the Canal de la Marne in Alsace-Lorraine
along lets you
delve into the
character of the
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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