were in abundance, and nutria (large rat-like creatures) swam alongside the fowl. After a dinner of guinea hens, beef filets, ham pate ravioli, and apricot tarts, we walked to the Pont Canal, a water bridge over the Loire River. Crossing the Pont Canal will be part of tomorrow’s journey.
“Words should wander and meander. They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats. They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.” –David Almond
Meandering in France • Day 6 • 7/11/2014 • La Gazonne to Chatillon-sur-Loire
Our final full day aboard the Meanderer began in Briare at the Friday market. Susan took us there at 9, and we ambled about with the locals as they selected vegetables, fruits, meats, pastries, and cheeses. The selections were picture-book perfect and presented with great enthusiasm by the vendors. In addition to food, one could buy shirts, pants, shoes, handbags, pajamas, and beds as well as flowers and tablecloths. Patrons stood in line at their favorite stalls. After the market, we walked to the L’Eglise Saint Etienne de Briare, a 19th century structure with intricate mosaic work on the façade and in the interior, including the entire floor of the church. At 10:30 a.m., we departed from the Briare mooring and crossed the Pont Canal, a Gustave Eiffel-designed water bridge across the Loire River. This incredible passage— patterned after the Pont Alexander III in Paris and completed from 1890 to 1896—was a highlight of the excursion across the Briare Canal. Sidewalks on either side allowed us to exchange many greetings with Parisians and tourists: “Bonjour!”
At an estate beside the canal, peacocks performed for the passers-by. Shortly before 12:30 p.m., we were secured to our final mooring point: Chatillon-sur-Loire. When we returned to the Meanderer, Susan presented a bowl of the cherries that she purchased at the market. For lunch, Maxime prepared a pizza that out-Italianed Italians. Also, he made guacamole that out-Mexicaned Mexicans at my sister’s request after she saw avocadoes in the Briare market. Susan and Colin took us to the Henri Bourgeois Winery in Chavignol where numerous vinters grow grapes on the steep slopes of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Christian at the winery showed us the winemaking process from start to finish in the impressive facilities of the Bourgeois family. He ended the tour by conducting an extensive tasting of quality wines produced in the heart of sauvignon blanc country.
Our next stop was Sancerre, the setting for two of the books that we read in common: Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet and Harris’ Blackberry Wine. Located on top of a hill with a 360-degree view of the surrounding vineyards and farmland, Sancerre seemed the perfect place for the drama and humor of Balzac’s and Harris’ characters. Susan took us to the center of Sancerre where we could observe our own cast for possible sequences.
Our empty suitcases awaited us in our cabins—the Briare, the Orleans, and the Loire—to remind us that we depart tomorrow. Our farewell dinner of scallops, pork, and vegetables was further enhanced by a dessert made of rhubarb from the garden of the Countess of La Bussière as well as thank-you gifts and speeches from the Meanderer crew.
A rainbow and a full moon ended our day—perfect symbols for our barge experience.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” –J. R. R. Tolkien
Meandering in France • Day 7 • 7/12/2014 • Chatillon-sur-Loire to Paris
The Meanderer crew—Corey, Amanda, and Colin—gathered at the gang plank as George collected us for the drive back to Paris. On a Saturday morning, the traffic was calm. That fact and the conversation with George made the trip go quickly. Midmorning, we were delivered back to the Sofitel Hotel. Leaving the Meanderer after a idyllic week aboard was not a departure of regret but a fond farewell to a memorable journey on the Briare Canal.
Again, all credit and thanks for this beautiful diary goes to Kathryn H. Hug