Travel: France - Die of happiness on the barge hotel

This could be the setting for an Agatha Christie novel," said Jacky, her New York nasal tones rising with excitement. "That's right," said her friend Philus, even more enthused. "All the characters are here." And they were. There was Glenn from Seattle - the urbane Gregory Peck look-alike, Gladys the giggly grandmother from Baltimore, some serious, slow-talking Southern types, a US judge and his glamorous wife, two Irish women talking darkly about the death of the Princess of Wales and about 20 or so others, including one whisky sippin' ageing spinster who insisted on talking with her mouth full and calling me "Boy," even though I was a responsible 34-year-old with his own bank account. But surely none of them would commit a Cluedo-style Agatha Christie murder with the candlestick in the kitchen. Or more accurately, in the galley, for this was a barge we were on.

Then there was David. If anybody was going to be murdered, it would be him. Loud, eccentric, indeed egocentric, this 52-year-old self-styled "insultant" from Boston, sometime journalist, CIA informer and dance troupe manager, who took special pleasure in provoking argument with his fellow passengers, was prime victim material. Several people wanted to kill him by the end of the trip. But, of course, nobody did. After all, this was reality. And we were on holiday.

Jacky was speaking during our first night on the Anacoluthe, a barge- hotel for 50 passengers. We were at dinner, which like all the three-course lunches and four-course dinners to follow, were at a set time, with a set menu, but not set places. This meant that at each mealtime you could be sitting alongside different eating companions. Thus, by the end of the six-day trip, everybody was on first-name terms with each other.

This sense of closeness among the passengers was heightened by there being only 25 of us, instead of the 50 expected, because of a last-minute pull-out by a tour group from Florida. Not that we needed any more Floridians. They were the largest contingent, in fact apart from myself and the two Irish women, all were from the US.

Our converted oil-barge took us on a 130-kilometre journey north, along the Yonne and Seine rivers, from the town of Joigny in Burgundy to Monet's house and garden at Giverny in Normandy. Severin, our bubbly, French on- board tour guide, also showed us the sights of Paris during an evening cruise along the river Seine, and the 19th-century artists colony of Barbizon, the beautifully photogenic town of Moret-sur-Loing, the ancient city of Sens and the chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte.

In between these trips there was plenty of wooded, sweeping, meadowy countryside to look. And to cap it all there was a hot-air balloon ride. These sightseeing trips were half-day affairs, so for the rest of the time people could read a good book from the barge library (sadly, there were no Agatha Christies) or snooze in a sun chair on the open top deck. And then there was always the bar...

The Anacoluthe is one of eight hotel barges run by Continental Waterways, and, at 210 feet long, the largest. One of the two founders of the 30- year-old company was Englishman Richard Parsons, and many of the Anacoluthe's hardworking and friendly staff were from the British Isles. Thus, we had a curious situation where English and Irish staff smiled and said "bonjour" to the smiling American passengers as they arrived at the barge, who would in turn answer "bonsoir". Or the greetings would be exchanged the other way around, depending on who was the most confused about speaking in a foreign language. Fortunately, that was the first and last occasion on which native English-speakers spoke French to each other on this trip.

We started our trip on the Yonne River at Joigny, a quiet 13th-century town where the narrow cobbled streets wound their way up a steep hill to an imposing Gothic cathedral at the top. The houses were small and built with timber frames. It was strange to think that when they were built, this town was part of the independent Dukedom of Burgundy, a powerful ally of England, which also controlled much of France at the time. Today, the place appears as French as Paris.

We received a further reminder of Burgundy's independent past the following afternoon, when we visited Sens a few miles downstream. Here we were able to admire the coloured, diamond-patterned Flemish roof tiling of the cathedral. This was a throwback to the days when Burgundy's medieval empire included Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, as well as most of eastern France.

That morning, on the way to Sens, we cruised through rural Burgundy. This was a great way to appreciate the countryside. In cars, trains and coaches the sights fly by too fast to be enjoyed. Whereas, on a barge, you have time to look at the trees and the fields, and hear the sounds of the countryside.

But yet more stunning was to see Burgundy from a hot air balloon. The region is considered the ballooning centre of France, because its inland location and relative flatness mean the winds are gentle and the terrain such that flights are relatively easy.

