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Canal Zones : Sampling Scenery, Grand Cuisine and History on Three European Waterways : France's Champagne Country


CHATEAU-THIERRY, France — Grapes to the left of us, grapes to the right of us.

And straight ahead, a narrow stretch of water with a surface smooth as glass, bordered by bright foliage and dimpled with sunlight.

The barge Linquenda, all 112 feet of it, glided solidly and slowly down the river, its massive hulk of yellow and black metal trailing a plume of exhaust, its nose upturned, its middle fat and wide and low in the water, its stern capped with a little wooden wheelhouse.

To the fishermen who camped by the water's edge with their lines lazily cast, the Linquenda was just another barge passing by. Freighter barges are commonplace on this winding section of the Marne River, lugging their cargoes from Germany or Belgium or the Netherlands across the Continent. The fishermen could not have cared less that the Linquenda was hauling people instead of coal or petrol. Mostly they dozed on the riverbank because here in champagne country, fishing is not a way to make a living but an excuse to take a nap or sit in the sun.

The 13 vacationing passengers aboard the Linquenda last fall--six American couples and I--were gathered on the sun deck in midafternoon. We read or snapped pictures of the stunning colors of the vineyards or snoozed on the Astroturf-covered deck. Every so often a fast train clacked past. Sometimes a poodle barked when we passed a town, or when a fighter jet on maneuvers rocketed overhead.

It was a peaceful time of the day, still too early to think about dinner, nearly time for tea and biscuits. Lunch a couple of hours earlier--I forget if lunch that day was cheese souffles or salmon--and the accompanying wine had made us mellow. The big concern of the day was our next destination: At sunset we were to arrive at Damery, a sleepy town just west of Epernay, which, along with Ay and Reims, is one of Champagne's "capital" cities.

Once the Linquenda tied up at a dock, there would be just enough light for a bike ride into town--the barge's three-speed bike was missing two speeds, but it was serviceable--before cocktails.

Then there would be dinner, conversation, perhaps a round of Trivial Pursuit, and early to bed as the Linquenda rocked us to sleep.

A barge cruise on the waterways of Europe is life in the finesse lane. Uttering the word aerobics is forbidden. Not a casino to be found. Ditto for TVs, radios or phones. No health clubs. No bingo. No discos, no dance contests. But if your definition of civilization is three fine meals a day, a modicum of pampering, a deck chair in the sun and the daily option to tour a war memorial or a cathedral or sip some vintage champagne at a tasting in Moet & Chandon's cellars, a week on the Champagne waterways is civilized indeed.

There are dozens of companies that operate European canal barge hotels during the season, which is generally from April through October. Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace-Lorraine and Provence in the south of France are the most popular destinations. Champagne is a relatively new routing for the Linquenda's Floating Through Europe company, but it has been a successful draw and has been offered again for this season, said Jennifer Ogilvie, president of the 15-year-old New York-based company.

Barging in France is not bargain cruising: $2,000 per person in a double cabin is a ballpark figure for a six- or seven-day trip, then add air fare and at least a night or two on both ends of the cruise. But figure that with most hotel-barge operators, all food, wine and excursions are included in the package price. From the time we were shuttled by minivan from the Paris Hilton to the Linquenda, until our return a week later, money was something you kept packed.

The eight cabins on the split-level Linquenda accommodated six doubles and two singles (the vacant second single on ours was appropriated by the chef). Because this is a cruise ship of sorts, space is spare. You don't pack much. Not because the cabins are closets--they're not--but because a good book, binoculars, a woolly sweater and a pair of sneakers are the major requirements. Sure, there's the end-of-the-week "gala" dinner--seven courses--but a jacket and tie or a dressy dress are strictly optional.

Peter Hugman was our captain. He was also our host, occasional tour guide and sometime van driver. Hugman, a Yorkshireman with an abominable French accent and a rather sarcastic bent to his sense of humor, had 12 years' experience on barges.

His domain was the Linquenda's pilot house, which was not off limits to passengers. Indeed, we were encouraged to visit and even take the wheel for a while. The route there was off the sun deck, through the dining salon, past the bar and into the galley. The galley smelled of fragrant onions and fresh bread, which was as it should be, because every morning chef Helen Folkner or our hostesses, Susan Grager and Nicole Mourguiat, drove to the local village patisserie for croissants and baguettes.

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