By Franz Scheurer
A hide-away in Bhutan, a stilt-house resort in Vietnam or even an ice-hotel in Sweden are no doubt an amazing way to spend your holidays, but nothing compares to the utter joy and relaxation of spending a week on the Barge Colibri on the Canal du Midi in the South of France.
Fiona and Earl Pilatti run the Barge Colibri, an impressive 27 metres long, 5 metres wide barge built in Holland in 1931. The couple bought her in 2004, gutting and completely refitting her to make her what she is today. Colibri accommodates four guests (in 2 rooms) and a crew of two. Fiona is the mechanic, the plumber, Mrs ‘Fixit’ and a gifted cook and Earl is captain, waiter, sommelier and exceptional tour guide, who skippers the boat with total control and a laid-back non-challence that is astounding. Where the tight-lipped expressions of the captains of smaller crafts show their anxiety in navigating lochs, Earl moves the huge barge into position with often only a couple of centimetres to spare on either side. It’s an amazing spectacle.
They cruise various canals but the Canal du Midi between Béziers and Carcassone is their specialty and they know every inch of the canal, every market, every bakery and every top anchor spot along the way. Life on the barge is totally modelled after the customers’ requests but a typical scenario starts with breakfast on the top deck after a good night’s sleep in the superbly appointed cabins with excellent beds and shower facilities with good water pressure. Earl does the ‘pastry run’ every morning before the guests get up and brekkie is superb with everything on offer that your secret French soul could wish for. After breakfast a leisurely drive through the local towns, visit a winery, check out some local produce, until it’s time to return around 1pm and have a lovely lunch. The temperature dictates whether you eat on the top deck or down below in the spacious living/dining room. The afternoon is taken up with a leisurely cruise up the canal while guests relax on deck chairs on deck or read in the shade of umbrellas. Aperitif is served in the late afternoon from the well stocked bar. While you’re relaxing, Fiona works on dinner, which is served around 8pm accompanied by Earl’s excellent choice of local wines. Both food and wine are excellent and a terrific introduction to the local produce.
Speed on the canal is limited to 8km/h but typically you cruise at 4km/h giving you plenty of time to watch the world go by. The Canal is an amazing piece of engineering, especially considering it was built in the 1600s by a man with amazing foresight, Pierre-Paul Riquet. The project was finally approved by Louis XIV in 1866 and was officially opened on May 15th, 1681 and it took the cooperation of all the local towns along the way. Female labour was so important to the project that Riquet offered holiday and sick pay for the first time in French history. The Canal du Midi is, and remains today, a marvel of men’s ingenuity.
A week on the Barge Colibi is an experience of a lifetime. If I urge you to do just one thing in your life then spend a week with Earl and Fiona on the Canal du Midi. It isn’t cheap, but value for money is amazing. Fiona and Earls’s hospitality comes from the heart, they seem to know everyone’s wishes before they are voiced and you won’t forget Harry, the barge-dog and real boss of the cruise.
Fiona and Earl Pilatti
By Franz Scheurer
Provence has a reputation for rural charm, combined with mediaeval walled towns, good food and terrific wines. There are a number of ways to see this area and we found the best way was to hire a house, giving us the options of eat-out or dine-in. Combined with a rental car, this is eminently workable.
Our search for a perfect place led us to Mas la Monaque, a fabulous, renovated old farm, situated between the villages of Maussane Les Alpilles and Mouriès. The farm looks like a hidden château, with a wide driveway up to the house. It lies in the middle of extensive grounds, totally secured by state of the art electronics, with a magnificent pool. There are three large bedrooms with ensuites plus a huge master bedroom with anteroom and ensuite in the house and a self-contained flat in a separate building that was probably the stables in centuries past. The walls are impossibly thick and the natural insulation works a treat. We arrived on a hot day and the inside was pleasantly cool. Mind you, there is air-conditioning if you should need it and a large fireplace in the entrance room, and of course radiators in every room. Wireless is free, as are phone calls to landlines, even international ones.
For me, the most important thing is always the kitchen and I was pleased to see that not only was it spacious with a large prep-island in the middle and a sublime stove, it was fully equipped, complete with fridge, freezer, pantry, glasses, crockery and cutlery, table-cloths, knives etc.
Mas la Monaque (Mas means farm in the local language) is a 2-minute drive away from Mouriès, a charming little town with three good bakeries and a couple of excellent butchers. A noisette (small cup of espresso with a splash of hot milk) starts the morning at any of the local bars that open pre-dawn, before you buy your croissants, fougasse, pain aux raisins, cheese, ham and a selection of small goods, even donkey salami if you are that way inclined, and return to the Mas for breakfast.
