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Text version of New York Times Article from March 18, 1984
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This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.
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AFLOAT IN FRANCE By A. Alvarez
Alvarez’s most recent book is ”The Biggest Game in Town” (Houghton Mifflin).
The hotel-barge Papillon was at Narbonne when I joined her, and getting there was, decidedly, not half the fun. It meant flying from London to Paris, changing planes and flying on to Montpellier, where I was to be met. But at Heathrow the baggage handlers staged one of their flash stoppages, so the plane took off late, leaving me only 25 minutes to make the connection at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Another passenger and I sprinted through the caterpillar entrails of Terminal 1, scattering the duty-free shoppers in the arcade; we commandeered a bus to drive us to Terminal 2 and made the connection just as the gates were closing. But at Montpellier my luggage was nowhere to be found; nor was it on the next flight, four irritable hours later. There was a driver and a blue bus with ”Peniche-Hotel Papillon” painted on its sides waiting for me, but during the hour’s drive to Narbonne, as P. G. Wodehouse put it, ”The general chit-chat was pretty much down and out.”
The Papillon was moored up in the marketplace in the center of town – or rather, in the canal 20 feet below the level of the marketplace – a great dark shape with faint yellow light coming through the curtains of the saloon amidships. The town was already asleep, and not a sound came from the barge. Then the hatch doors opened, and the troubles of the journey vanished like a conjurer’s egg. Dinner had already begun, and the candlelight glowed on a polished oak table, cut crystal glasses, painted plates, linen napkins in silver rings and, in the center, a bowl of red and purple flowers. I was welcomed with relief and fed tenderly, as though I were a survivor of a disaster: a warm salad with bacon and chicken livers, lamb with garlic and herbs, a chocolate-and-orange mousse, a selection of local cheeses and two good Burgundies to wash it down, one white, one red. By the time I waddled out to telephone the airport at midnight, the world was CANAL BOAT JUMP so transformed that I was not surprised to hear that my bag had shown up. It had arrived at Montpellier and was to be delivered the next morning. It arrived, in fact, just before 7 A.M. I woke long enough to hear the taxi driver bring it aboard, then drifted back to sleep. When I woke again all I could see through the porthole was a line of plane trees over a stone balustrade. Up there, above the canal, the market was in full swing, but the noise seemed to be coming from far off, muted by water and the drop. That sense of distance and calm is, I discovered, typical of barge life. My stateroom was long and thin, with pale blue wallpaper and curtains and a flowered Victorian handbasin between the two beds. The cupboards and drawers were pale oak; the portholes and lamps were brass. There was a bowl of flowers at the head of the bed and more flowers in a little holder between the portholes. At the end of the room was a glittering bathroom with grayish-white tiles and a heated towel rack; one wall curved sharply to the shape of the hull; the tub was deep and coffin shaped. In a drawer by the bed was a hair dryer and a converter for electrical attachments. Every detail had been thought about, every potential emergency provided for.
The other two staterooms are equally luxurious; one had twin beds, the other a grand double bed, its sheets and pillowcases trimmed with broderie anglaise. The Papillon is owned by two New York businessmen, Richard Cohen and Richard Benioff, whose respective wives, Ann and Mary, were partners for 20 years in their own interior decorating firm. They closed their business when Ann Robertson married Dick Cohen eight years ago but joined forces again to transform the battered old hulk their husbands had bought in Holland into what they proudly call a state-of-the-art barge, creating the comfort and calm of a luxury hotel within the confines of a canal vessel. The oak-paneled saloon, upholstered in muted orange, has large curtained windows, a sofa, an armchair, a brass reading light, an old oak dining table and chairs, a bookcase full of paperbacks and a hi-fi system; the drinks cupboard is lit from the inside to show off its glass doors inset with panels of painted butterflies. Each member of the crew has his own cabin aft – unusual in a canal barge. The galley is spacious and equipped with everything a top-class chef might need. There is also a freezer, a washing machine and a garage amidships for the bus. Stacked neatly over the stern are a half dozen bicycles for passengers who want to work off their energy or their meals.
