[Originally published Sunday, August 12, 2012] Today, we’re boarding European Waterways’ newest addition to its fleet, Panache, a 12-passenger luxury hotel barge that will take us along the Canal de la Marne au Rhin in France’s Alsace-Lorraine region. We’ll be barging through the forested Vosges Mountains, past colorful half-timbered houses, and the region’s rolling vineyards.
A Tale of Two Countries
Separated from Germany by the Rhine, the Alsace-Lorraine region of France features a blend of cultures, rich cities such as Strasbourg, which I cycled yesterday, and charming historic villages that embody a blend of both French and German traditions.
German influences abound in the architecture of the Alsatian villages and citadels along the border, in the local culinary specialties and excellent wines that we will surely taste and in the language and dialects spoken throughout the region. Meanwhile, the Lorraine’s historical capital of Nancy exudes 18th century architectural elegance and culinary delights like the famous quiche Lorraine.
Our Adventure: The Details
Our 6-night adventure will begin in Strasbourg. Historically German speaking, it has served as a crossroads between France and Germany for centuries, with strong essences of both cultures seen throughout its streets. We visited the Gothic pink sandstone Strasbourg Cathedral on the historic center island of Grand Île and the riverfront pedestrian area of La Petite France, with its timbered houses, shops, and cafes.
Later this week, we will visit Nancy, the intellectual capital of Lorraine and home of the Art Nouveau Movement. Nancy’s royal square, Place Stanislas, features gilded wrought-iron railings and lanterns that surround the classic 18th century French architectural monuments positioned within the square.
We’ll stop at a number of small villages to take in the classic French countryside, while experiencing the special local culture and history of each town. Saverne, the exiled seat of the Catholic Prince Bishops of Strasbourg, is home to the medieval hilltop castle of Chateau du Haut Barr. From here, we will get a good view of the Valley of Zorn and enjoy a gourmet lunch of regional specialities.
Panache will also take us to the hilltop village of La Petite Pierre, where the 12th century castle was “modernized” in the 1600’s by the famed military engineer, Marechal Vauban.
At the port of Hochfelden, we will indulge in excellent local beer at the Meteor Brewery, family owned since 1640 and the last of its kind in Alsace. Among the savory regional specialties served will be roasted duck à l’Alsacienne and sea bass with cucumber and smoked eel, and the entire experience will be complemented by an excellent selection of fine wines.
Other special moments include private tastings of the famous white wines of Grand Crus, an ascent up the spectacular, brilliantly engineered Arzviller boat elevator, and a candlelit brunch on deck as Panache passes through two mountain tunnels.
The cruise will also feature tours of one-of-a kind museums, including the Rene Lalique Collection, featuring 500 examples of Art Deco and Art Nouveau glassware, chandeliers, and designs of the Belle Epoque Era.
Panache, which will be our home for six days, features brass and mahogany finishes, and is equipped with a spacious sun-deck with heated spa pool, a professional, English-speaking crew of six, air-conditioned cabins, and bikes for exploring all that the region has to offer.
Haven’t Heard Of European Waterways?
European Waterways is Europe’s largest all-inclusive luxury hotel barging company, offering vacations in nine countries and carrying nearly 2,000 passengers a year. Founded nearly 40 years ago, the company designs, builds, owns and operates a private fleet of luxury barges with cruises in France, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. Pioneers in hotel barging, they were the first company to operate a hotel barge on the Upper Nivernais in Burgundy, and the “real” Loire Valley. They are also the only cruise company offering barge cruises in Scotland and in the Venetian lagoon and River Po valley, as well as the first company to offer an Avignon-to-Amsterdam 6-week trans-Europe cruise, a 1,000 mile journey along Western Europe’s inland waterways.
My Pre-Barge Hotel: Hilton Strasbourg
I got an exceptional rate at the Hilton Strasbourg, less than $80 per night. I stayed for for five days before the barge cruise. The Hilton is a bit dated but well maintained, the location is not in the old town, but easily accessible by Strasbourg’s excellent tram system (only three stops – 15 minutes away including the walk from the hotel; purchase tickets at the hotel or at the tram stops).
In the Executive Lounge at the Hilton, the hostess Jana is excellent. She speaks French to one couple, German to another and English to yet another, all within only a few minutes. How she keeps up with it, I don’t know, but it’s necessary here in this city that has changed hands between Germany and France over the past few centuries.
From the general manager Katharina Schlaipfer to Bob the concierge, the front desk staff, housekeeping and other staff, the hotel is exceptionally well and with a friendliness that is not always characteristic of big hotels.
To get a feel for the helpfulness, see my story Searching For Family Ties In Strasbourg: The Story Of A Serendipitous Encounter, Helpful Hilton Staff & A Beautiful Cat.