The Mas’ strategic location allows wonderful day trips. Les Baux de Provence, a beautiful, walled, hilltop town is only 15 minutes away and the Camargue, an untamed marshland of flamingos, white horses, a myriad of birds and red rice is only an hour’s drive away. Saint-Rèmy-de-Provence’s weekly markets are a must see, as is the wonderful Roman city of Glanum on the way. Visit the famous bridge of Avignon, the old city of Arles or the famous Pont du Gard, an old Roman viaduct that used to ferry 20,000lt of water a day across the Rhone. It’s an amazing, 3-tiered structure and less than an hours drive from the Mas, near Avignon.
There are plenty of local restaurants to choose from and our favourite would have to be Restaurant La Petite France in nearby Le Paradou (about 5 minutes’ drive).
We stayed at Mas la Monaque for a week, it is reasonably priced for four to six people and an absolute bargain for larger groups as it will comfortably accommodate 10 people (and can hold up to 14). If you want to explore the Provencal countryside then I recommend you rent Mas la Monaque.
For more details: http://www.mas-la-monaque.com/
By Franz Scheurer
Paris is a beautiful city with a magic all of its own. It’s the city of love, of good food, good wines, in fact it makes you feel good just being there. Paris is friendly, animating, charming and whoever said that the French were arrogant and unhelpful was plain wrong. Even the taxi drivers went out of their way to be helpful on our recent visit and if you don’t speak French they will try a little English, enough to get you where you want to go. You may want to consider travelling around Paris by taxi as they are cheap and driving in Paris needs a special kind of attitude…
We set up our base at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe, a fabulous hotel right in the middle of everything. It’s a curious mix of old-world charm and modern convenience with wireless and plug-in internet. The rooms are spacious, fully equipped and the beds are comfortable. The staff goes out of their way to make you feel comfortable and the concierge desk is the best I have encountered anywhere in the world. The amount of time they dedicate to you and the expertise they share is astounding. Whether you are a business traveller or on holidays, this is a perfect home away from home.
For more information:
Hilton Arc de Triomphe Paris hotel
51-57, rue de Courcelles, Paris, France 75008
Tel: 33-1-5836-6700 Fax: 33-1-5836-6777
Email: Reservations ADT email@example.com
Exploring Paris is fun. You can take a hop-on/hop-off open decker city tour bus or hire a private car to do the same. For foodies I recommend a visit to Place de la Madelaine, where you’ll find exquisite bottle shops, good restaurants and of course super foodie haunt, Fauchon. Fauchon is simply fantastic and for more information go to: http://www.fauchon.com/
For watch nerds I suggest you visit La Place Vendôme. Here you find (as well as The Ritz) just about every legendary brand in watches and jewellery. A bit further out is A.B.P (Atelier du Bracelet Parisien), a haven for watchbands and leather accessories. A little hard to find (it’s around the corner from a modern office complex that also houses an Audi showroom) it’s well worth the effort and I believe they offer the best custom watchband service in the world. For more information go to: http://www.abp-paris.com/
Paris offers you the best of everything, which is also very true of restaurants and brasseries. To find a top restaurant is not difficult, however to find the less obvious choices can be difficult. Our favourites are as follows:
For superb offal:
10 Rue Saint Julien le Pauvre, Paris 75005
Tel.: 01 46 33 98 80
For ‘open fire cooking’
Chez Robert & Louise
64, rue Vieille-du-Temple, Marais, 75003 Paris, France
Tel.: 01 42 78 55 89
For superb, regional food, visit Alain Ducasse’s
32 Rue St. Marc
Tel.: 01 42 96 65 04
If you don’t like to queue at the Eiffel Tower
2nd level, the Eiffel Tower
Avenue Gustave Eiffel
Tel.: 01 45 55 61 44
Eating in the suburbs with a menu that changes daily:
Hier et Aujourd’Hui
145 Rue de Saussure
Tel.: 01 42 27 35 55
The quintessential Paris bistrot (for big eaters, too!)
Restaurant Dumonet Josephine
117 Rue du Cherche-Midi, 6th
Paris Tel: 01 45 48 52 40
The experience of tradition with Paris’ best view and the famous duck using a duck-press:
La Tour d’Argent
15 Quai Tournelle
75005 Paris, France
Tel.: 01 43 54 23 31