There is a crew of four, three of them English, all of them young, friendly and expert. Leigh Wootton, the captain and the oldest, was educated at Pangbourne, a naval school where, he says, ”They prepare you for any career, as long as it’s boating.” Although he is only 24, he has had seven years’ experience on barges and owns one himself at Auxerre. Frederic, the first mate, is a harassed-looking Frenchman with a witty, rather squashed face, a wild shock of hair and a sweet smile. Between canal journeys, he is studying speech therapy. Jane, the cook, who trained at the Cordon Bleu School in London, is a tall blonde with lively brown eyes and a delicate face. She had just celebrated her 21st birthday but cooks like someone with twice that many years’ experience. The housekeeper, Sally, is a Norfolk farmer’s daughter, one year older than Jane; she also trained at the Cordon Bleu School and spent a year cooking for Lord Rothschild’s family in Cambridge. The first day began at the leisurely pace at which it was to continue. While Jane and Sally were buying fresh meat and vegetables – before breakfast one of them had gone to the baker for warm croissants and bread – the Cohens and I wandered around Narbonne, peering at the 13th-century fortified archbishops’ palace – now a museum and civic center – and the extraordinary unfinished cathedral, absurdly high and about as long as a small chapel. The great arch where the nave was to have begun was bricked off centuries ago and hung with massed organ pipes. But the organ was silent that morning; the only sound was the forlorn chirping of a bird hidden somewhere far up in the fan vaulting of the roof.
Back at the barge there was a flurry of activity while the bus was craned aboard. Having once been a commercial vessel, Papillon has its own crane, but the bus is a tricky cargo to handle: hooks on the wheels, pads to protect the paintwork, an elaborate pulley system to guide the thing across the cabin roof into its niche on board. The vessel tilts heavily as the crane takes the weight of the bus. Down in the galley something slides and falls; a piercing English voice says, ”Oh, damn.” Then the barge slowly rights itself. A crowd had gathered to watch on the footbridge over the canal, although a group of tramps on the towpath, with their dogs and bottles of wine, blankly ignore us.
The canal leaves the center of Narbonne by passing under the Pont des Marchands, which is not a bridge at all but an ancient house spanning the river. The Papillon slides under the arch with less than an inch to spare. Two birds crash out in panic, and we have a close-up view of the ancient timbers and stones of the underside of the building. There are long deep scars in the stonework made over the centuries by barges less skillfully piloted than ours. Beyond is a weir and a lock into which we nose delicately. The Papillon is so long that the lock gates will barely close without touching its stern. The lock keeper spins the wheels that control the sluices, and there is a mild banging as the water floods in. We rise solemnly and with great dignity until we are level with the traffic buzzing past on either side. Then the forward gates are opened, and we move slowly forward down the canal, leaving behind us the road, the traffic and the outskirts of Narbonne. And that, in effect, is the last we see of the 20th century for the next 48 hours.
There are two reasons for this sense of timelessness. First, the Canal du Midi is a masterpiece of 17th-century engineering that has been kept up, modified and, in places, modernized but not basically altered since it was opened in 1681. The olive- shaped locks, the stone lock keepers’ houses and noble flights of steps are still beautifully in place, still more or less as designed by Pierre- Paul Riquet, the tax collector turned engineer who conceived the idea of a 150-mile waterway from Bordeaux on the Atlantic to S ete on the Mediterranean. Second, although European canals are still used commercially, most land transport is now by road or rail, and the modern landscape has organized itself accordingly. It is the traveler by car who gets the public image, the face that the house or town wishes to present to the world. Meanwhile, the canals have been forgotten, and you move on them through the countryside as though through a deep, secret artery, with a resident’s view of the houses and villages you pass, the view from the back garden, private and unprepared. Perhaps that was what it was like to travel by horseback in the days before the automobile. Certainly on a barge there is an overwhelming sense of having gone back a century or more in time to a more intimate and peaceable world.