At six o'clock the next morning, I and seven other nervous barge passengers were woken up and told that our drunken decision of the night before - to go ballooning - was about to be realised. We were whisked to the take-off site where Pierre, our pilot, was half-way through inflating the balloon. There was no turning back now. Balloon flights take place within an hour of sunrise or within two hours of sunset, because that is when the winds are at their calmest, he explained to his bleary-eyed "aeronautes". Then before we knew it, we were up, rising higher and higher, and floating gently westward, looking at our disappearing reflection in the Yonne River below. It felt eerie. Apart from the occasional roar of propane gas being burned off into the balloon above us by Pierre, the ascent was silent.

Dawn has a distorting effect on the sky at the best of times, but at 1,000 feet, it made me feel like I was heading into the stratosphere. Much of the sky remained indigo blue at its upper reaches, while it became orange and white nearer the ground. And I swear I could see the curvature of the earth on the horizon.

The early morning mist added another strange dimension. At the start much of the ground was lost from view. But then, in the near distance, we could see a village perched on a small hilltop, surrounded by what looked like a wispy sea of combed-out cotton-wool. We spent an hour drifting over fields, woods and villages, reaching a maximum height of 2,000 feet. When we landed, France Montgolfieres, the balloon company, rounded off our experience with the traditional "toast aux aeronautes", a breakfast of bucks fizz and croissants.

Later that day a coach took us to Fontainbleau and the 18th-century chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte, which was built by Fouquet, the wealthy finance minister to Louis XIV. Vaux-le-Vicomte was the first chateau to be built wholly out of stone, something of a wild extravagance then. Louis XIV was so jealous he had Fouquet thrown in jail. The Sun King then hired the same architects as Fouquet, and, of course, used plenty of stone to build his own dream palace - Versailles.

We made two further day trips before arriving in Paris. One to the village of Barbizon, home to countless 19th-century impressionist painters and to the writer Robert Louis-Stevenson, and the other, to the highly picturesque medieval town of Moret-sur-Loing, home to the English Impressionist Sisley. In Paris we moored alongside the Eiffel Tower for the night, but not before we cruised along the Seine River in the moonlight.

And on our final day, we cruised north into Normandy, to enjoy one of the highlights of the tour; a visit to the house and garden of that master Impressionist painter Monet. His two-and-a-half acre garden at Giverny was both colourful and tranquil, and his house extraordinary. Everything was preserved as it was when he lived there. In the dining room, everything from crockery and curtains to walls and tablecloths were yellow, and in the adjoining kitchen everything was blue.

By the time of the gala dinner on our final evening, nobody had been murdered and no inspector Poirot had been called to solve the crime. But, by then, a sneaking suspicion was growing that maybe the murder was going to be more subtle than we thought. Throughout the week we had been fed enough cholesterol to fill Lake Geneva. Cheese dishes with every meal, gluttonous puddings and piles of red meat.

Then it dawned on us - we were all the intended victims. It would be the Dutch chef with the third piece of full-fat Roquefort cheese in the dining room who would do it. Of course, nobody died, but I did put on half a stone and I am sure many others did too. If I go on a barge hotel trip again, I will take one where they provide bicycles to ride on the tow-paths, so I can work off the calories.

Fact File

There are numerous operators running barges, river cruises or barge-hotels around France.

For a genuine river cruise, try KD River Cruises (01372 742 033) which offers a river cruise from Burgundy to Provence. The price of (from) pounds 1,125 includes eight days full-board as well as flights from London and transfers. The boat can hold up to 104 passengers.

An upmarket small-boat operator is France Afloat (0171-704 0700) whose boats run from April to October. One week on the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy, running from Auxerre to Clamecy, costs pounds 1,120 per person sharing a twin cabin. This price includes all meals, alcoholic drinks and services of a guide, as well as transfers to and from Paris (though not transport to Paris from the UK). Each boat carries up to 14 passengers, attended by six crew.

For something less expensive, where you drive your own boat, try Blakes (tel: 01603 739456) which offers the hire of a two- person boat on canals from St Jean de Losne in Burgundy for pounds 690 in peak season (other boat sizes, for up to 10 or 12 people, are possible). There is no crew - you cook and cruise the boat and you need no special certificate - an hour of training is given on the first day. Boats contain beds and all kitchen facilities.

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