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Cruising the Canal de la Marne in Alsace-Lorraine

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Cruising serenely
  along lets you
  delve into the
  character of the
  areas you’re
  cruising through
  while at the same
  time it allows each
  individual on board
  to be as active —
  or as laid back —
  as they wish
...”

INLAND WATERWAY CRUISING OFFERS A NUMBER OF ADVANTAGES over a traditional 'centred' holiday in, say, an hotel. It's especially handy for those with children too young to go on sailing boats but whose parents enjoy messing about on the water.

Delving, literally, into the backwaters of deep countryside where the pace of life is so refreshingly unhurried, passing through great scenery and discovering the tranquillity of the canals is so different to everyday life at home. Rent a bike or two and the options open out as you can then explore further afield and, as we did, keep the car with you to seek out even more. The exercise to collect the car from your previous night's mooring is also a good way to offset the inevitable over-indulgence in local food and wine!

The bike rides always produce something of interest: on one trip, five storks were spotted but on another an ancient pre-WW2 army vehicle was spied in a barn. On investigation, we found a great private horde of military vehicles all from the period of 1936 to 1939; collected because it was a period of feverous technological development. Apparently this remarkable collection is not known to any museum.

There were numerous unique vehicles rarities but one particular rarity stood out — a tracked German motorcycle. Riding it took great skill and the whole scenario was reminiscent of the Great Escape film set.

Le Boat has the widest choice and the largest number of bases on offer anywhere, but we chose the small village of Hesse in the Alsace-Lorraine region simply because it is extremely well placed for sailing either east or west. The Alsace is a colourful region that not only looks, but sounds, German rather than French. Hardly surprising — it only reverted to France in 1918 after the end of end of the First World War.

From Hesse to Saverne to Nancy


In general, the scenery around the canal to the west of Hesse is undulating countryside; to the east there is forest up to the geranium-bedecked small town of Saverne, an un-pressured seven hours cruising from Hesse, after which there is a flattish area of countryside. The practical cruising limits of each direction for a week's cruise are probably Strasbourg to the east and to the west it is probably Nancy. On the way to Nancy you will find more undulating countryside than that near Strasbourg — however, both cities warrant a visit and certainly more than just a mention.

Strasbourg

Strasbourg — the EU's second home for its parliament — lifts itself well above the murky and, to some, the intriguing world of politics. It is also the capital of Alsace despite its cosmopolitan atmosphere; and with a 400,000 population, including nearly 50,000 students, the centre feels much smaller than one would expect. Perhaps it is the concentration of its many cultural attractions within the 'moated' Grand Île and, in particular within its mediaeval and former tanners' quarter — Petite France.

Not surprisingly, cosmopolitan Strasbourg provides a full house of beautiful designer shops together with a wide range of restaurants with prices to match. The students add the vibrant pulse whilst the throngs of tourists teeming in the old city centre provide the buzz. But despite the crowds, the sight of the central portal on the west side of the cathedral is more than well worthwhile.

Not so crowded, and frequented by locals, was a reasonably priced restaurant Le Thomasien in Petite France where we discovered Tarte Flambée. This savory tart is traditionally made by Alsatian bakers on the bottom of their bread ovens and the dough — a delicious and lighter variation of a pizza with a wafer-thin crust — can be used for pizzas, pissaladières or other savory open-faced pies.

You may decide not to take your boat into Petite France, the very core of the most spectacular waterways, with its super-abundance of timber-framed houses, shops and restaurants all decked in the glorious technicolor of geraniums. The price you pay for such a display is that it is commercialised at every turn. As a traveller on a boat you will nevertheless be very privileged; able to pass right through and all around the city centre.

Nancy

At the other end of the cruising grounds is Nancy. Decades ago, Nancy was described in dusty geography lessons as a centre of heavy industry with no mention of anything else that I can remember, except possibly its role as the capital city of Lorraine. Today, Nancy's image is totally changed and it makes a good foil to Strasbourg: a conspicuously different place and, to me, a more varied and elegant city, perhaps partly because it is less crowded.

