… Ambling Along On The Canals of France
My thoughts of a perfect “sightseeing plus relaxing,” two week vacation in France is, to spend the first week at our Sablet home in Provence, and the second week winding our way through some part of the 3,800 kilometers of canals or 2,900 kilometers of rivers in France on a self drive canal boat, visiting French towns and villages as we go.
Over the years, we’ve enjoyed cruising on the Canal du Midi in the south of France, the Canal du Nivernais in the Loire Valley and the Petite Saône River in the Burgundy region. Cruising down the canals, you see a different side of France, one that is off the beaten path and very relaxed.
Our first trip was with our two college aged sons, (whom we thought would be bored to death going on vacation with their parents). To our surprise, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience, from working the locks (and it always seemed to rain as we pulled into a lock – June on the Nivenais – but it was warm), meeting a bunch of French kids their age – also students who were working some of the locks; making their thoughts of who was the best boat driver well known; trying to figure out the best spots to go exploring; and what days and times the shops were open, in various towns and villages.
Since then, the canals of France have become old friends – ready to go with the flow, when you really want to spend some time traveling at your own pace – which is hopefully no more than about 5 knots per hour – the max speed of many boats.
You find many villages and towns along the waterways, which makes it very easy to pull up for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, visit to a village for shopping, sightseeing or an overnight that includes a wonderful meal at a very nice restaurant.
You can sample the food specialties of the region or in some cases, a particular village, and lock keepers often stock or make local specialty items for purchase.
Over the years, I have bought fresh local honey, freshly made fruit pies (at a lock where the keeper milled the flour and grew the apples!), home made jams and mustard, freshly baked bread, wine and pottery – all while waiting for locks to fill or empty.
Each area has its own characteristics from the largely rural countryside of the Burgundy area where the canals wind their way through quaint little villages and past beautiful chateaux, to the Canal du Nivernais which is more rural and the landscape is one of rolling hills with vineyards and forests.
Villages and towns on the Canal du Nivernais are a little further away from the canal, and give you the opportunity to get out for a walk or bike ride for visits.
One of the advantages of the canals is the tow path beside them. When they were first constructed, the tow path was for the horses that pulled the barges along the canal. Today, these paths make perfect walking/gogging paths or bike paths so that you can ride along beside the boat.
The boat company that we rented our boats from, offers bike rental for a small additional fee, and we usually take advantage of this.
The Canal du Midi is perhaps the most well known of the canals in France, as a designated UNESCO world heritage site. This canal has a very interesting history and was considered quite a feat of engineering at the time of its construction, but relating its history requires a separate blog all of its own. The Canal du Midi runs through miles and miles of vineyards and stunning medieval towns such as Carcasonne……
……..Where the old “Cite” looms over the river, the canal and the City of Carcassonne which is clearly visible and gives you a very impressive welcome, as do all the town’s ducks who swim out to meet the boats, as they slowly travel down the canal to moor up near the bridge.
…..Beziers which was the site of one of the bloodiest battles between the Crusaders and the Cathars on July 22nd 1209……
…….and Narbonne (once the Roman Capital City of the area), as it makes it’s way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
At the end of a day driving the boat, taking a walk or riding into the countryside or a nearby village, it’s time to tie up the boat, light the barbecue and relax with a glass of local wine and some olives and cheese that you bought at the market….. and start it all again the next day.
A Votre Sante!
There are lots and lots of Canal Boat rental companies in France with boats available, but we started with Crown Blue Line, because it was the most convenient for booking from the US. That company has now merged with two others and is called LeBoat – still very easy to book online and lots of choice.