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Dear Galley Guy Andy, Wish You Were Here! Sometimes in the life of a Galley Guy, opportunities to travel to great places just happen. However, sadly, sometimes life just gets in the way. This year, our friends at Le Boat offered the Galley Guys a canal boat to cruise 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 sadly we left without him. John and Greg, along with wives Linda and & Katie, cleansed our palates and headed off to France in search of new culinary adventures.

France has something like 8,000 km (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 7,000 km 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. Many of the canals, such as the Canal de la Marne au Rhin we travelled, were once the main economic thoroughfares of Europe. Now, except for the few working barges carrying stone and gravel to factories, the waterways are here 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 maintained by the VNF (Voies Navigables de France).

Our first misadventure was not taking the advice of the Le Boat team and stopping at the first village for provisioning. 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 next food destination, the village of Lutzelbourg was going to be a stretch to make (before the locks closed) so we probably didn’t really get to appreciate fully the Niderville Tunnel (475 metres long) and the Arzviller Tunnel (2,306 metres long) and both straight as an arrow – wonderful 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 to replace 17 locks. It is described as a transversal inclined plane that has a vertical height of 44.55 metres. Putting it simply, you pilot your boat into a container full of water, the container closes and you & your boat descend against a counter weight of 850 tonnes using a an electric motor. In our haste to dine, it only took 25 minutes, but seemed like an eternity; before its construction, the same route would have taken over eight hours. After three more locks (ecluses en Francais), we made it to Lutzelbourg just in time. We were welcomed as the Hôtel Des Vosgesas was about to close and had to choose from a well-depleted menu. However, our first Alsatian treat was a hearty venison stew served with pitchers of the local Pinot Blanc.

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 our first opportunity to see what appeared to be everybody in town as they made their way to the same counter. Our second ride was interrupted by a woman standing in a garden yelling, "salade, salade". For those who may be concerned about not knowing how to speak 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. Apologizes to French speakers everywhere. With bags of berries, herbs, vegetables and, of course, 'salade', we headed back to the boat determined to eat healthily during this trip, this according to the female contingent of our team.

Another "must-have" on our boat was an optional barbeque. The local boucherie displayed a wide selection of 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 achieve a more subtle taste. What is it really like dining al fresco in a tiny French town nestled in a stunningly beautiful valley on the upper deck of a Le Boat? Simply amazing!

The “ecluses” don’t open until 9:00 o'clock on Sunday mornings, so we started out in comfortable time en route to the town of Saverne. Usually two boats travelling in the same direction team up to go through the locks. We were fortunate enough to be paired up with an experienced couple who showed us the “ropes”.

The locks are semi-automatic. You follow the green/red lighting sequence and enter the locks. Once secure, you lift the pole that runs down the side of the lock and as you head downstream the rear gate closes, the water drops and when the 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 navigating through eight locks, we found a good dock centrally located in the town of Saverne. Known as the City of Roses, the town was 'a buzz' with street festivals and an open air market. Meeting fellow 'canal' travellers is always great fun. Here, in Saverne, we met Angus and Pam Eaton, two Brits that gave up sailing to spend summers plying the canals all over Europe. Experience is a wonderful teacher. 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.

Fast forward: After returning home, I headed to the Chicago Yacht Club to cover the 103th Race to Mackinac. During one of the many swish events held during the week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephaneé Baschiera, President of Veuve Clicqout – the famous French Champagne and the presenting sponsor of the race. During our conversation, I mentioned my recent visit to the Alsace and how much I enjoyed its fine food and wines. During our chat, the town of Saverne came up. Stephaneé asked if we dined at the Taverne-Katz. "Absolutely", I responded. We both nodded to each other knowing that we' both had the same incredible dining 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. John's pick: the crème brulé.

Saverne had a great Co-op store on the main street, great for stocking up for the next leg of our adventure,

The canals charge fees to use them but docking on the canals are open to all and every boat is equipped with large spike poles and a mallet. Halfway to Strasbourg, we pulled over in a small village called Vendenheim and hammered in for the night. Again we ate and drank al fresco 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. Furthermore, none of the labels were familiar. We went by type and price. We were neither disappointed nor ever 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 than 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. After 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. Apparently, Canada is a very large market for Willm and represents 25% of its international sales, with Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc – my personal favourite – topping the list.

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, all 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.

USEFUL WEBSITES

www.french-waterways.com

www.leboat.com

www.otstrasbourg.fr

www.tourisme-alsace.com

www.ot-eguisheim.fr

www.plan-incline.com

By Galley Guys Greg Nicoll and John Armstrong