The centrepiece of the town is the Duke of Lorraine's opulent indulgence of the mid-eighteenth century, neo-classical-styled main square. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and rightly deemed one of the best public spaces in Europe. Thanks to Nancy's other grand schemes, the town has a Parisian feel, one that is endorsed by the number of the cars scarred by minor dents. However, looking at the older buildings (dating back to Mediaeval times) there is, despite its northerly location, an echo of a Mediterranean style.

Nancy was home to a group of innovative and rebellious artists including the glass artist Emile Gallé, who established the Nancy School style of painting and was also leader in the Art Nouveau style of architecture. The helpful tourist office has a leaflet on the movement and, if you track down the houses, you will find so much more of interest — from Art Deco to ultra-modern designs.

Spoilt For Choice: Hesse, Sarrebourg

Our own cruise was spent largely to the east of Hesse; a small village but of interest to the boating fraternity as it has a good bakery and a little restaurant near to the canal. Provisions are available from a large supermarket in the small town of Sarrebourg just up the road. The biggest attraction there is a simple chapel but it has the largest stained glass window ever produced by Marc Chagall depicting 'The Tree of Life'. The longer you look at it, the more you see in it. Quite stunning. Also worth a visit in passing is a little bistro L'embuscade in the Rue des Halles. It looks a little bit of a 'spoon on a chain' cafe but nevertheless pleasantly surprised us with some very reasonably priced good food and service. (L'embuscade Bar-Restaurant: Tel 03 87 03 23 54).

In a few words, the canal has great appeal as throughout its length between Strasbourg and Nancy it cuts through truly magnificent, unspoilt countryside; copses, small fields with mature hedgerow trees, cattle, sheep and occasionally goats grazing plus cornfields — mainly maize for the livestock's winter feed. For us, it was a difficult choice, but as we travelled in early October when the forests were rapidly on the change and afire with colour from the autumn leaves — America eat your heart out — we travelled to the east.

There were fairytale Hansel and Gretel houses and villages nestling into the undulating hills, spotless cobbled streets, shining roof tiles and millions of geraniums hanging from the window ledges of beamed houses — the whole scene is magical. Everything has a sense of order more akin to the Teutonic character but softened by the French provincial overtones. The only sections without lovely views were the two tunnels — the longer of which was 2.3 kilometres, controlled by a one-way traffic system. They were like a more pleasant version of a TV commercial break; the opportunity to do something different but all a part of the overall experience.

Lutzelbourg

Regardless of the season there is much to see and admire after emerging back out of the tunnels into the daylight. The views are equally entrancing, but with changing vistas; from the relatively recently re-introduced lazy storks (reluctant to move but their flight is slow and graceful) to the ruins of the castle standing surrounded by harebells and other wild flowers, high above the enchanting village of Lutzelbourg.

Saverne

From here the canal threaded through to the small town of Saverne where we followed the advice of several guidebooks and patronised the La Taverne de Katz — had they really eaten there? I think not. We would have been far better off at the recommended Le Staeffele. (La Staeffele: Tel 03 88 91 63 94).

Lupstein, Hochfelden, Marmoutier

There are a number of old and delightful villages close to the canal, most of which have something of interest. In particular, Lupstein, one of the smaller ones, had numerous enclosed farmyards all cheek-by-jowl where one could catch the occasional glimpse of glorious profusions of flowers amongst the farm machinery. Another larger village, Hochfelden, home to an ancient brewery, was also notable for the number of florists and floral displays around the village. One notably beautiful village that is a 'must see' is Marmoutier — if only to visit the Poterie Ernenwein and buy ceramics or a delightful little traditional pottery figurine.

Canal Cruising: Le Boat's Elegance

Elegance, our boat, could have been described as the 'Chateau' of inland waterway boats as the space abroad was so expansive within her 43 feet length and 13.5 feet beam. There were three en-suite cabins aboard with the option of steering positions either inside or on the flybridge. I preferred the higher vantage point as one could judge widths and distances far better. One omission that should be duly noted: why no provision for a plate or the even more important glass for the helmsman? Still, we had no spillages.

