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Make mine Champagne

December 7, 2012

River cruising is on a roll, no doubt about that, with armadas of elongated vessels like big bateaux mouches chugging up and down the Rhine, Danube and indeed the Yangtze.  “Haven’t seen an iceberg yet,” one passenger told me.

But sharing the bar with jolly lads in lederhosen in not for everyone, such as the small group I joined on a French Country Waterways

Dry land is never far away

Dry land is never far away

barge cruise in the Champagne region of France. We were just 12, and with all drinks and wine included, there was every incentive to be in good cheer from the moment we boarded Adrienne, at  Chalons-en-Champagne, no less.

Champagne and canapés were offered by the smartly-dressed young crew, all fluent in English. The captain was French and the chef Italian, and typical of the professionalism of the wait staff was Claire, who runs upmarket ski chalets in the winter.

The lower deck has six double bedrooms with everything a pleasing combination of 18th century French manoir and modern functionality – such as the efficient air conditioning.

Main deck hosts an elegant lounge, dining room and bar. The galley is aft while forward is a partly-covered deck with tables and chairs. This makes a wonderful platform to sit and watch France go by. Which is what some do, although passing through locks makes it easy to step ashore and walk or bike to the next stop, and barging enthusiasts will say this is the difference between canal and river cruising.

Passengers are mostly American, 50-plus, wealthy and well-traveled (minimum age is 18).  One Florida resident was on his third cruise, while another was there because a colleague in his golf club “who has been everywhere, said it was the best vacation he’s ever had.”

It’s not hard to enjoy the Champagne region, what with the legendary wine and food,  and the area is also rich in history, from the Romans to battlefields of two world wars.

Each day there was an excursion , the first being to Reims, famous (with Epernay) as a centre for Champagne, and also for its magnificent cathedral, where 25 French kings have been crowned. Our bus driver was also a well-informed, multi-lingual guide, although we also had a chance to research on Adrienne’s library and our iPads, thanks to the wifi on board (almost everyone had an iPad).

The next day our visit was to the charming little town of Ludes, where we went deep into the cellars of the Champagne house Ployez-Jacquemart. This small, family-owned company also provided a tasting of a vintage Champagne.

Epernay was next, and here we visited the grand cellars of Moet & Chandon, ending up in a salon such as you would find in a top hotel, and shared two bottles of a vintage Dom Perignon.

In the meantime the barge had been on the move, and by the fourth day it had joined the River Marne (due to work on the canal) and was tied up at the town of Chateau-Thierry,  home to the 17th writer Jean de la Fontaine, whose celebrated fables include the goose that laid the golden eggs. Madame de Sevigne said reading Fontaine was like eating strawberries.

Final excursion was to a Brie cheesemaker, where our tasting came with a good 2009 Bordeaux wine, quite appropriate for a week that was mostly about gastronomy, for we had been eating and drinking well on Adrienne. Each lunch and dinner we had three cheese and two wines, many of them grand crus.

Tables were beautifully set, the service was perfect, but the portions were small, something which at least one of the Americans commented on favorably. In fact when I got home I found I had not put on any weight, not the usual post-cruise experience.

One evening we were taken to the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Crayeres in Reims for a classical meal, while every night on the Adrienne began with a bottle of good Champagne on the bar.

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