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A perfect break aboard Enchanté in France

A perfect break aboard Enchanté in France ( As perfect days go, they don’t come much better than gliding along a canal in the south of France and being serenaded by a raven-headed beauty with the voice of a diva. She, whoever she was, suddenly appeared from a window of a boat moored on the Canal du Midi and gave a rousing rendition of the classic “O Sole Mio."

And then the diva was gone as quickly as she appeared. It was the talking point for days as our barge – Enchante – gently cruised along the plane tree-lined canal, barely raising a ripple.

Our journey began at Beziers, where Enchante queued for her turn to tackle the seven locks of Fonseranes, considered a remarkable technical feat at the time and conceived by a French baron, Pierre-Paul Riquet. A passionate man, he amassed a fortune collecting taxes, which he totally invested in the realization of his dream and biggest adventure of his life - building the Canal du Midi. It was constructed during the reign of Louis X1V and put into service in 1681.

The canal - part of a waterway system linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean – was declared a World Heritage site in 1996 and rates alongside France’s great monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Popes’ Palaces in Avignon.

Over the past few years, the growth of inland waterway tourism in France – and elsewhere in Europe – has been astonishingly rapid. The cruiser/barge hire companies that have been set up over the entire length of the Canal du Midi have exploited this to the fullest. The 10,000 passages a year through the Fonseranes locks show the extent of this unprecedented canal tourism.

Boat aficionados are attracted by the sun, picturesque scenery, and fine food – washed down (in moderation, of course) with the splendid wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon vineyards.

One of the first stops for Enchante – meaning “pleased to meet you" – is a visit to a winery between Beziers and Capestang, which has been owned by the same family for more than 400 years. It was here we learned that white wine is out of favor and that Rose is in big demand and has always been in vogue in the south of France.

Husband and wife team, Roger and Louisa Gronow, downsized their home in France to buy Enchante – the largest and newest barge now operating on the plane-tree lined Canal du Midi – the busiest inland waterway in France.

After buying the barge for 65,000 euros, the couple spent a further 500,000 euros on renovations in Belgium, where Enchante was built in 1958 as a freight carrier. The refit took a year, as more than nine meters had to be cut out of the middle of the barge so she would slip through canal locks, particularly those along the Canal du Midi.

Since her maiden voyage on the Canal du Midi in August 2009, Enchante has become a major attraction for locals and tourists alike, particularly when she squeezes under narrow bridges leaving onlookers gasping as often there are just millimeters separating the roof and sides of the barge. But skipper Roger is a dab hand at maneuvering the barge through tight situations, having spent a number of years – progressing from deck hand to captain – on vessels operating on French canals.

Enchante has four air-conditioned double en-suite cabins, sun deck with large spa tub, and spacious salon with demonstration kitchen, open bar, computer, and DVD/TV. As for the onboard gastronomy, an on-board chef serves up some delightful gourmet meals – from the cassoulet of Castelnaudary to the Sete-style mussels, you will go from one discovery to another.

For the more adventurous who don’t want to go on daily guided tours in a mini bus, they can collect an 18-speed touring bike from the barge and ride along the canal towpath – a thriving refuge and wildlife corridor for a range of animals and plants. The 240-kilometer towpath links Toulouse in the Haute Garonne with Sete on the Mediterranean coast and passes through some of France’s most beautiful and historic countryside.

Highlights of the six-day (Sunday-Saturday) cruise from Beziers to Le Somail include:

- The cathedral of St. Nazair in Beziers with its fortified 14th century western façade and the amazing Baroque décor around the altar with its columns and statues.

- Hanging overboard and watching Enchante as she gradually moves from the bottom to the top of the Fonseranes seven lock flight at Beziers before continuing along the Canal du Midi to the world’s oldest canal tunnel at Malpas.

- The ancient city of Narbonne - which became strategically important for the Roman Empire - was the crossroads between the Via Domitia and the Via Aquitinia. The Via Domitia linked Rome with the Iberian Peninsula. Hannibal led his army (including his elephants) along this road to invade Rome. In 1997, the remains of the road built in 120 BC were discovered outside the in the city center.

- Exploring Minerve, a 12th century hill-top fort, towering over the gorges of two rivers that cut through the vast, arid plateau. Listed as one of France’s most beautiful villages, the dozens of caves that were once inhabited and the many dolmens (tombs) erected in the area are proof of very ancient occupation.

- The awesome World Heritage-listed city of Carcassonne. Perched on a hill-top and dating back to the Gallo-Roman era, it’s the most complete medieval fortified city in existence today. With its 52 watchtowers, portcullis, and mind-boggling repertoire of defenses, it resisted many armies that tried to storm it.

- The peaceful hamlet of Le Somail, which has retained its humpback bridge flanked by a chapel and an inn dating back to 1773. It also boasts a Musee de la Chapellerie (head-dress museum) – hats and dresses from all over the world from 1885 to the present.

- The most eye-catching moment – the mystery diva who captured the hearts of everyone onboard Enchante and those who were in hearing distance for her impromptu performance.

John Newton arranged his trip aboard Enchanté with Outdoor Travel of Bright, Australia.

Promotional rates for a cruise aboard Enchanté in 2010 are €3,885 per person sharing a double cabin. Reduced rates are also available for an exclusive charter of the hotel barge.

For more details and prices, call European Waterways on +44 (0) 1784 482439 or visit .

Chris Gant Marketing & PR Manager European Waterways Ltd. 35 Wharf Road, Wraysbury, Middlesex TW19 5JQ, England UK Tel: 44 (0)1784 482 439 UK Fax: 44 (0)1784 483 072 USA Toll Free Tel: 1-800-394-8630 CANADA Toll Free Tel: 1-888-342-1917 AUSTRALIA Toll Free Tel: 1-800-771278

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