Despite her size, Elegance proved easy to handle as the bow thruster is effectively the 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card. Slightly misjudged the angle of approach to the quay or lock? Just a dab on the appropriate bow thruster's toggle switch and you can fine hone your nautical manoeuvring to a 'T'. Without bow thrusters, I would question the suitability of vessels of this size for a total novice, but using a little common sense goes a long way to make a safe and relaxed cruise.

On average, the locks have a relatively shallow lift movement and, with one notable exception, are automatic. That is 'automatic' in the same way that Juke Boxes were automatic, ie; a little bit hit-and-miss, but commendably they do not stop — not even for Sunday lunch. We missed the interaction with the lock-keepers as that has all been a part of being absorbed into the way of life along the canals.

However, much on-going work is carried out on the canal, from mowing the banks to building expensive bridges. The people who live in the lock houses are mainly those who tend the canal; when we met them they were helpful and cheerful as they assisted boats on their way — they, too, obviously enjoy the interaction.

Without exception there was no drama, neither in boat handling terms nor in actually passing through locks; but there was great drama visually with the first lock encountered — the Inclined Plane at Arzvillier. This massive construction is one of Europe's great inland waterway features and was built to bypass a 'staircase' of seventeen locks taking some eight hours to traverse. The new lift carries boats up a slope more akin to a funicular railway but without the cogs, mostly three at a time up and down a more than impressive 44m (almost 150 feet) in a counter-balanced caisson which weighs 850 tons.

The statistics and sight are more than impressive and, as there was no queuing, we passed through in a matter of minutes without any fuss. The only issue was that it was a rather tight squeeze — thankfully the attendant judged it perfectly. Smooth efficiency does not always make a good story, even with such an impressive and significant engineering achievement.

We met few boats en route and when all the boats are cruising in high season there may well be some queuing at locks. That said, as there are only a handful of boatyards the problem must surely be far less than on some of the other more commercialised canals.

Route Des Vins d'Alsace: Vosges and Champagne Areas

It was decided to extend our stay in France, adding a couple of days to our week's cruise in order to explore the Vosges and the Champagne area. The former is very rural with a range of relatively low mountains that run north to south — the southern areas of which we had very much enjoyed on a previous trip to the area.

This time we wanted to visit a very small section of the long ribbon of over one hundred wine making villages between Marlenheim and Thann known as the Route Des Vins d'Alsace. We also wanted to clear up a few myths about champagne, so stopped off to seek out the smaller and, for us, the more interesting producers. As it turns out, there was so much of interest that we will have to follow it up later with a separate feature.

Norfolk Line Ferry: Dover-Dunkerque

Once again, our trip started and finished with the efficient and comfortable Norfolk line, which now has three modern ships that make up to twenty-four sailings a day from Dover to Dunkerque. The striking and spacious modern interiors ensure you have a relaxing journey and, should you choose to upgrade to the VIP lounge, extras such as complimentary refreshments, newspaper and internet access are available. You also get priority loading and discharge included in the upgraded price.

Food & Wine


Alsace is not only different in its architecture but also in its divergent cuisine. The following specialities are well worth trying.

Assiette Alsacienne — slices of ham and sausage. Even better accompanied by a glass of one of the excellent local wines.

Choucroute — this is a hearty classic dish based on sauerkraut (savoury pickled cabbage) piled high with bacon, ham, sausage and pork. Warning: Do not order this unless you are feeling very hungry!

Coq au Vin — a chicken casserole but made with the local Riesling.

Macaroons de Boulay — delicious and crunchy.

Munster — a soft and rather pungent, but nevertheless delicious, unpasteurised cheese. Many of the locals enjoy it with a sprinkle of cumin or even raw cloves of garlic. The latter is not to be recommended as the next day your mouth may very well taste like 'the bottom of a parrot's cage'!

Of course, all the above may be partnered by some of the best local white wines going — Riesling, Gewürztraminer and, my personal favourite, Pinot Gris. Or, if you prefer, a local beer. Forget the prejudices to Rieslings built up from the 1970's cheap, over-sweet offerings; these are now sophisticated wines, full of flavour that can stand alongside other world class wines. — Bonnie and Tim Stevens