Canal Boating in the Alsace with the Galley Guys
by Greg Nicoll with John Armstrong on 26 Aug 2014
Sometimes in the life of a Galley Guy, opportunities to travel to great places just happen. However sometimes, life just gets in the way. This year our friends at Le Boat offered the Galley Guys a boat to travel through the Alsace region of France to savour the food and wines of this spectacular and lush corner of Eastern France. Unfortunately Andy’s 'menu card' had already been committed for this summer, so sad, we went without him. John and Greg, along with wives Linda and and Katie, cleansed our palates and headed off to France in search of new culinary adventures.
This beautiful mooring is within walking distance to the cathedral of downtown Strasbourg. The Galley Guys
France has something like 8,000km (5,000 miles) of navigable inland waterways – you can travel by boat across this large country from north to south; and east to west, using canals and rivers of great variety, size and scenic beauty. More than that, the French waterways directly connect to other European national waterways (there are another 7,000km of those and they go right across the continent to the Baltic, Russia and Turkey), to the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
Hesse, a tiny village in the Sarre Valley is the Le Boat base that services trips to Nancy, Metz, Saarbrücken and our destination Boofzhiem, was our first stop. After a brief orientation on the boat and some basic guidelines we were on our way. The canals, such as the Canal de la Marne au Rhin we traveled were once the main economic thoroughfares of Europe and now except for the few working barges carrying stone and gravel to factories are the waterways for vacationers and cruisers seeking a peaceful and scenic route through both expansive countryside and quaint historic towns. From beginning to end, the canals are incredibly well maintained with exceptional floral and adjacent biking trails by the VNF (Voies Navigables de France).
Our first misadventure was not stopping at the first village for provisioning our boat as was suggested by the Le Boat Team. The vistas were beautiful and the air so clean we decided to push on until we realized that reaching the next available food source was going to be a challenge. The first food destination, the village of Lutzelbourg was going to be a stretch to make so we probably didn’t really get to appreciate fully the Niderville Tunnel 475 metres and the Arzviller Tunnel, 2306 metres long and both straight as an arrow (wonderfully examples of 19th century engineering).
Luckily as both a tunnels are one way only we got green lights and were able to proceed without delay. The next major ascent was the Inclined Slope of St-Louis-Arzviller built in 1964-68; replacing 17 locks is described as a transversal inclined plane which has a vertical height of 44.55 metres. In simple terms you pilot your boat into a container full of water, the container closes and you and your boat descend against a counter weight of 850 tonnes using an electric motor.
In our haste to dinner this took 25 minutes when before it’s construction it would have been over eight hours. Three more locks (ecluses en Francais) and we made it to Lutzelbourg. Luckily we were welcomed as the Hôtel Des Vosgesas they were about to close and we had to choose from a well depleted menu. Our first Alsatian treat was a hearty venison stew served with pitchers of their own Pinot Blanc and then some more wine. Somebody forgot to take notes in our famished state.
Bicycles are a must for a canal trip. Our first ride took us to the local patisserie for great café and baguettes plus the first opportunity to see what appeared to be everybody in town as they made their way to counter. Our second ride was stopped by a women standing in a garden yelling; salade, salade. For you who are concerned about not speaking French, it has been several decades since I had a French teacher scowl at me for abusing this beautiful language, but it amazed me how many words jumped into my speech and how conversant I was, apologizies to French speakers everywhere. With bags of produce, berries, herbs and vegetables we headed back to the boat determined to eat healthy during this trip, this according to the female contingent of our team. Another necessary addition to our boat was the optional barbeque.
The local boucherie displayed a wide selection our local sausages and being a region that has gone from French to German and back French we felt that an Alsatian meal with local Sürkrüt would make for a great meal. Alsatian Sürkrüt is different from German sauerkraut as it fermented in salt water and often cooked with a Riesling wine to offer a more subtle taste. Dining alfresco in a tiny French town, nestled in a stunningly beautiful valley on the upper deck on Le Boat, amazing!
The 'ecluses' don’t open until 9AM on Sunday morning so we started out a comfortable time on route to the town of Saverne. Usually two boats traveling in the same direction teaming up to go through the locks, we were fortunate match up with a great couple that showed us the 'ropes'. The lock are semi-automatic, you follow the green/ red lighting sequence and enter the locks, once secure lift the pole that runs down the side of the lock and as we were going downstream the rear gate closes, the water drops and level reaches the new level the forward gate opens: easy! We had one helmsman and two rope handlers, but our lock buddies easily manouvered their way with only two aboard.
After eight locks we found a good dock centrally located in the town of Saverne. Known as the City of Roses, the town was abuzz with street festivals and an open air market. Meeting fellow canal travelers is great entertainment and in Saverne we met Angus and Pam Eaton, two Brits that left sailing to spend their summers plying the canals all over Europe. Experience is a wonderful teacher as our new friends gladly passed on hints and suggestions that would make our canal experience even more enjoyable. Small world, their daughter teaches skiing at Blue Mountain in Ontario, just down the street from where we ski.
Three weeks later I was at the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac and had the pleasure of interviewing Stephaneé Baschiera, President of Veuve Clicqout the famous French Champaign, the presenting company of the race. During our conversation I mentioned being recently in Alsace and enjoyed its fine wines and during our chat the town of Saverne was mentioned. Instantly he asked if we dined at the Taverne-Katz, absolutely I responded and we both nodded to each other knowing that we had the same incredible food experience. The Taverne-Katz was built in 1605 from carve timbers and instantly transposes you into a sense of tradition, craftsmanship and elegance. I heartily recommend the lamb shank and John the crème brule. Saverne has a great Co-op store on the main street great for stocking up for the next leg.
The canals have fees* to use but docking on the canals are open to all and every boat is equipped with large spike poles and a mallet. Half way to Strasbourg we pulled over in a small village called Vendenheim and hammered in for the night. Again we ate and drank alfresco under the Grande Ourse (Big Dipper). Choosing wine is difficult in France as there are so many types of wine and so many wineries to choose from and none of the labels are familiar. We went by type and price and were both never disappoint and never ran short.
Strasbourg is stunning! The seventh largest French city, where Roman legions once camped, home of the incredible Cathedral Notre Dame, an Unesco World Heritage Site, headquarters for the European Parliament, flower boxes in every window, museums everywhere, art galleries galore, incredible restaurants, international shopping, history and more history and the best, we docked our Le Boat right in the centre of the city.
The city is walk and bicycle friendly and days can be spent appreciating everything from early morning coffee on street malls to great evening meals on promenades waiting for the spectacular light show of the Cathedral. Plan more time that we did to savour this beautiful city.
Our Galley Guy wine buddy Eddie Sokoloff helped orchestrate our next adventure, a trip to the Willm Winery in the most charming village in the heart of the Alsace wine region Eguisheim. Taking the train to Colmar and a limo to the village we were met for a special tour and wine tasting session with Willm brand manager Timothee Boltz. Canada is a very large market for Willm and represent 25% of their international sales, with Riesling, pinot gris and pinot blanc (my favourite).
The Le Boat canal trip is truly a cultural, culinary and nautical adventure. The French people could not have been more friendly, everybody we saw on our voyage of 104 kilometres and 47 recluses (locks) either passing by, riding bicycles on the trails, having early morning walks or working in their fields; smiled, waved or nodded to us. The wine and the food experiences were incredible.
Life on the canal is slow and thoughtful. Not an ocean, not a lake and not a river, canal life has its own heart beat and whether you spend a week (not enough) or a season, your internal clock slows down and you just go with the flow.
* Canals fees are included in the Le Boat charter fees
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