Bon jour. Canal boating anyone?
Imagine summertime, in the heart of the French countryside, slowly putt-putting down an ancient canal, cruising past quaint villages, open fields and forests. The sudden burst of colour from the golden sunflowers carpeting the landscape and gently swaying in the warm breeze with faint sounds of cows mooing contently in the distance. I had a dream of one day operating a canal boat and travelling along the waterways to experience “la vie française” away from the maddening tourist crowds, the noise and the hectic pace of life. This dream became a reality as I embarked on my watery journey through the heart of France.
Not really having any idea of what to expect, my friend and I arrived for an early start at the boating headquarters on the shores of “Etang de Baye”, a group of lakes in the Burgundy region halfway between Paris and Lyon. After the obligatory paperwork, the routine instructions of managing the boat and the rules of canal boat etiquette, we were ready to navigate the historical Canal du Nivernais on our own!
Were we ready for this?? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t the smoothest of departures. We had to tackle our first lock right there in the presence of the boat operators and in view of an inquisitive crowd.
As we were going upstream, we needed to move into position into the lock and prepare to raise the water level. I opted to be the gate operator, closing one behind the boat and then opening one in front, allowing the water to start pouring in. The boat began to slowly sway and rise, but as the water pressure increased, the boat began to turn from side to side hitting the sides of the lock walls. My friend was yelling to stop as she was trying to steer as well as use her feet to stop the boat banging against the walls, but the pressure was too great for me to try and slow it down. I must admit I had to hold back from laughing as it was such an awkward and funny moment, especially with an audience watching. Once we had control of the situation, and the boat, we slowly chugged along to start our six-day journey.
Ahh.. life on the canal
As we gently motored along the canal in the warmth of the summer sun, it was so relaxing to watch the passing idyllic landscape of open green pastures with cows grazing and quaint little farmhouses. Occasionally we would travel through heavily wooded forests or pass through a deep dark tunnel, just to break it up a little.
It didn’t take long to settle into the slow pace of provincial life on the water. Armed with a detailed map of the canal, we noted the location of the locks and their distance apart as well as where to access fresh water along the way. It’s important to note that you need to plan how long to travel for each day as you are not allowed to operate the locks after 7.00 pm or before 9.00 am, so you need to find a nice spot to moor the boat for the evening.
The fun really began at mealtimes. We would stop and moor the boat, then take our bicycles which were provided, and pedal to the nearest village where we would stock up on freshly made baguettes, local soft cheeses and wines for lunch, or sample some local cuisine in a small family-run restaurant.
Being a sweet tooth, no meal would be complete without a tantalising pastry from the little patisserie. All the while practising my high school French.
Such a beautiful and tranquil way to experience the real France and really meet the locals.
To travel at such a slow and easy pace, allowing you so much time to take it all in and excite the senses.
Yes, I can honestly say I have experienced the “joie de vivre” French style.. Ooh-la-la!!
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