The trip that started it all, South of France, 2003
The trip that started it all, South of France, 2003

A delightful way to explore Europe

You say barging, we say houseboating

It was 2003. I was newly divorced and desperately needed an adventure. I found an article my friend MB had sent me describing something called barging in Europe. It shocked me that you could drive your own boat on the canals. In the USA, just the insurance needed would be a nightmare.

Little did I know that this would be the start of 20 wonderful years of fun, friendship and travel with the best people I have ever known. I sent an invitation to a number of friends, and a handful took me up on our first trip into the unknown on the Canal du Midi in the South of France.

The Canal Du Midi, France, 2003

That first trip was a kaleidoscope of new experiences. I remember laughing so much my face hurt. We had bikes on board, and we would spot something interesting and throw a line around a tree and take off.

We bought wine and mussels from little stands on the side of the canal and dined al fresco on the top deck. We bought our friend Captain Eric a little French bathing suit (do they call them banana hammocks there?) and he modeled it one day with his cowboy hat.

We teased my friend Maria endlessly about her tiny suitcase, from which miraculous things appeared like inflatable hangars and CDs. We danced to Garth Brooks (a Latina from Miami brought Garth Brooks CDs?) and ate like kings.

We played cards during a loch workers’ strike and stole herbs for dinner out of a canal side garden. We learned how to pump a toilet and work the lines in the endless lochs. Which led to the moniker we would use on all our trips for the waterways – the Poo Poo Canal.

We drank way too much, which ended badly with karaoke in some tiny French village pub. And most of all, we became fast friends. We agreed this was the most amazing trip of our lives, and that we had to do it again. So, we did.

Maria (right) and me in Venice
Maria (right) and me in Venice

Venice, 2004

Thank goodness my dear friends Eric and Barb had been boaters for years, because Venice waterways were complicated and busy. I will never forget dancing on the bow to Garth’s “Friends in Low Places” while pulling into the Grand Canal.

We had no slip reservation, and the marina right at the mouth of the canal was packed with million-dollar yachts. The marina workers were waving off our low-end houseboat, but my friend MB talked the head guy into letting us in.

Well, she might have promised a little more than talking, since he showed up later that week looking for special favors. What an enchanting place.

The water taxis ferried us into town and to the island of Murano. We had peach bellinis at the place where Ernest Hemmingway made them famous. We dined canal side on mouth-watering pasta and MB tried the squid ink pasta (black teeth, yuck). We watched the glass blowers of Murano at work.

We made friends everywhere, from the old guys in the park to the young, gorgeous Italians in the bar. We laughed our way through the Doge’s Palace (everything is funny if you look at it the right way) and the famous bell tower in St. Mark’s Square.

Our last day in Venice, a huge storm blew up. The winds were so high we had to clutch each other and crawl down the dock to our boat. We were supposed to return the boat to home port that day, but the boaters among us knew better.

The lochs in Ireland are a wee bit small
The lochs in Ireland are a wee bit small

We played cards below deck all night, listening to the masts of those huge sailboats literally clanging together. Very scary, but our trusty barge weathered the storm, other than the huge plastic dining table on deck that we never saw again.

The next morning, skies were clear and we sadly left Venice and set out to return the boat. We started to notice plates and bowls floating by. Sure enough, as we approached the marina, we saw another barge overturned and sunk. An idiot tourist didn’t want to pay any late fees.

They were lucky they made it all the way back before sinking, so no one was hurt. Maybe the barging company should rethink that “you only need a 10-minute lesson to drive our boats” marketing slogan.

We will never forget Venice and living la dolce vita.

 Ireland, 2005

The gorgeous green scenery in Ireland lived up to its reputation. We went in the chilly Fall season, and the old barge we rented had seen better days.

My friends Barb and Eric woke up with ice on their blanket one fine Irish morning. But boating on the Shannon was delightful. We cruised by ruins of castles, and the morning mist would rise off the canal like the water was breathing.

I remember white birds swooping by and stunning white horses watching us float by. We took a cooking class followed by a wine tasting at a castle in Northern Ireland. The hilarious Irish guy running the cooking class took our little buckets away, telling the class that Americans “drank it all”. Too true.

The wine shack at the side of the Canal du Midi
The wine shack at the side of the Canal du Midi

We loaded our fellow classmates on the barge after class and headed into a local village pub. What a night! I remember my girlfriend Barb’s face when an older lady who had recently come out as a lesbian was hitting on her in the bar. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

The lady’s daughter and I were laughing and toasting each other when suddenly she stood up and started singing some football song, which resulted in some yelling in the bar.

As Americans, we had no idea what sports rivalry was going on. I don’t remember how we got everyone home, but I assume we did, since no police chased us down the canal the next day. Ireland was so wonderful I went back with my son. But that’s another story …

To be continued…

By Glenda Cole
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Glenda Cole is a retired American executive living her story book life in the Algarve. She and her boyfriend Glenn have a YouTube channel about moving to Portugal called The Glenn and Glenda Show. Glenda also writes for International Living Magazine as well as doing online seminars and videos for them. She recently did her first podcast for International Living and she will be a speaker at their upcoming annual Go Overseas Bootcamp in Denver, Colorado in September.