Afloat in Alsace

A boating holiday along the Canal de la Marne au Rhin proved a voyage of discovery for Ray Kershaw and his family in a land where French and German cultures meet.

Our luxurious pied-�-terre enjoys a millionaire’s location at the very hub of Europe. The sky is as blue as the Mediterranean and our waterside garden has unrivalled views of one of the loveliest cities in France. My son Jim refills our fizzing glasses but our elevated mood is fuelled not so much by bubbly as by that buoyancy of being that springs from happy days with water under your feet.

Did I say pied-�-terre? Our pad in the heart of Strasbourg has accompanied us from the high plateau of Lorraine through the forested Vosges mountains to the vineyards of Alsace. Maybe le mot juste would be pied-�-l’eau?

‘There’s nothing,’ declared Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, ‘absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ After voyaging for a week we are now not only (almost) seasoned mariners but can also imagine Ratty’s rapture if he had ever had the luck to idle blissfully through France. Francophiles like us think we know the country well, but while exploring it by boat we have found a land even more pristine than down its quietest country lane.

On the first golden afternoon of our voyage I am promoted from mere motorist to the illustrious rank of captain when Karsten, the representative of the boat-hire company, hands me the keys to Calypso 35. Although it’s difficult for me not to swell with pride, long-nursed dreams and present-day reality collide. The boat looks as big as the Queen Mary; is he truly entrusting such a princely white leviathan to landlubbers like us?

We’re starting out from Hesse, a tiny village in the Lorraine region on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, a waterway that we’ll be following to Boofzheim in Alsace where it joins the Rhine. Swallowing my panic and with butterflies in my stomach I dashingly order the crew to cast off. Any fool can steer the Calypso, with its high-tech bow thrusters, Karsten promises. No problem then for me.

Zigzagging wildly

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As we hit the other bank (even French canals are not as wide as La Manche) I simultaneously discover that boats have no brakes and merely touching the wheel makes them zigzag wildly. I am frantic, sweating, blushing and I want to disappear; yet no sailor could fault my competent cursing. Jim’s nervous giggle sounds like a jeer. “Well, if you can do better...” Irritatingly, it turns out that he can. Maybe those computer games were not a waste of time after all. My wife Alice also shows me up but when they let me try again next day – other novices take heart – I’m soon as fearless as Captain Jack Sparrow.

This is our first shared family holiday for almost a decade and we are literally all in the same boat. Our Calypso contains three cabins, two bathrooms, a kitchen and lounge. It’s our transport, home from home, sunbed and entertainment. But boats, you soon discover, leave you nowhere to hide. If you don’t know each other well at the start of the trip, by the end you may know each other better than you would like. It goes through my mind that if we all survive to Strasbourg we should be set fair for life.

In the evening sunshine the bucolic landscape of Lorraine glides by like a dream. The villages appear to have been asleep for centuries; canalside farms sell home-made cheeses. The engine purrs smoothly and we hear the occasional chime of a distant church bell.

At dusk we moor in a wood, springing ashore and hammering in the stakes as if we had done it all our lives. Soon dinner is simmering, the first wine bottle opened and the table candles lit. We are at the cusp of the asparagus and strawberry seasons, so tonight between the two we settle for foie gras. Beyond the snug cocoon of light around our sundeck table, bats are hunting moths; owls are hooting; so many fish are jumping that it sounds like summer rain.

Sometimes on a journey there comes a magical conjunction of place and time and happiness that you know will remain with you for the rest of your life. In Lorraine’s nocturnal stillness it seems we have finally discovered that fabled France profonde. Alice swears she hears nightingales but then it’s that kind of night. Next day we breech the Vosges escarpment. The Arzviller and Niderviller tunnels combine to create three kilometres of subterranean navigation. Carved from living rock, the passage resembles a cave when lit by our headlights. Sometimes there are stalactites and small underground cascades. The walls magnify the engine’s roar and though it’s exciting in an eerie way, everyone is relieved to see daylight far ahead.

Back in the sunshine, there are just two more kilometres to the pi�ce de r�sistance, the unique Arzviller boatlift, a major tourist attraction in its own right. We have been promised that we’ll experience a technological wonder. The giant toy for boys (and visibly some girls) does not let us down. Surely only engineers from the land of Ferdinand de Lesseps could have dreamt it up.

Replacing 17 locks that until 1969 took eight hours to pass, a section of canal laden with boats is lowered or hoisted 44.5 metres. Worked by gravity and cables, the water-filled counterweights are a hefty 850 tons. Sitting on our sundeck we descend as in a bathtub on a toy boat. Not a drop of water is spilt.

We lunch at the foot of the boatlift in a delightful picnic area among a European Union of fellow navigators. Already we belong to their nomadic tribe. We chat with Belgians, Dutch and Swiss but most are French or Germans, getting on amicably in this region where their flags have changed so often. The Alsatian place names seem a mixture of both.

The scenery becomes increasingly dramatic, the densely forested Vosges forming a gorge. There are hilltop-castle ruins but the locks come thick and fast. Approaching our first induces something close to terror. Will we look like clowns? All hands on deck! Will we sink the boat? In fact it goes so smoothly we smugly celebrate with coffee. Before it’s cool enough to drink, the next lock is in sight. Although the locks are automatic – you tug a dangling wire – the constant roping up and down, and scaling of iron ladders keep the calories combusting nicely and justify our two three-course meals a day.

Bijou Lutzelbourg, beneath its castle-topped crag of glowing pink sandstone, is a photographer’s dream. We pass a marina and notice three enticing ancient restaurants, but the vote is for another night in the wild. With always something new ahead it no longer matters when and where we arrive. We can hammer in our stakes at any tranquil spot we choose. In the vast For�t de Saverne we find our perfect mooring near lock 24 right on the border of Lorraine and Alsace. Jim cooks the dinner. I just keep opening the wine.

