Forget the hustle and bustle of modern life, and enjoy returning to a much slower pace; holidaying by barge. Rushing from place to place is just not possible. You are limited by the gentle pace of a barge moving at just a few miles an hour; through beautiful countryside, offering views that you cannot see in any other way.
Barge holidays are widely available throughout the UK, and on the Continent. I tried a barge holiday in France with European Waterways and had a fantastic time; discovering the delights of the Nivernais canal through rural Burgundy.
Passengers were collected from the Hotel Westminster in Paris and taken by minibus to join the barge at Auxerre. There were just 8 guests and a crew of 4 on board. Although none of us had met before, friendships were quickly discovered, and a very relaxing atmosphere pervaded the entire vessel. It is the perfect setting for an intimate house party style of holiday.
We journeyed on the L’Art De Vivre, a gleaming blue and white barge, which takes guests on a voyage between Auxerre and Chevroches. It has a dramatic history, starting life as a munitions’ barge, carrying ammunition to the troops on the Western Front during World War One. Now converted into a luxury touring barge, the quality of accommodation is spectacular. Although narrow, the cabins contain every possible luxury provided, including an en-suite bathroom. A comfortable lounge doubles as the dining area, and there was plenty of room to sit out on deck and watch the world go by.
For those who preferred a little more action, bikes could be borrowed for journeys along the towpath, or you could relax in the warm waters of the Jacuzzi. Anyone wanting to walk part of the way could do so, rejoining the boat at the next lock.
Each day saw a gentle routine developing. A short cruise to a new mooring took place either in the morning or afternoon. There were also guided excursions to places of interest, allowing you to explore remote country towns and to shop in rural markets, deep in the heart of France. Other excursions included a beautiful chateau and a hill top town with winding streets, as well as experiencing stunning views. There was time to explore on your own, strolling along country lanes or exploring hidden corners of little villages close to the mooring points. Little archways led to unexpected delights such as the cellar doors at Noyers, ornamented with elaborate carvings, and the ancient houses which seemed to tilt alarmingly! Particularly memorable were the majestic limestone cliffs at Les Soissions, where flocks of falcons flew over the tranquil landscape. Keen walkers could climb up a narrow pathway, where you almost had to scrabble over rocks – while the lazier amongst us took a leisurely minibus ride through the cliffs to reach the top. The views were certainly worth the effort.
On each voyage, the gourmet chef had the task of providing incredible, high quality meals; using local produce purchased along the way. Classic dishes were frequently given unusual twists, as the chef liked to be creative: So there were dishes like Pan-Seared Scallops and Sriracha Chilli Sautéed Crayfish; Pesto Marinated Mediterranean Bochettes; Pumpkin and Honey Pie; Deconstructed Boeuf Bourguignon; Artichoke & Blue Cheese Pots; and Cointrreau & Star Anise poached Cod Loin. Special diets were no problem; all you had to do was notify the chef when booking. Our vegetarian dishes were so mouth watering that some of the other guests were looking almost enviously at our plates!
This was undoubtedly one of the most relaxing breaks I have ever had. There was absolutely nothing to do beyond relax. Everything was done for you – transport to and from the boat, all excursions, catering and of course the leisurely cruises down the river. Each night, the barge moored in a new setting: Each mooring was a quiet, rural location, so sleep was never disturbed. There was just the very gentle slap of water against the hull to lull you to sleep.
It was a journey full of memories. The countryside changed slowly: passing lush fields where Charolais cattle grazed, to hillsides covered with forests. There was a lot of laughter as Captain Fabrice and his assistant carefully edged the boat into narrow locks where there were only millimetres of space between the boat and the side of the lock. It takes time for the water in a lock to reach the right height – sometimes enough for us to dine while it was happening. The friendly people along the way made us feel very welcome. Then there were the stunning sunsets; the long rows of Poplar trees gently changing to brilliant golden autumnal colours; being entertained by local musicians and hearing familiar songs sung in a different language: Sadly, not all the music was of the same quality – our final night was enlivened by the discordant sounds of a group of hunters trying to perfect their hunting music in a nearby orchard. According to the crew of the L’Art De Vivre, it had scarcely improved since the spring time!
Alternatively, you can hire barges and crew them yourselves. Le Boat is one of the key players in this sector, offering canal boat holidays in both France and the UK. Popular touring areas include the South of France, the Carmargue, with its pink flamingos and beach resorts, the Loire Valley, Brittany and Burgundy. No license or experience is required to operate a boat. These are smaller, self catering vessels. On arrival, you are given a briefing and demonstration on how to drive the vessel. Full details are provided as to where to go, which side of the river or canal on which you should pilot, stopping places and what to do if a problem occurs. Help is of course only a telephone call away.
For a more traditional narrowboat style, Black Prince operate from nine canal side bases including Warwickshire, the Peak District, Cheshire, Oxford, Scotland and Wales. Each of its centrally heated narrow boats caters for groups of between 2 and 10 people and enjoy free WIFI and a fully equipped kitchen.
Self drive boats have the advantage that there is no set itinerary, so you can be very flexible as to where you go, and how long it takes you to get there. Operating locks is very simple, but it does take time. You have to wait for the water to reach the required height before opening the next set of gates and moving on. Depending on where you are, you may have assistance in opening the locks. Along the Nivernais canal, only the lock keeper can open the gates so some notice has to be given in advance. Within the UK, most of the locks have to be opened by hand, but there are usually other boaters around to help and advise. Staff at the hire companies can recommend routes (strenuous or gentle, with or without locks) so as to ensure that your holiday is a perfect break.
L’Art de Vivre is operated by European Waterways, who also operate many other luxury barge cruises throughout France and the UK. www.gobarging.com
Le Boat www.leboat.co.uk
Black Prince www.black-prince.com
By Angela Youngman