You amble off your barge into a cobblestoned European village, enjoy a fresh-baked croissant and steaming cafe creme at the shop on the corner, then wander the streets, discovering a closet-sized clock shop and a charming handmade-toy store. After an hour or two, you reboard your floating hotel for a leisurely water journey past farms and vineyards to the next picturesque village.

Sound like a dream? It's one that can come true. Touring by barge offers one of the most comfortable and relaxing ways to explore Europe — and without having to pack and unpack your bags at each new destination.

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What to expect

Conditions vary from barge to barge — and from budget to budget — but generally, even the smallest cabins are similar to what you'd find in a cozy country inn, with comfortable beds and private bathrooms.

Barge passengers are guaranteed a much more intimate experience than on a large cruise ship. The smallest barges accommodate four or six passengers, and the largest up to 32. This is one reason barge journeys are ideal for multigenerational family vacations or for a special celebratory getaway with a group of best friends. But many travelers voyage solo or as couples and enjoy the camaraderie of newfound friends.

Cabins at the small end of the scale generally range from 90 to 100 square feet. At the more expansive end, you'll find some closer to 160 square feet and others as spacious as 230 square feet. These usually come with similarly splendid accoutrements and furnishings.

Itineraries

The most popular destinations follow canals and rivers in France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. Some companies also cruise in Croatia, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic.

Most cruises are six nights and seven days, and cover about 30 to 50 miles. Barges usually make a few stops each day, where you're free to wander on your own or relax on board; in some places, a local guide and land transportation will be provided to allow you to visit a chateau, cathedral, winery, cheesemaker or other notable site. Onboard crews range from two people on the smallest vessels to 12 on the largest; virtually all crew members speak English.

See also: Quiz: How well do you know the Mediterranean?