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Slow Travel by barge cruise on the Rhone Canal

Pink coloured sea of Aigues Mortes, southern France

Janine Marsh explores lagoons and canals and falls head over heels for barge travel…

The French have a word for those who like to stroll without a goal other than to enjoy the adventure and unexpected joys and beauty encountered en route – to flâner. I’m not sure there is a word for wandering by barge, but I can tell you that the experience of travelling slowly on a CroisiEurope cruise on the Rhone Canal in the sun-kissed south of France is one you’ll never forget

During my trip I would step back in time some 2,500 years. Encounter extraordinary wildlife. Visit some of the most beautiful towns and villages I’ve ever seen. Make new friends, and explore the heritage, culture, gastronomy and wine of southern France. And I, like the rest of the guests on CroisiEurope’s MS Anne Marie barge, would be thoroughly spoiled, utterly pampered and totally enthralled by the entire experience.

Barging on an extraordinary waterway

Barge on the Rhone Canal at sunset

Sète was the starting point for our journey. A sunny, vibrant city that sits between the Mediterranean Sea and the Etang de Thau, a biodiverse saltwater lagoon (you can read more about Sète and the local area on page 80). Fresh fish is sold along the quays and oyster tasting is de rigeur – washed down with a glass of local Picpoul, a very old French wine, made in the Languedoc for at least 400 years. There’s even a museum dedicated to oysters and those who fish for them, reached by a mulberry tree lined avenue that’s brimming with cafes and bistros, overlooking the sparkling, azure blue lagoon.

By the end of the first night on board, all the guests were chatting as if friends, rather than strangers who met just a few hours before. A mix of Swiss, American, British, Norwegian, Belgian and French, though everyone spoke English including the staff who are brilliant, consummate professionals. The bedrooms are comfy, charming and air conditioned. The food and wine is amazing; bikes are provided and there’s a hot tub on deck.

A channel carved from the sea

Our journey from Sète to Arles took us along the famous Canal du Rhône. This perfectly tranquil waterway runs through the middle of a lagoon. It looks like a channel carved from the sea. It’s extraordinary, beautiful, otherworldly even. At times we were followed by shoals of fish sparkling in the crystal clear blue green water and watched by flocks of pale pink flamingos. Cyclists passed by on the paths that run alongside the canal peppered with herbs. And plants that thrive in the salty sea air and hot sun whose scent carries onto the deck.

Oysters cling to the walls and seabirds float on the calm surface waiting for fish to pop up. Relaxing on deck with a book, watching the wildlife, listening to the gentle lapping of the water and stopping at some of the most beautiful and fascinating places in southern France – well it doesn’t get much better.

Brutal but brilliant

People playing in the sea at Palavas les Flots, southern France

At Palavas-les-Flots we joined holiday makers and locals for a dip in the Med. It’s an unusual town, established as a customs fort and a fishing village late in the 18th century. Its fortunes changed in the 1950s when President Charles de Gaulle decreed holidays should be available for all people in France. Then he had several purpose-built resorts created along the south coast – including here.

“Brutalism” is what they call the architectural style of the concrete apartment blocks that were rather hurriedly slung up. But no one cares, you don’t come here to sit indoors. The silky soft sandy beaches are endless, and the water is warm. A woman walked along the beach selling sticky, sweet donuts like something out of a 1960s French film and I half expected Brigitte Bardot to come trotting along.

Sunbathers were stretched out in rows. One of the Norwegian ladies from the barge whispered to me “I’m an undertaker and looking at all these bodies lying on the beach makes me want to tie a label to their toes” which made all of us laugh out loud. Old folk were sat sensibly under colourful parasols. The sea was full of people swimming and splashing. Seagulls hovered overhead ready to swoop on anything that looked like it might taste good. Little kids made sandcastles. It is easy to see why this place is popular despite the brutalist blocks.

