Barges in France take passengers on trip to the past

September 05, 1993|By Jim Barlow | Jim Barlow,Houston Chronicle

A barge trip down the canals and rivers of France is a visit to a pre-Napoleon pace -- with air conditioning, electric heat and the very faint sound of the chugging diesel.

We were on the Canal de Bourgogne, started in 1774 and completed in 1793.

In those days, countries built canals to move freight and, to a lesser extent, passengers. Roads were terrible and frequently impassable when the rains came. But canal boats, pulled by teams of animals, moved regardless of the weather. First steam and then the internal combustion engine made the canal boats more efficient, but they eventually spawned trains and trucks, which took most of the commercial business from the canals.

In the 1970s, however, a small band of pleasure-boat owners rediscovered the canals of Europe and lobbied governments to keep them repaired. A wave of recreational boating -- including luxury barging -- followed.

These days, the Canal de Bourgogne is a tourist canal through one of the premier wine provinces of France. Our barge, the Alouette, was typical. The nearly 100-foot-long vessel transported wood and grain from 1902 to 1985, when its cargo space was turned into rooms for six passengers and the crew.

six nights and seven days aboard the Alouette, we covered just 82 miles. We tied up around 6 each night, often near a village perfect for exploration. But the object is not to get anywhere. It's the trip itself.

What's the downside? The expense. The six of us collectively paid $19,500. That didn't include airfare, the round-trip train ride from Paris, or the standard 5 percent of the price that went for tips to our crew. It did include everything we ate or drank aboard and entrance fees to any place we wanted to see.

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