The forward deck of the Papillon, where the guests spend most of the day, has comfortable chairs and low tables and is bordered on three sides by window boxes of flowers and plants. Sitting there in the sunlight, with a view across the vineyards to a village church or a chateau, white and turreted against distant woods, is like being in a gently moving garden. As the day warms up, bees congregate around the flowers, butterflies float haphazardly by, dragonflies shimmer and dart. Around noon a tantalizing smell of cooking begins to drift up from the galley. The part-owners, Dick and Ann Cohen, are spending a few days on board en route to Sicily for a week’s vacation. Ann passes the morning weeding the flower boxes, arranging and rearranging the deck furniture. ”Once a decorator, always a decorator,” she says, by way of apology. ”Save yourself, honey,” her husband answers. ”Sicily needs a lot of work.” Dick Cohen is not the sort of man you would expect to be addicted to barging. He is an exceptionally fit 60-year-old, an insurance broker who lives a characteristically driven New York life and has difficulty in winding down; back at home he plows endlessly up and down his swimming pool every day after work or walks for miles at a pace that would defeat most joggers. Yet on the first canal trip he took – on Leigh Wootton’s barge in Burgundy – he fell helplessly in love with the pastime and decided to buy a barge for himself. As we move slowly through the sunny, indolent morning, I begin to understand why. The secret is enforced relaxation; you do not hurry because it is impossible to hurry. The Papillon is 96 feet long, weighs 80 tons and once under way generates considerable momentum. So each curve of the canal has to be set up for carefully in advance and negotiated with caution. And there are a lot of curves on the Canal du Midi since Riquet, to save the expense and trouble of locks, designed it to follow as much as possible the contours of the gently rolling landscape. The barge and the canal dictate their own leisurely pace, and once on board, passengers find there is nothing to do except relax. Lunch is served as we go: a quiche of courgettes and lardons, topped with a cheese souffle; cold meats, salad, cheeses, fruit, white wine, coffee. Through the big windows of the saloon we watch the trees go past while we eat. The sunlight, reflected from the water, dapples the ceil Canalboat Jump Two ing. Rushes sigh in our wake.
Later, to work off the meal, I cycled for an hour along the towpath. I saw a single car on a back road way off across the vineyards, a man and his son fishing on the opposite bank, another man walking his dog, a lock keeper’s house with a dramatic display of flowers framed in old tractor tires painted yellow. The towpaths are lined with precisely spaced trees – sycamores, poplars, umbrella pines – planted originally to shade the horses that used to pull the barges. In high summer the canal is probably the one consistently shady place in the whole Midi.
I stopped at a lock to watch the Papillon approach. From a distance it seems as big as a cruise liner within the confines of the canal. Its hull is black above the waterline, then dark green, then pale green; its superstructure is pale green, white and red. On either side of the bow is a silver anchor and the name, painted in white on a red background; above is a little red door into what was once the forepeak, then the bank of flowers along the forward deck. It is all so big and colorful that village dogs bark at its approach.
We moored that evening in the middle of nowhere. There was mist in the air; a bridge made a perfect circle in the glassy water; the lights from our saloon spread vaguely toward the opposite bank. But the air was cool, and it was good to be below with the candlelight and the wine and another splendid meal. Good, too, to wake to utter silence, with sunlight filtering through the plane trees, the deck wet with dew and the heavy smell of damp earth mingling with the smell of coffee. Good, finally, to know that today would be exactly like yesterday: a sedate journey through deepest countryside – out of time, out of place. Barging, on a first- class vessel, combines the pleasures of a gently nomadic life, the comfort and cooking of a luxury hotel and the privacy of your own home. It seems to me an irresistible formula for a successful holiday. All day we chugged quietly along under the long cathedral arch of sycamores, charting our progress by the avenues of trees ahead and behind. At the tiny village of Poilhes workers were rebuilding the bridge, and the scaffolding beneath it was so low that Leigh and Frederic had to dismantle the protruding steering wheel in order to slide the barge through. Apart from that, nothing disturbed the calm. As the evening light thickened, we entered the Souterrain de Malpas, the oldest canal tunnel in the world (Riquet’s engineers banged it through a hillside in six days after having been told it was impossible). Birds flittered in and out of the honeycombed rock at its entrance. The blast of our horn, warning other traffic of our approach, sounded like the end of the world.
That night we moored just short of Beziers, above another of Riquet’s marvels, les ecluses de Fontserannes, a sequence of seven locks, like a great, wet, mechanical staircase. We started down them at 7 o’clock the next morning, squeezing delicately into each with only inches to spare. The lock keeper, watching us with beady eye, was a smartly dressed woman in her 30’s, with a child and a mongrel; a Gauloise was plastered to the corner of her mouth. At the bottom was a circular pool with the exit at 90 degrees to the locks. Frederic walked in front of the Papillon heaving on a rope, as though walking an enormous, obstinate dog. Beyond was an avenue of cypresses, then a noble 19th- century aqueduct over the River Orb. We moved across it slowly, a couple of hundred feet in the air, to make an appropriately majestic triumphal entry into Beziers, where the real world, alas, was waiting.
A version of this article appears in print on March 18, 1984, Section 10, Page 36 of the National edition of the New York Times.