WORKING TO MAKE TRAVEL SAFER, MORE
AFFORDABLE, AND HASSLE-FREE
Member Log In
Email Address
Password
Forgot your password?

Read here about the adventures and romance of barging the canals of France by two fellow WTA members. Their accounting of their trip offers objective info to help you plan your trip. At the end of the article we've provided a summary of who to contact for your easy reference. Enjoy!

Canals of France

canal_7
Cruising Canal Du Rhone

The canals of France have played a major role in the commercial history of Europe and in the dreams of travelers for centuries. One of the earliest visionaries was Baron Paul Riquet, a farmer and tax collector from the province of Languedoc, who sold a plan to Louis XIV's minister Colbert which would ultimately link the Gulf of Lions in the western Mediterranean with the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic. Built by 12,000 laborers who started digging in 1666, the Canal du Midi stretches 235 kilometers from the city of Toulouse on the Garonne River to the Mediterranean port of Sete. It's an engineering wonder, tunnelling into hillsides, crossing rivers and rising and falling through more than 100 locks across some of the most scenic, tranquil and history-laden landscape in the world.

One of Louis' reservations about a canal between the two seas was the access it provided to English adventurers into his country's heartland. And of course, le Roi was right as usual. Foreign invaders are now so ubiquitous throughout the country's spectacular waterways that virtually every Guide Fluvial is written in French, English and German, and the canals have become rivers of Babel. Some familiarity with French is helpful, of course, but today's traveler can get along just fine without a word of the language. Americans especially are greeted with warm hospitality.

Some familiarity with boats and seamanship may be helpful as well, but again is not a necessity. Do-it-yourself canal barging is slower, safer, more comfortable and, at a top speed of 6-8 miles per hour, vastly more forgiving of a novices' mistakes than say, a couple of rush hour laps on the Champs-Elysees.

Regardless of your boating experience on canals in France or elsewhere, a Carte de Plaisance, or captain's license, must be specially issued to one member of your group for the duration of each trip, and that member must be on-board whenever the boat is in motion. It is most commonly issued by the charter company after a quick lesson in boat handling at the start of the cruise. Generally, the level of instruction you receive will depend upon your boating experience.

Two American couples, members of WTA, who teamed up for a shared charter from the Crown Blue Line (tel. 011 33 467 90 91 70) reported the basics of a typical week-long cruise from Port Cassafieres to St. Gilles, a leisurely journey of only about 100 miles that began on the east end of the Canal du Midi and terminated near the southwest end of the Canal du Rhone a Sete.

Their Commander 6 canal boat measured 42' long by 12' wide with a 3' draft. It had three staterooms with bureaus and closets, two heads (bathrooms with showers), a salon and an austere but serviceable galley. The cockpit had a crank-open convertible roof.

There were only three locks in the stretch of water they chose for their charter, and their transits were simple, swift and convenient. They also easily coped with a variety of bridges.

Within the canals, a turn can be made on the boat's own length simply by using forward and reverse gear with a maximum turn of the wheel - or with the bow against a soft bank.

From start to finish, the journey was an adventure and a delight. Their transit of the lake Etang de Thau offered an interval of open-water cruising, and at night they had a choice of docking among a number of the immaculately preserved medieval walled towns, modern marinas, or the serene solitude (and safety) of an ad hoc tie-down along the canal banking.

Canal bargers are no more bound to their boats than drivers to their cars. Day trips on land included easy excursions by bicycle, bus or even on foot to a wide variety of nearby white-sand beaches, some crowded with vacationers of every tongue and hue, others as solitary and serene as the shores of Eden.

Three of the four travelers were also gourmet cooks, so the quartet feasted royally from their own galley, provendered from the many rich and colorful markets that dotted their route, or dined out on such French Mediterranean specialties as pates, smoked fish, mussels, oysters, sea escargots (larger than the land variety) or roast duck in the surprisingly affordable restaurants, seldom over $20 for a 5-course dinner with each course nearly a meal in itself, including wine.

On balance, the overall trip was a bargain as well. The biggest item was the charter. They also elected to rent four bikes from the boat broker, for those short trips through the local byways or to the shore. All inclusive, with fuel, insurance, bikes, and other extras, barge charter costs were $2,100. For a group of six, which the boat can handle at its maximum, this reduces to $350 per passenger.

canal_2
The Commander 6 docked at a canal pier

Because on-board navigation aids were nonexistent, our correspondents suggested a reliable suction cupped, dash-mounted, automobile compass and a small pair of binoculars. Also recommended was a cellular telephone, available with voice mail from Cellhire USA, Inc. (1-888-476-7368) at $8/day and $2.70/minute to the States from anywhere in France.

One other caution: if you plan to rent a car at St. Gilles, make sure you specify which St. Gilles you have in mind; there is more than one in France, and they're a few hundred miles apart.

To book your trip, you can contact your travel agent or any of these French booking companies: Crown Blue Line (tel. 011 33 467 90 91 70) and Locaboat Plaisance (tel. 011 33 386 91 72 72).

Places to Stay, Eat, and Other Contact Information

  • Crown Blue Line - phone: 011 33 467 90 91 70
  • Locaboat Plaisance - phone: 011 33 386 91 72 72
  • Cellular Telephone from Cellhire USA, Inc. - phone: 1-888-476-7368

Notice: This information is current as of November 1999. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the websites above to determine any changes to the information.