We often prefer to stay in self-catering accommodation when we are travelling in Europe. Sometimes, if it is a short visit, we stay in a hotel. We mostly prefer homemade food to eating in restaurants. I always like to explore the area and cannot wait to go out of the hotel and discover places.
The idea of a river cruise in a floating hotel was a new experience for me. I knew it would limit my movements and I would be bound to eat the food cooked by the barge’s chef. Besides, I had to sit and eat with complete strangers to share time and places. Therefore, it was a blind adventure, not realising what I should expect and what would be the outcome.
We flew to Strasbourg airport and took a taxi to the CroisiEurope base, south of Strasbourg, to join MS Madeline. We were early and found the crew in their t-shirts and jeans still preparing for the arrival of guests.
We were welcomed warmly by Florence, the hotel barge manager, a cheerful ex-policewoman who has recently joined the company. We were guided to our cabin, which was very bright and airy with a window just a little above the canal water. At first sight it appeared compact but was in fact a quite sizeable bedroom with a small wardrobe, desk, TV and en-suit shower room. It was all we needed for a comfortable journey on the French waterways.
We had a few hours before the boat officially started to cruise. We took a tram to the city center for a quick visit and to gather information about places of interest. Sadly we only had time to visit the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg but what a wonderful building. A delicate spectacle that combines Romanesque and Gothic architecture. We climbed the stairs to the roof of what is the sixth highest cathedral in the world for a full panoramic view of the city.
We returned to the boat to join other guests for a welcome cocktail reception where Florence kindly introduced Camille, the captain and other crewmembers in their nicely tailored uniforms and giving us a general overview of the cruise trip and the excursions. Shortly afterwards, we had dinner onboard while the boat started moving towards the town centre where we boarded a smaller city river boat for a sight-seeing tour of the city, followed by a walking tour of the old town.
We all sat around a large table set for 10 people. The guests aged 50 to 85 from UK, USA and New Zealand were great. It was very cosy and felt like a private party as there were only 10 guests on this cruise. It was an opportunity to get to know everyone while Zultan, the restaurant manager, served the food. He attended everyone with a pleasant demeanour and poured drinks in glasses. He offered us soft drinks while others drank wines of their choice from the region.
Romain, the chef came forward with his specialty for the night. He told my wife, and I “I have organized special foods for you from a good selection of vegetables, fish and halal meat”. We were very impressed that the crew were so considerate, mindfully observing our needs. We had the starter, main course and dessert, all cooked and prepared by Roma. The food was an excellent example of delicious French cuisine. It was a very homely and comfortable atmosphere.
We walked to the city center for guided tour of Strasbourg on river boat to go through canals surrounding the city. It was love at first sight for me, getting a brief glimpse of a scenic and charming city full of historic landmarks and many houses with Romanesque architecture, seeing a capital city hosting European institutions and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Our boat moored in Strasbourg overnight. Our one-week adventure on board a floating hotel continued in the morning when the boat started sailing at 7 AM. The sounds of the engine woke me up. I looked through my bedroom window to watch the slow movement of the boat in the canal. It was pouring with rain outside and the raindrops splashed melodically in front of me. I was tempted to go back to bed but I did not want to be late for breakfast.
The continental buffet breakfast had plenty of options along with fresh local bread. It was delightful eating while watching the scenery keep changing along the canal Du Marne in the early morning breeze. We were navigating towards Saverne, gliding up the valleys and going through many locks in Alsace region.
Our boat, MS Madeline was a hotel barge being built by CroisiEurope themselves only a few months earlier and launched to serve in the Alsace region from April. The interior design of this 24-passenger barge with smooth modern décor was very appealing to me. One of the cabins is specially designed for disabled. The boat featured a small bar, restaurant, Jacuzzi, sun deck and several bikes for guests to discover hamlets and villages through nicely paved cycle tracks along the canal.
I used the bike a few times to discover the countryside and small towns near the canal. Rodolphe, the captain’s assistant helped me to set up the bike. As I found the saddle very small and hard, he wrapped some towels around it to make it more comfortable for me. I got off in one lock and rejoined the boat in another. It gave me a lot of flexibility and great pleasure to go biking.
I was curious as to why the boat is called Madeline. Florence explained to me that The CroisiEurope is a family run business owned by the late Gerald Schmitters, who started his business 35 years ago from a restaurant. Madeline is the name of Gerlad’s first wife who passed away at the age of 44. The boat bears her name along with her favourite yellow colour tailored in fabrics as a sign of family loyality.
I asked other guests about their experience. One said that she liked the food. Another noted that he really enjoyed cycling. Overall, everybody was happy. For me, the most enjoyable aspect was meeting new people. It was a good opportunity to make new friends. However more importantly, we had a wonderful crew which created a good atmosphere for everyone.
The cruise was a real pleasure and everything went very smoothly. We truly felt at home. The crew were serving us from their heart as though we were at a close friend’s party for a week. They all worked together very well providing the highest level of service possible. Although passengers’ moods may have changed from day to day, they never stopped smiling.
The excursions were well planned to give us a real taste of the Alsace region and life in France. We visited Waltenheim, Wingersheim, Saverne, Chateau de Hohbarr, Lutzelbourg, Arzviller Inclined Plane, Xouaxange, Lagarde and Sarrebourg. Each visit deserves a separate chapter and all proved to be wonderful places to experience.
The canal cruise through French waterways is a super way to taste French cuisine and explore the splendour of the countryside and its beautiful villages.
For further information visit www.croisieurope.co.uk.