The Camargue


Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the capital of the Camargue. It’s the highest point in the area at just 3m above sea level. 80% of the land is less than 1m above sea level and so lots of dikes and dams have been built to prevent flooding and the salt water of the Rhône flows into the canals that cross the land. It’s a fertile area. Rice is grown in the marshy lands which helps to combat the salinity in the soil. This in turn helps the vineyards to flourish. Everywhere there are vast fields of sunflowers, grain and vegetables.

The town of Saintes-Maries is all about the yellow-stone church in the centre in which resides a famous statue. Legend has it that some disciples of Jesus, including Mary Jacobi and Mary Salome and a servant called Sarah, fled Palestine in a boat and landed on the beach here. They are said to have been buried in the crypt. The town has since become a place of pilgrimage for gypsies whose patron saint is Sarah. The statue of her in the crypt is covered in sparkly cloaks placed there by worshippers. It’s a festive and very colourful place.

We stopped off at a ranch nearby to meet some of the famous black bulls and white horses of the Camargue and the guardians, like French cowboys and cowgirls, who herd them. Read more about the Camargue here. Along the drive, flamingos, which live here year-round, were a common sight paddling in the shallow water of canals that run beside the roads. It’s a sight that lifts your soul.

A bucket list of southern France

Winding cobbled street in Aigues Mortes

This trip ticked off several bucket list destinations for me. The first being Aigues-Mortes. We moored up under the shade of a tree, a stone’s throw from the great arched entrance to the walled city. Medieval Aigues-Mortes is surrounded by 11m high ramparts and dominated by the 33m high Tour de Constance. From the tower you can spot Nimes – 40 km away. The town is criss crossed by winding cobbled streets lined with boutiques, restaurants and ancient houses.

Piles of salt harvested from the pink sea of Aigues Mortes

It was built in 1240 on the orders of Louis IX. A strange choice you might think since its name literally translates to “dead waters”, derived from the tidal salt flats on which the town sits. But it was an ideal position for trade in the south of France. It’s a perfectly preserved, pickled in the past Provençal town, with 10 gates and 14 towers. And in its heyday, it was a major port, though it’s now marooned three miles from the sea.

The flower-filled streets spread out around a central plane tree filled square. In the middle is a statue of King Louis atop a fountain in which children play. Not only is it a beautiful little town, it’s on the edge of the famous pink salt lakes which feature the largest colony of flamingos in Europe.

An extraordinary pink sea

We hopped aboard a little tourist train for a guided tour of the lakes and the salt museum. The sight of miles and miles of pink sea and in the background, shimmering like a mirage, the walled town of Aigues Mortes is astounding. You almost feel as if you’re on another planet. Mountains of salt are harvested here, just as it has been since the days of antiquity.

It’s a tall order to live up to that visit. But Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, another bucket lister for me, stepped up to the plate. Officially one of the prettiest villages in France, it is tranquil even in peak summer months as it’s rather off the beaten track. Read more about Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert here.

Dazzling Arles

Roman arena of Arles

And finally, another bucket list destination – Arles. The ancient city is nothing short of magnificent. Romans remains, ancient churches, winding cobbled streets, art galleries, street theatre, incredible restaurants. Van Gogh’s vision of Arles is evident. The scenes he painted here including Café Terrace at Night and Starry Night Over the Rhône, are marked with information boards in the town. And the hospital where he was admitted after cutting off his ear is now a lively and bustling cultural hub, lined with small boutiques and restaurants set around a colourful inner courtyard. I’d been told that everyone who sees Arles falls in love with it – and I did too.

(Read more about Arles here)

Chef sets light to Baked Alaska cake!

On our last night, as the sun set over Arles, its golden rays sparkling on the water, a singer/guitarist arrived to perform for us on deck. His voice carried across the water and passers-by stopped to sit and listen to the impromptu concert. I couldn’t help but feel what a privilege it was to be there. It was more than a holiday. I made friends. Explored the most beautiful corners of France. And was thoroughly spoiled by Hans, the super host, and his daily cocktails, plus the chef’s fabulous meals.

Find out more and book your trip at: crosieurope.co.uk

This article was first published in The Good Life France Magazine

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