Together with a couple of friends, we took this year’s holiday enjoying exclusive use of the 24-metre 1922 Dutch-Barge ‘Nilaya’ and cruising the beautiful Ardennes region between France’s Charleville-Mezieres and Dinant in Belgium.
Rendezvousing with the barge and English skipper and owner, Kevin Hartwell, was simplicity itself and our first night happened to be a pretty big one in France – Bastille Day. While dining outside on ‘Nilaya’s foredeck, crowds had steadily gathered on both sides of the river Meuse and the dark skies soon erupted into waterfalls of colour as fireworks burst above us.
Unlike hotel barges, ‘Nilaya’ included ourselves as active crew, allowing our optional indulgence in all aspects of shipboard life. This included shopping at boulangeries, patisseries, markets and local shops thus enabling us to refresh taste buds that UK superstores simply cannot reach. Lively interaction with all these masters of their craft turned the food shopping into one of the undoubted highlights of our cruise. This active participation also included assisting Kevin and his Canadian crew, Joseph, to move his 82-tonne leviathan through canal and river locks – some only marginally larger than ‘Nilaya’ herself, not to mention the added advantage of being able to tell the skipper where to go!
Our mornings started gently: knocks on the cabin door meant nice cups of tea and coffee waiting on the shelf outside our en-suite double cabins which were followed by leisurely continental breakfasts to welcome in days that proved to be moveable feasts.
The River Meuse was never less than spectacular with densely wooded cliffs that swept right down to the waters edge. Endless forests and small riverside towns and hamlets, steeped in legend, provided wonderful locations for mooring and great opportunities for hiking to viewpoints. The one high above Montherme was particularly memorable, rewarding us with breathtaking panoramic views over a 270-degree curve in the river below. Cruising was relaxed, laid back and the pace so slow, any stress got checked in at the gangplank on our first day!
‘Nilaya’ cruised just a few hours each day. This left most afternoons free to explore new locales on foot or by the on-board bikes, or to sunbathe, chat, read a book, enjoy a glass of wine or simply slip off for a snooze after lunch. What little river traffic there was, stopped when the locks closed, making evenings a wonderful time for us to absorb breathtaking locations and wonderful waterside towns; we found ourselves watching sunsets that invited long shadows to creep down the heavily forested valley sides. The silence was at times almost overpowering and aboard a large stable craft such as ‘Nilaya’, we almost forgot that we were afloat at all. She barely moved an inch and wavelets against her steel hull provided unique rhythms that ensured the most wonderful dreamless sleep. One particular night, we lay in bed with our skylight and curtains wide open, to reveal stunning blankets of stars framed by the pitch black forest around us. I hadn’t wondered at such stars since walking deserted Goan beaches many years before.
The general calm of our week was momentarily punctuated by ‘Nilaya’s navigation through the Ham tunnel. This required every ounce of Kevin and Josef’s concentration as they cautiously piloted all 24 x 4.5 metres of ‘Nilaya’ through a half kilometre of darkness that on occasion brought her wheelhouse perilously close to the rough-hewn tunnel roof. Although stressful for the crew, we revelled in all the excitement.
Givet was a pretty little riverside town on the Franco-Belgian border providing Moules-a-la-Mariniere by the cauldron. Our host had no problems with impromptu parties, so here, together with a few fellow boaters, laughter, drink, animated conversation and tall tales of the ‘high’ canals continued on the bow deck into the wee small hours. Crossing the border between France and Belgium was a simple affair; while Josef hoisted a Belgian courtesy flag on the mast and navigation pendant from ‘Nilaya’s bow, Kevin held a brief meeting with the river authorities before steaming from a massive lock into the waterways of Belgium. The Meuse had suddenly grown up a little, here, as we then encountered far larger commercial barges and the waterside industry that kept them busy.
Dinant was next, an interesting town just ripe for exploration and so our final afternoon aboard was spent riding a cable car to tour the immense citadel perched high on rocks above the town. To reward such a fabulous week, we treated Kevin and Josef to Belgian beer and a fine dinner ashore.
We were very sad to be leaving ‘Nilaya’ after breakfast, but our sadness was tempered by the knowledge that the previous evening we’d decided to join her for another week, next year. Neither we, nor the skipper, had any clue as to where ‘Nilaya’ would be cruising at that time, but the one thing we did know was that, wherever she was, we’d be enjoying another fine week aboard a beautiful boat with Kevin’s wonderful hospitality to discover different reaches of the magnificent French waterways.
‘Nilaya’ means ‘Heaven’ in Sanskrit. When you’ve enjoyed time aboard Barge ‘Nilaya’ you’ve really found ‘Heaven in the Heart of France’.
Barry and Annett Moss enjoyed an interesting and informal bed and breakfast barge cruise aboard ‘Nilaya’ during summer 2006. For more information visit http://www.bargenilaya.com or call Kevin direct aboard ‘Nilaya’ in France on: 0033 670 824 762