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On A French Barge Trip

ALONG THE RIVER SAONE IN FRANCE -- Uh oh. Our captain is angry. The crew isn't moving fast enough.

They don't have a hard job, after all. We are cruising down a bucolic river in the heart of rural Burgundy, past grazing cows and alongside serene swans leading their babies, on a gleaming white barge that travels only about 3 miles per hour. Every few miles we must go through a lock, where a lock keeper will lower or raise the water level to match that of the next stretch of river. He hawks local honey and wine as we wait.

All the crew must do is moor the boat to the side of the lock -- sometimes scrambling up and down a narrow ladder in the process -- and hold it firm while the water drains or fills.

When the boat bumps the side of the lock, our crew dissolves into giggles, irritating the captain, my husband Andy. But what else can you expect from two 12-year-old girls aided by an eager 7-year-old? The girls -- my daughter Reggie, her friend Emily Thomas from Evanston, Ill., and younger Melanie -- think Andy is taking this all too seriously. It's vacation, after all.

Taking a cue from European families, we've rented our barge (with fuel) for the week from Crown Blue Line, the leading barge-chartering company, for less than renting a house in many American beach towns and about the same, I figure, that we might pay for a cottage in the French countryside.

The difference is that we can change towns -- and neighbors -- at whim. All we must do is motor to the next village or, if we prefer more privacy, the next bend in the picturesque river. Our boat is a cozy temporary home with berths for all, plenty of hot water for showers and a well-equipped albeit small kitchen. We don't mind when it rains since we can drive the boat from inside the cabin or up on the deck where there's a white plastic table and chairs covered by a cheery yellow umbrella. Bikes for each of us, including a small two-wheeler for Melanie, are strapped in the back. Wherever we roam, we're far off the tourist track, traveling through small rural villages with lace curtains in every window, flowers blooming everywhere and names like Gray, Mantoche and Pontailler-sur-Saone.

We can count the number of Americans we meet on one hand. Ditto for those who speak English. One afternoon we walk up the crooked, narrow streets to an old cathedral in Auxonne, the town where Napoleon was garrisoned as a young soldier, arriving just as a jubilant wedding party is leaving.

Another evening we pull alongside a tiny river-front restaurant where locals from the nearby town are enjoying dinner on the covered patio overlooking the water. ``Could we spend the night?'' I ask in halting French after we order our meal.

Not a problem, the waitress replies. Melanie is thrilled. So am I. While we linger over our espresso, our ``crew'' hops back on board to get ready for bed. The next morning, we awake to French fishermen trying their luck nearby with their extraordinarily long poles. The entire week is like that night -- unexpected I-can't-believe-this-is-happening moments.

Had budget not been a consideration, we could have opted for a classy barge-with-crew who would have served us gourmet meals and catered to our every desire. We also could have chosen a hotel barge family trip. But that wasn't the experience we were seeking. A lot of the fun was learning as we went, after a quick lesson at the Crown Blue Line base in St. Jean de Losne the morning after we'd arrived by high-speed train from Paris.

Armed just with the detailed river guide they gave us, we set out in the sunshine. Driving the boat was easy. Docking was hard until we got the hang of it. We bought ``provisions'' (read croissants, fruit, cheese and bread for lunch) along the way.

Bringing a friend for Reggie on a trip like this was a smart move. The two were never bored, and I was comfortable letting them wander (armed with some francs) in these small towns.

The only down side was the inevitable squabbles, a 7-year-old pitted against two older ones. On the one hand, I wish a family with a child Melanie's age had joined us. But an unexpected plus was the all-too-rare concentrated time we had with our youngest.

At night, we anchor alongside German and French families, trade tips with a seasoned barging couple from Britain and an Irish family who also have three children aboard. We exchange restaurant recommendations. Of course, it's impossible to have a bad meal in France -- even when we prepare it ourselves.

That happened when we realized too late that the lock keepers close shop promptly at 7:30 p.m. We found ourselves stuck until the next morning next to a cow pasture, miles from the nearest village. We managed a fine meal of pasta -- I decided that night never to travel without a bag of noodles. The local wine, our mooing neighbors, an intense game of Scrabble and the starry sky made that night one of the most memorable of the trip.

The best part was not to have an agenda. When we tired of the river, we could ride bikes. Or hike, as we did one afternoon through a giant field of sunflowers. Another day, we took a half-hour taxi ride to visit some (ital) caves (unital) (wineries) in the heart of French wine country. After an uncomfortable afternoon in the car, I realized what a wonderful alternative the boat offers for touring families.

The kids didn't seem to miss the comforts of home too much. With only an occasional phone call in a stopover town, our world narrowed to our boat and the stretch of water in front of us. The girls scouted the local (ital) tabacs (unital) for World Cup souvenirs, fed the baby swans and jumped off the top of the boat into the river. We played a lot of Scrabble, cards and charades. We laugh at you've-got-to-be-here-to-get-it jokes.

This, I decide, is what every family vacation should be -- a shared adventure at our own pace, the chance for all of us to slow down enough to tune into one another.

Maybe that British couple we met had the right idea. They stay on the river for months.

IF YOU GO:

As well as France, Crown Blue Line rents barges in Ireland, Holland and in New York State along the Erie Canal. Summer prices start at under $2,500, including fuel, for a boat that sleeps four. Rates are cheaper in spring and in October. Call 800-355-9394 or www.Crown-Holidays.co.uk.

If a hotel barge is your style -- more people around and no work for you -- Abercrombie & Kent offers special summer family barge trips on boats carrying fewer than 30 people in England, France and Belgium with itineraries geared to children. Adults pay roughly $2,000 and children under 16 $1,200 for the six-night trip. Call 800-323-7308 or www.abercrombiekent.com.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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