Just recently, I mentioned I'd ordered a book by the name of Betty's Barge, which claimed to be a charming account of one couple's journeys through France on a historic Dutch barge.
I was very excited when the book arrived and started reading it almost immediately. In fairness, it kept me reading it to the end, but I have to say I was generally disappointed. On the plus side (let's start with the good stuff), Bill Hezlep writes in a friendly and accessible style. It is easy to read in that respect, and it reflects what the author was in his former life: a cartographer and engineer. His companion, Betty, is also an engineer, and the barge is hers. She is the skipper, she makes the decisions and she commissions the work. The book is very factual and if you're interested in technical information about barges, geographic information about canals, their routes and their history, and gastronomic information about the best restaurants and wines, then you will love it. The history accounts of the places they visit are very interesting and well researched.
The story begins with an outline of why Bill and Betty decided that the life of cruising in a historic (please, not antique) Dutch barge was what they wanted. They are both sailors and before buying the barge, they'd spent six years continuously sailing the coastal waters of the US. They wanted a change and a break from the sometimes risky and uncomfortable life of small boat ocean sailing. They spent some time investigating and viewing barges and when they chose the Nova Cura (Betty's barge), they had all the proper surveys done (unlike me) and paid quite a price for their dream boat. All the same, it seems to me they were, unlucky souls, totally ripped off as the barge proved to be a disaster from day one.
They had endless trouble with it and it needed far more work and money spent on it than they'd anticipated. Sadly, the book focuses quite a bit on these problems and the descriptions of their cruising are very much coloured by their disappointments in many areas. It has also left me with an impression of totalling up countless locks, enduring dreadful weather (either too wet or too hot) and an almost single minded mission to find the best food and wine France can offer. To my regret, there was little about the beauty of the countryside, the experience of boating for its own sake, or even about meeting any French people. In truth, it could have been a travel guide for a bus tour. The cruising takes us along certain canals in France, whose routes are described in great detail, and on which they stop at every town. We are regaled with a history of these towns and their attractions, which they explore by bike, and then we move on. The only descriptions of the cruising itself are the number of locks they go through and the amenities at each of the places where they moor up for the night. A pity when you are travelling through some of the loveliest scenery in France.
In contrast, then, a book I have enjoyed immensely is another boating travelogue, this one by Anne Husar, someone I met through my interest in boat blogs. I came across the Wandering Snails Wanderings through another narrowboat blogger who'd been to the Ostend boat festival and had seen their NB there. He'd given a link to their blog, and I started following it, being fascinated by the idea of a narrowboat cruising the Belgian canals. The story of how we met the Snails (as we call them) is documented in my blog archives, but I won't bore you with that again here. Suffice to say they have become friends and I was privileged to read Anne's book, A Cigar in Belgium, at the proofing stage.
This account really makes you feel you are travelling with the Snails and experiencing their cruising life with them. From the first shock of seeing the huge ships on the great sea canal from the Dutch coast to Ghent to the excitement of going up the seventy-three metre boat lift at Strèpy Thieu in Wallonia, you follow it with them, see the lovely country and meet some wonderful people. For me, A Cigar in Belgium is what a barging travelogue should be. Yes, they had their problems and breakdowns too, but these are part of the fun and experience rather than being a litany of disasters. The book has also been professionally edited (which I fear Betty's Barge hasn't) and is laid out with plenty of photos to add to the appeal and imagery of the stories.
For some, maybe many, the informative nature of Betty's Barge is what they are looking for in a watery travel book. But, for sheer reading pleasure, when you want to enjoy boat travel vicariously and dream about it from the comfort of your armchair (or moored up barge), I would personally rather read about the Wandering Snail's wanderings. The great thing about this book too is that it's just the first of what I know is going to be a series, and I'm already looking forward to the next one!
Both books are available on Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.uk. A Cigar in Belgium will also be available on Kindle at some juncture, but I don't think it is yet.