The river life


There's nothing like a classic Dutch passenger river barge. Long and wide, strong and steady, it inspires trust.

The barge lies low on the water and moves quickly and with a kind of tough grace, so that when you're travelling through the Rhone River Delta of southern France, you feel, to an unusual degree, part of the landscape.

I learned this on a six-night trip aboard L'Estello, a 29-metre barge operated by a formidable Dutch woman.

The trip, from the Languedoc-Roussillon region into Provence, began near the town of Aigues-Mortes. We would then travel northeast on the Canal du Rhone a Sete, the Petit Rhone and the Rhone River to Avignon, through the marshlands known as the Camargue. And each day we'd explore the town near which we were moored, or drive to a similarly historic sight some way inland.

Built in 1937 and converted for today's standard of comfort - with small, wood-panelled state rooms (port holes appear just above the water) with bathroom and shower, main-deck lounge flooded with natural light, well-appointed dining area, and bow deck for sitting - the barge is now a pleasurable if unusual mode of European cruising. It can carry as many as 20.

L'Estello owner-operator Cobie Lagerburg was born on a barge in her native Holland and lives year-round on one of two she owns. "For me it's natural," she says. "I will never live in a house. This is not my work - it's my life. Last night, when we sailed, I was so happy. We were moving."

Similarly, pilot Christian Duborg's relationship with riverboats goes back, he says in his native French, to "mon pere, mon grand-pere, mon arriere grand-pere." Working together, the two veterans manoeuvre L'Estello through challenging locks and powerful winds and currents.

The crew includes tour guide Nicholas, who ensures that a van that will take us to interior sights accompanies the barge along its route, and two young women who care for the cabins and help Lagerburg prepare the meals.

Good food and wine is a big part of barging. Breakfast includes breads and pastries that Nicholas has just collected from a nearby boulangerie. Lunch - all the dishes are prepared in the ship's galley - might be a chilled soup and several salads comprising Provencal farm produce.

Dinner begins with maybe a heaping plate of fresh asparagus with aioli, followed by a spicy meat dish or the local catch of the day. Lunch and dinner includes a cheese tray and dessert. Wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon, individually chosen by Lagerburg, are served at both meals.

From Aigues-Mortes, built in the 12th century by King Louis IX and still entirely walled and gated, we travelled east through the Camargue, a vast " Wetland of International Importance" and important migratory bird stopover. Big flocks of pink flamingo rested among the beds of reeds.

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