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Provence by barge offers taste of vermouth, wild horses

Email|Print| Text size + By Si Liberman
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2005

It's what the French call Le Train de Grande Vitesse (very fast train), or TGV for short. And there we were in plush reserved seats on one heading for a rendezvous with a canal barge for a week of slow cruising, sightseeing, and luxuriating with nine other passengers.

Just 3 1/2 hours after leaving Gare de Lyon station in Paris on the TGV, one of the world's fastest and quietest trains, my wife and I found ourselves 450 miles away in Montpellier, a city of 240,000 in Provence near the Mediterranean Sea. At speeds topping 150 miles an hour, we had whizzed by miles of flat farmland, greenery, and occasional cows and sheep -- no crossroads, billboards, or even towns.

Surprisingly, as it turned out, the most memorable part of the trip was our mini-lunch: a bottle of water and a shared croque monsieur, the traditional French melted cheese and ham sandwich usually available in bistros and bars. Carefully prepared by a concessionaire on the train's upper level who boasted he could speak seven languages, it was delicious -- more satisfying, in fact, than some of the gourmet meals that followed.

Our first mistake after debarking was taking a taxi from the Montpellier railroad station to the Holiday Inn Montpellier Metropole, which happened to be just across the street. A $10 faux pas. The second was not packing sufficient warm-weather clothes for mid-June temperatures in southern France that seemed stuck in the 90s and humid.

As directed by Abercrombie & Kent, the agency that booked our barge trip, we convened in the hotel lobby the next day to meet other passengers and be transported to L'Impressioniste, the 128-foot, 12-passenger barge that would be our home and mode of transportation for the next seven quiet, relaxing days. It was docked in a narrow canal partially obscured by overgrown weeds on both banks near Agde, a picturesque ancient city of 10,000 that shares a reputation with Marseilles as one of France's oldest municipalities.

The five smiling crew members introduced themselves as natives of Scotland, England, Canada, Belgium, and New Zealand. Gordy, the oldest, a middle-aged Scotsman, acted as spokesman for the crew and outlined the upcoming routine: buffet breakfast at 8, buffet lunch at noon, dinner at 8, and two-hour tours most days. There would be no night travel.

''Feel free to avail yourselves of wine, beer, hard liquor, or soft drinks and snacks on and in the cabinet and mini fridge," he said. ''And be careful, very careful, walking the plank getting off and on the vessel."

We were in the carpeted living room area, about 30-by-17 feet, with blue and beige accents, upholstered rose-colored chairs, and large drapery-framed windows. It extended into the dining section, which had a large rectangular table and 12 chairs. All meals were in the dining area except for one evening when we were driven by van into the walled city of Aigues-Mortes and ate in a local restaurant.

Outside at the front of the barge was a canvas-covered sitting area with a table and six cushioned chairs, a Jacuzzi, and a bank of bicycles that would be available later. Part of each day was spent in one of those chairs, chatting, taking in the sights (mostly vineyards and farmland), nibbling on goodies provided by crew members, waving to occupants of other boats, and trying to stay out of a blistering sun, as the barge made its way lazily from one historic town to another.

Our cabin was a tight squeeze, lacking room for our two normal-sized suitcases, which had to be stored with those of other guests in a separate room. Twin beds were positioned in the shape of an L, and there were two windows, a small closet, and a faux-marble bathroom with glass-enclosed shower. No clock, telephone, television, or radio. Luckily, the cabin was air conditioned, and its minimal space wasn't a problem because most of the time was spent outside, socializing, touring, and dining. In another tiny room with a couple of seats was a TV set with DVDs.

Each dinner, prepared by a Belgium-schooled chef in her 20s, was served with locally produced wines. Main courses included chicken, roast duck, pork, pasta, and desserts -- nothing really to write home about. Most memorable was a lunch of huge oysters in craggy shells topped with a delectable, warm cheese sauce and raw clams. That came a day after cruising by acres of stick-protruding oyster beds off the town of Bouziques.

All but one passenger, a 70-year-old Australian pathologist traveling alone, were Americans, who came from five states and varied backgrounds. Among them, a retired Chicago police officer with a million funny stories; a Los Angeles TV director and producer and his wife, a TV soap opera actress, who were unwinding from hectic schedules and observing their 25th wedding anniversary; and a retired teacher from Florida celebrating her 90th birthday as a guest of her 60-year-old Massachusetts daughter, Julie Frey of South Natick.

''She's too damn protective of me," the nonagenarian, Aline Cobe, confided at one point out of earshot of her daughter. To us all, she was Mom, often the center of attention, a small, well-coiffed, white-haired lady with an explosive laugh who sported fashionable outfits and unusual jewelry each day and refused to let the loss of her new hearing aid dampen her spirit and vacation. After a while, in fact, she seemed to hear better without it.

With the barge moored at the mouth of the River Herault and Gordy leading the way, we walked through the historic section of Agde, a Greek trading settlement in the 5th century BC, with a 12th century AD cathedral made of thick black volcanic rock.

The city may be even better known, we subsequently learned, for its proximity to Cap d'Agde, Europe's largest nudist beach that stretches for a mile along the Mediterranean coast. Gordy managed to steer clear of it during his two-hour tour, saving what he called ''a naked beach experience" for another day.

That day came later in the week on the outskirts of Sete, a Mediterranean fishing village and resort.

''You're welcome to go," Gordy said, and everyone did except Mom. A brief walk along a path from where the barge docked took us to a deserted side of the rocky nude beach. There wasn't a nudist in sight.

The sea was calm, and you could go out 50 yards or more and still be in water only waist deep. Before leaving the area the next day, several bathing-suit-clad shipmates returned for a pre-breakfast swim. One came back with a painful red blotch on her back, the result of a jellyfish sting that took a couple of days and various applied lotions to heal.

While on the Rhone canal sailing through Camargue National Park, we spotted several white wild horses, and four ambitious passengers took bicycles ashore and tried to keep pace with the barge for several miles.

Other days, with Gordy as guide, we toured the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes and viewed its preserved low houses from the town's high walls. We saw Arles, home of Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh before he entered an asylum, with its 20,000-seat Roman amphitheater, and the quaint fishing village of Marseillan, where we visited the 192-year-old Noilly Prat vermouth producing plant and sampled three of its fruity vintages. We went to Avignon, once regarded as the center of the Christian world, with a 14th-century fortress-like papal residence and walls 13 inches thick with 165-foot towers.

The trip ended there, with farewell passenger embraces, a 2 1/2-hour, 300-mile TGV ride back to Paris, and some cherished memories of new friends.

Si Liberman is a freelance writer in Florida.

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