The woodland dawn chorus sounds like an aviary at feeding time; the choir of countless cuckoos like a shop of Swiss alarm clocks. Early to bed, early to rise. Woodpeckers are drumming; a heron peers as if dumbstruck while we devour boiled eggs. We know the mist will dissolve into another glorious day.

An intriguing footpath heads towards Les Roches Plates, a rock formation popular with climbers. It is too early to cast off, so we follow a stream into the forest. Dewy spiders’ webs glisten like prisms as the sunshine bursts through; it is the kind of perfect morning that makes your heart sing. The lock opens at 7am and after it a sign reads Bienvenue en Alsace. Within a few kilometres everything has changed.

Saverne, with its fountains, public gardens and half-timbered houses, is pure Alsace. It is dominated by the Ch�teau de Rohan, once the residence of the Prince Bishops of Strasbourg. This red sandstone building overlooks the lake-like port where the boats moor and is known as the ‘Alsatian Versailles’ because of its grandeur. Just outside the town are the ruins of Ch�teau Haut-Barr, known as the Eye of Alsace. From its rocky pinnacle at 470 metres you can see as far as Strasbourg and the Rhine 30 kilometres away.

Saverne’s Maison Katz restaurant dates from 1605. The wood-carved facade is an Alsatian masterpiece and the period interior makes a memorable setting for its signature lunch dish of matelote de poissons, a freshwater fish stew. While Alice and Jim cycle to Saverne’s celebrated rose gardens, the town’s butchers and bakers spoil me for choice as I forage for dinner. I go back with duck breasts and freshly made sp�tzle (Alsatian egg noodles) and a decent bottle of pinot noir. I would die before confessing what I bought at the p�tisserie. The joy of having our own kitchen – correct that to galley – is using France’s epicurean regional larder. And which restaurant that evening could match our dinner on the sundeck? The sunset melts to twilight; the twilight lights the stars. A stork’s nest on a pole, several hungry beaks protruding, confirms that we are in Alsace.

Greeted like friends

We’re now in brewing country. Next morning we reach Hochfelden, France’s capital of beer since AD 870 and where the M�t�or family brewery, famed throughout Alsace, began in 1640. We are stopping only to get provisions, but the town completely steals our hearts. The picture-book lanes of half-timbered cottages rarely see tourists but in a tiny caf� where everyone drinks beer we’re greeted like friends. What intrigues us is how one bilingual street name, Impasse de la Mairie, can in Alsatian simply be translated as one word, ‘Hell’.

It is Tuesday, market day, and the town is crammed with stalls, which is fortunate for us because Hochfelden is blighted by the curse of Leclerc, the superstore chain. Except for a boulangerie, in this prosperous town of 3,000 souls not one food shop remains. While I make for the boat, the crew cycles for milk at Leclerc’s out-of-town lair.

Travelling by canal sounds comfortably linear – A to Z without a qualm – yet I’m about to discover that with boats you must always expect the unexpected. Reaching the bridge, disaster stares me in the face. Despite the sunshine it is blowing a gale. Battered by the wind, the boat slews across the waterway, blocking it entirely. One mooring stake has gone; the other twitches ominously. A gigantic Swiss hotel barge, imperiously hooting, is bearing down on us. There is surely no escape...

(To learn how I saved the day, the trip and the Calypso, bravely risking life and limb, and became a family hero, you must request another episode or wait for the film – but clearly the boat’s mascot, an enormous green cricket acquired as a stowaway, was doing its job.)

That afternoon I relinquish my captaincy to the first and second mates, and savour Alsace gliding by from my sundeck lounger. On boats you rarely put your feet up. My wife’s Swallows and Amazons, my Three Men in a Boat and Jim’s Knots for Beginners have scarcely been read. A lazy kind of busyness or a busy kind of laziness? Nothing much matters except the next lock. We are suntanned, carefree and sleeping like babies.

From our first sight of the cathedral, cruising into Strasbourg feels like a lap of honour. We had half-expected urban grime and rusting relics of old industries; instead there are spruce suburbs with tree-lined banks and parks where children wave as we go by. Where we cross the River Ill the European Parliament is shining like a thousand mirrors in the midday sun. All the flags of Europe hang above the quay where the continent’s four corners, the Latin and Germanic lands, physically adjoin.

We pass the Parc de l’Orangerie, then swing right into the Rhine ports, the waterway becoming broad as a lake. The big commercial barges, sightseeing craft and international cruise boats make us feel like country cousins. One more lock to go; slowly we rise among the weeping willows of the Porte de l’H�pital, expertly reversing into the boat club’s garden moorings. Strasbourg here we come!

The Alsatian capital’s medieval quays and waterways, enchanting parks and squares make another story, but we banquet at Zuem Strissel, Strasbourg’s oldest winstub, dating from 1385, on the great dishes of Alsace: poulet au Riesling followed by the best baeckeoffa – a robust casserole of beef, pork and lamb crowned with potatoes – ever set before a captain and his hungry crew.

After the Vosges our final leg to Boofzheim comes as a scenic anti-climax, but the canal is straight and wide, the locks are few and to our south are the celebrated Alsatian vineyards. Skirting the Grand Ried, the forested Rhine wetlands that attract Alsace’s storks, we pause near Plobsheim at the Chapelle de Notre-Dame du Ch�ne where canal and river boatmen have given thanks for safe voyages since 1447. We’re all still alive – in fact, we feel more alive than ever. Alsatian eau de vie doesn’t only come in bottles. As for family bonding, the crew is now a team.

The Boofzheim lock flies the flags of France and Germany. We’ve made it to the Rhine.