Canal cruising in France

Touring the French canals

Touring the French canals is a great way to see the country – “slow travel” in its most literal sense. At an average speed of about four kilometres an hour, cruising isn’t a way to cover vast distances – but it offers a deeper, more intimate experience.

The Canal du Midi is the most famous of the French canals. It’s a major feat of civil engineering, connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean across the central watershed. This was the dream of Pierre Paul Riquet, born in Beziers at one end of the canal; sadly, he died the year before it was finished in 1681.

The most popular stretch of the canal is the south-eastern part, from Toulouse down to Beziers and Sète. This is the dry south, but the canal, with trees hundreds of years lining its banks, always seems green and welcoming.

The canal links the major towns here, so facilities are never far from the canal; at Narbonne, the market is actually held on both banks of the canal’s lateral branch, the Canal de la Robine. Side trips might include the castle of Carcassonne, big enough to include its own cathedral, or the Cathar castles in the mountains.

On the other hand the Atlantic end, while it offers less sublime landscape, also gives access to the river Baïse with its charming villages, the little town of Nérac, and Condom, centre of armagnac production.

With facilities close to canal, and many choices of boat and operator, the Canal du Midi is a standard recommendation for the first time cruiser.

Another well known canal cruising region is Burgundy, with the Canal du Centre, Canal de Bourgogne, and Canal du Nivernais, as well as the river Yonne. Here you’ll find a landscape of rolling hills, with vineyards, forests of maple and oak, and the higher hills of the Morvan. Small towns like Avallon, and the larger Auxerre, have historic charms, while the Romanesque abbey of Vezelay with its single town street leading up to the west door makes a fine half day side trip.

Burgundy is wine country, and its cuisine includes cooked ham, coq au vin, and boeuf bourguignon from the white Charolais cattle you’ll see in the fields. Don’t expect to lose weight, however many locks you have to open.

There are quite a few locks – the Canal du Nivernais has 110! – and this, together with the fact that the towns are often built some way from the marina, makes it a canal for the fitter cruiser.

Brittany offers cruising with a distinct difference; this is granite country, green and mysterious, and its canals are isolated from the rest of the French canal system. Castles punctuate the countryside; slate-roofed villages huddle close to the canal. Narrow waterways run through the dense forests; close to the sea, there are reedbeds and marshes.

The Dordogne is well known to many English tourists but, until recently, wasn’t seen as a cruising destination. Here, again, you’ll find a quite different countryside, where the river Lot has carved rocky gorges out of the limestone, and spectacular medieval castles dominate the river. But the river has strong currents at times, so it’s not for the novice boat hirer.

Finally, the Rhine and Moselle in the north-west have a lot to offer, including the famous inclined plane at Arzwiller for those with an interest in canal engineering. There are a lot of locks on the canals here, but most are automatic.

Holiday options are many and varied. Many cruisers hire a boat for 6-8 people; it’s a good option for a family holiday, as long as the children are old enough to be responsible around the water. While smaller yards may only offer round trip circuits, most of the larger companies offer one way options. And you don’t need a navigation licence.

Another possibility is taking a hotel cruise on a larger boat, such as the 50-passenger Anacoluthe which operates luxury cruises along the Seine. This isn’t a cheap option but it’s all-inclusive, with coach trips and excellent cuisine.

Still not convinced? Minervois Cruisers offers a ‘half and half’ holiday with a self-catering gite as well as a canal boat. And perhaps the most unusual canal holiday offered is an equestrian vacation – riding and boating along the Lot, with Canal Boat Holidays, offering two views of the same river