Swallows swirl around the violet sky as the sun sets, a trio of trees are reflected in the calm waters of the canal. The air is still, scented with freshly cut hay. Ice jingles in glasses as we sip cocktails and chat quietly, absorbed in the tranquil scene, the cares of world far away. I am aboard MS Deborah, an elegant French barge, on a Loire Valley Waterways cruise with Great Rail Journeys.
Two days earlier Pat, a friend from college days, and I had joined 18 other passengers for a relaxing holiday drifting along the canals of the Loire Valley in Central France. My rail journey had started from Carnforth Station down to London St Pancras, where we met Tour Director, Madeline in the Great Rail office. She gave us our tickets and explained how to get through International check-in for the Eurostar; our little adventure was about to begin. Here are some Journal Highlights of the first part of our Loire Waterways Cruise from Briare to Menetreol-sous-Sancerre.
Day 1 – London to the Loire Valley – Briare via Paris
Feeling excited as we find our seats on the Eurostar; there’s something very satisfying about travelling by train to the Continent. Far less stressful than airline travel and we’re able to move about, meet a few other passengers. Madeline makes sure everyone is settled in and gives us details of the journey to Briare, where we will be joining our canal barge. Trot through the back exit of Gare du Nord in Paris to board our coach. Zoom down the motorway through the French countryside, a quick comfort stop and then arrive at our beautiful blue barge, MS Deborah.
Captain Camille and his crew welcome us aboard and we say farewell to Madeline, who’ll join us again at the end of our week. Cruise Director Katalin makes us welcome with drinks and canapes, she introduces us to each other and then we unpack in our cosy cabin. Pleased to find a good-size shower, decent amount of cupboards and storage space – I don’t travel light!
Dinner is delicious. Divine tomato and mozzarella salad, meltingly soft casserole of rabbit and a poached pear, all served by our waitress Wicky, with excellent Le Chardonnay white and Samuur Champigny Val de Loire red wine. All meals and most drinks are included in this trip and we’ll make the most of this culinary odyssey.
Day 2 – Briare to Léré
Buffet-style breakfast with fried egg option then off to see pretty Briare, in the Loiret Department of Central France, on a little motorised train. Slightly overcast but warm. Some passengers choose to stay aboard Deborah; the day trips are all optional. We visit the Musée des Deux Marines et du Pont Canal, where we learn about the building of the Briare Aquaduct,opened in 1896, and the watery traditions of this region.
Welcome cocktail back on board MS Deborah; each day different – today’s is Green Lagoon. Lunch is a four-course affair but very light, served with French wines. Cucumber and apple salad with raspberry dressing, salmon kebab for main followed Roquefort and Valençay cheeses. Each day we have different cheeses; Katrine tells us about them with help of a map to show which region they come from. (Can’t remember what dessert is, but sure it was delicious!)
Captain Camille sets sail along the Briare Canal to the Briare Aquaduct, at 662m the second longest in the world. Carefully navigate along its VERY narrow waters, past impressive towers and waving onlookers. We cross the River Loire, France’s longest river and not navigable in its lower reaches due to shallow waters. We pass onto the Canal Latéral à la Loire which runs parallel to the main river, and settle down to watch the pastoral scenery drift by …
The barge is really well-equipped with everything we need for total relaxation in comfortable luxury. There’s a large lounge with ample seating for all and a bar which serves coffee, tea, soft drinks and alcohol. Outside, at the rear of the boat are cafe-style tables with parasols and a jacuzzi, with a plastic duck (quirky thermometer) bobbing crazily around the warm water. Most days and some evenings there will be at least one passenger using it. On top of the barge there are sun-loungers, which can be used when the boat is moored; they have to be taken down when it’s moving as the bridges are low. We’d arrived in slightly overcast weather but it gets better each day and by the end of the week it is very hot and sunny, so we spend most afternoons outside.
A few of us decide to walk between locks. Unlike the UK, the canalside paths are often untended and it becomes quite an adventure as we step tentatively through the undergrowth and around boggy bits. We finally arrive at Léré, a small village in the heart of farming country, tie up beside the tow path and have another delicious dinner. All this relaxation is quite tiring and most of us retire fairly early. Tomorrow we are off to to explore one of the most famous wine regions in France.
Day 3 Sancerre and La Brissauderie Goat Farm
A coach trip through fertile fields of gold. It’s harvest time early here, due to an exceptionally hot summer. Giant walls and enormous rolls of wheat stalks adorn the fields. These gradually morph into row upon row of vines, lining gentle slopes, lofty chateaux glimpsed through wooded copses.
Ancient Sancerre sits on top of the highest hill, its strategic position making it one of the most significant towns in this part of the Loire Valley. Our guide tell us about the 12thC castle and powerful families that ruled this region. “Sancerre was also the site of the infamous Siege of Sancerre (1572–1573) during the Wars of Religion where the Huguenot population held out for nearly eight months against the Catholic forces of the king.” In the 17thC much of the castle (apart from one tower) and old town was destroyed, resulting in a decline in prosperity. However, there is still a lot of character here and we thoroughly enjoy wandering round its little streets. Look out for La Lichou Patisserie; sells divine nougat, a local speciality and other tasty treats.
It’s now a thriving community in the heart of the Sancerre wine region. Originally known for red wine from the Pinot Noir grape, the area was devastated by phylloxera in the late 19th century and the vineyards replanted with Sauvignon blanc vines. It produces excellent white wines, and also some reds and rose.
Our next stop is Elevage de la Brissauderie, a farm breeding goats and producing Crottins de Chavignol, a very popular goats cheese. The goats all have names, each year beginning with a different letter, and they’re very friendly. We see how the cheese is made and then get to try three types, from very young (2-3 weeks) to mature (2-3 months), along with some crisp dry Sancerre white wine. I’m not a big fan of goats cheese but I love this and buy lots, along with a lovely wooden box to keep it in.
We return to the Deborah in time for cocktails (the Tango) and lunch, before setting off to our next stop, Montreuil-sous-Sancerre, a winegrowing and farming village situated by the banks of the rivers Vauvise and Loire and the Loire Lateral Canal. Pat and I go for a walk round the village, which seems to have more cats than people.
We walk up to the viaduct and look out over village and surrounding countryside, overflowing with vineyards, mellow in the setting sun. At dinner that night we have a BBQ on deck and enjoy steak, checken, a couple of bottles of Puilly Fume and, of course, some excellent goats’ cheese!
Over the coming days we’ll taste some of the best wines in France, visit a magnificent Cluniac Priory, discover an inspiring abbey, wander round a unique garden and walk over the Allier River on the Pont du Canal near Nevers, our final stop on the Canal Latéral à la Loire. Read all about that in my next article on the Loire Waterways – Sancerre to Nevers.
Great Rail Journeys – The Loire Valley Waterways
I went on this trip courtesy of Great Rail Journeys. Many thanks to all the crew of MS Deborah for their courtesy and friendly service, and to Pat for beng such great company. Click The Loire Valley Waterways to find out more about this 7-day cruise, including 2019 prices and departure dates. All holidays leave on Eurostar from London St Pancras and include 6 nights aboard the MS Deborah, 17 meals, all-inclusive selection of drinks and all excursions.
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