Cars on Boats

A few years ago I remember being surprised, and somewhat taken, by the sight of a car mounted on the stern of a barge passing along the Rhine at Basel in Switzerland. The car was the original Fiat Panda. The utility of the Panda appeared to fit in with the workhorse nature of the barge.

On our recent day trip down the Rhone we saw several barges and nearly all had cars on board; ranging from modest saloons (i.e. the modern day equivilent of the Panda) to a Mercedes saloon.

A Mercedes coupe on a barge

Two cars on a barge!

The most spectacular car on boat example, however, wasn't on a large boat but on a small British registered boat - the Sarah Ann. She was making her way upstream past Avignon with a small British registered car on board. Getting the car on and off must be fun. What a great sight!

Sarah Ann and its small saloon

River Rhone

Over the last two weeks we have been in France, on a short break in the south and then on to a conference in Clermont Ferrand. We spent several days in the delightful city of of Avignon. The trip down there, by Eurostar and TGV was very quick and far less hassle than flying.

Avignon, the home to nine popes in the 14th century, is a walled city and stands on the banks of the Rhone. Being a UNESCO world heritage site it is a destination for many Europe-wide river cruises. We couldn't resist have a day's boat trip so we booked on the boat Mireio which runs day return trips down river to Arles.

The 50m long boat Mireio starts its cruises by running upstream past the four remaining arches of the collapsed bridge that the song made famous before turning downstream. The bridge at Avignon is actually called the St Benezet bridge. It has a spectacular setting when viewed from the Rhone with the magnificent Pope's palace behind.

MV Mireio passing the St Benezet bridge, Avignon

The whole journey on Mireio is based around having lunch (very French). Passengers are shown to their dedicated table on departure and then served a five course meal over the next couple of hours as the boat goes downstream to Arles. At any time you break off from eating and go on the upper deck and view the scenery. We did this rather a lot.

The journey downriver started by passing under the railway bridge designed by Eiffel. The air draught (headroom) under the bridge was very restricted even at summer water levels; presumably this is why nearly all the large river ships and barges have very low bridges or bridges that can be lowered. The TGV (railway) bridges just downstream of Avignon are somewhat different being very high and spectacular pieces of modern civil engineering.

Squeezing under the Avignon rail bridge

TGV bridges at Avignon

Overtaking barge Walhall

We passed through the lock (ecluse) at Beaucaire. This is the last lock on the Rhone's route to the Mediterranean. The neighbouring Vallabrègues dam produces 210 MW of hydro electricity. The lock dimensions are very impressive. It is 190m long and 12m wide with a 16m rise/fall. All boats have to be tied off (onto impressively large floating bollards) and life jackets are mandatory. On the way downstream we were joined at the lock by a working barge (Walhall) and a couple of small cruisers. On the way back upstream we were joined at Beaucaire by a flotilla of small boats including the a very small British flagged fibre-glass cruiser that had some difficulties staying tied onto the bollards as the lock filled.

Floating bollards, Ecluse Beaucaire

"Going Down" - 16m fall

Leaving Beaucaire Lock

Below Beaucaire the river is less wide and the current appears stronger. Over this stretch I tried photographing the captain steering the boat. Recognising a boating enthusiast, he kindly invited me onto to the bridge where we had a difficult conversation in my very rusty French on how the boat was operated, its dimensions, speed and draught etc. His use of radar and GPS was interesting.

On the bridge of the Mireio

Chateau de Tarascon

We moored up at Arles behind a number of large river ships. They looked enormous and very long and sleek. However, it turns out that most are designed with somewhat similar proportions to the standard English narrow boat. The River Royale, for example is 360 feet long and 37.5 feet beam - just about six times bigger than Albert.

Mireio moored at Arles

Arles has great historic roots with a Roman coliseum and amphitheatre along with its Van Gogh connections. We only had a couple of hours to explore it, and it was a hot day 31 deg C, but it has quite a lot going for it in terms of charm and interest and it was well worth the visit - especially by boat (of course!).

Large river ships moored at Arles