Barge Cruising in France

A barge cruise in France is a sojourn into the good life, where a happy marriage of excellent cuisine, splendid wines, enticing excursions, and restful relaxation are the norm.

Barging in France

France not only has wonderful and historic rivers to choose from, but also offers some of the most incredible barge-cruising territory the world over. The country is interlaced with a variety of picturesque, navigable canals and waterways, providing diverse scenery and architecture, a multitude of landscapes, and an unbelievable potpourri of tastes, smells, and delights. Schedules are unhurried. In fact, floating down a canal on a barge in France is supremely serene and tranquil, the ultimate remedy for de-stressing and disconnecting from the hustle, bustle, and worry of the hectic modern world. The scenery is lovely and the sights are interesting, filled with quaint and sleepy villages, ancient vineyards, world-renowned wine-growing regions, forgotten corners, and languid chateaux. To top it all off, with your own ‘private chef’ on board, the cuisine is also a voyage for your palate. Making the most of fresh, natural ingredients, the chef’s creations are served up with elegance and care, complemented by delectable wines. A barge cruise is a marvelous way to get up-close and personal with the country and locals, and enjoy the gastronomy, wine, sights, and flavors of the real France.

Each canal typifies the region(s) it traverses and barge-cruise itineraries make the most of what the areas have to offer, highlighting the ‘must-sees’ and the hidden treasures. The most popular regions for barge cruising in France are northern and southern Burgundy in the center of the country, Champagne just northeast of Paris, the eastern region of Lorraine bordering the Alsace, and the Garonne and Dordogne in the south west.

What to Expect from a Barge Cruise in France

The Barges

Hotel barges or péniche-hotels come in a range of shapes, styles, and sizes. Some barges are family-owned and operated and some are operated by a larger parent company, which has a fleet of barges of various capacities operating on different canals in different regions. They all have character and personality, which is evident in the care given to the happy and bright flower boxes on deck, the meticulous upkeep of the interior and exterior, the charming and cozy comfort, and the friendly crew. The décor is warm and inviting, often with little idiosyncratic touches, characteristic of the owner. Each barge has a story and each barge-owner or manager is very happy to recount it, often with visual aides and amusing anecdotes.

The atmosphere is intimate. Most barges are between 30 - 50 meters (100 – 165 ft) long and 5 to 7.3 meters (16.5 - 24 ft) wide, with a steel hull and flat bottom. The size of the barge depends on the canals of operation and their respective lock sizes. The majority of barges were brought down from the Netherlands or Scotland, though some were built in the boatyards of France or Belgium. The standard occupancy of a barge is 6, 8, or 12 passengers, with a few accommodating 14, and one or two sleeping 18, 24, or 50 guests. The barges with a capacity for 50 passengers seem more like small, slow-moving river ships or river-boats and they navigate on larger waterways or rivers, rather than on the narrow, intimate canals. There are also self-drive barges available for rent on French waterways, normally accommodating 4, 6, or 8 passengers.

The standard barge-cruise duration is 6 days, though there are a few vessels that operate from 3-day to 13-day cruises, depending on the theme or region. Excursions are conducted with a mini-van or bus, which accompanies the barge. The barge vehicle also operates transfers from the meeting point to the barge at the beginning of the cruise and from the barge to the airport, hotel, or train station at the end of the cruise.

Special Activities and Themes for Barge Cruises

An activity that has typically been connected to barge-cruise holidays in France is hot-air ballooning, which was created by the Montgolfier brothers. Though not included in the price of the cruise and completely weather condition-dependent, hot-air ballooning is sublime. Take-off is usually very early in the morning or in the evening, dictated by the montgolfière (pilot) or hot-air balloon team. Ascending slowly above the villages and floating over the countryside is a serene and unforgettable experience, providing a true bird’s eye view of the area. Landings usually take place in a field or sometimes even on the canal, which is exhilarating. Typically the guests and pilot are welcomed back ‘to earth’ with champagne, juice, and croissants, and even the locals might come out to share some of their treasures. All in all, it is a magical experience!

Cruises may often be combined with special interests, hobbies, or sports, such as bicycling, golfing, walking, cooking, gardens, art history, and the like. There are tour operators specializing in these types of holidays, in which case the whole barge is usually chartered for the week and the sport or activity is incorporated into the daily ‘schedule’ in addition to the regularly planned excursion. There are usually bikes available on board if guests fancy a cycle, for example, and for any other activities or special interests just ask the travel agent, barge owner, or barge company, as they are informative and accommodating. Being able to combine an already wonderful barge cruise with a sport or hobby really makes for a fabulous holiday.

The Canals of France

A multitude of navigable canals and waterways, approximately 8,500 km (5,280 miles), interconnect and traverse France, making it the most popular destination in the world for barge cruising. Though the canals were constructed for pragmatic reasons, connecting the rivers and larger waterways of the country for the transportation of goods and supplies, they have become the destination of choice for pleasurable boating holidays. In olden times, men and a team of horses or oxen trod along the bank pulling the barges. Over time, these paths became well-worn and known as tow-paths. The canal banks were frequently planted with trees, protecting them from erosion and providing shelter for the men and animals towing the barges. Nowadays, the tree-lined tow-paths are pleasant places for a walk, cycle, or jog, or a great spot to stop and rest, have a picnic, or get lost in thought, adding to the overall peaceful ambiance of barge cruising.

An integral feature of the canal system is the presence of locks (écluses), which make navigation possible. Each canal consists of a series of locks, some in a type of ladder configuration, allowing the passage from one waterway to another, sometimes at different altitudes. Going through the locks is part of the adventure, involving accuracy on the part of the pilot, and fun for the passengers. Some locks are electric and some are hand-operated, in which case it is enjoyable for passengers to get involved and turn the crank themselves to open or close the lock gates. The locks do have a schedule, usually opening at 8.30 in the morning, closing for lunch at midday, and then closing again at around 6.00 in the evening, so lock navigation can only take place during ‘business hours’. Each lock has a lock house, usually well-tended, often with flower boxes, full of life, taken care of by jovial lock keepers, happy to engage in pleasant discourse with those on the barge. The many locks make it easy for passengers to get off the barge and have a stroll and are often the meeting-up point for a sightseeing excursion.

In addition to the locks, transferring from one waterway to another may involve the use of a water bridge or aqueduct. This can be a truly remarkable experience. Imagine sitting in a barge, floating along on a canal, and looking down at a river or other waterway flowing beneath you. It is impressive. The aqueducts represent true feats of engineering and craftsmanship. Some of them are quiet famous, such as the Pont-Canal de Briare, which Gustave Eiffel had a hand in designing. Additionally, there are other engineering wonders called barge lifts. These are like enormous bathtubs, filled with water, which pull or lift the barge to another waterway at a vastly different altitude. The Artzwiller Barge Lift in the Lorraine region of France is the perfect example. These canal features are often cherished memories and provide a unique perspective and viewpoint onto the surrounding countryside.

A barge cruise is a way to discover more off-the-beaten-path destinations, mingle with the locals, and experience the history and culture that exist in the tranquil and beautiful countryside of France.

The Canals of Burgundy and the Loire

Le Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal)

The Burgundy Canal is located in the central-eastern part of France. The 242 km (150 miles) canal has a total of 209 locks and stretches from the town of Migennes at the Yonne River in the North to the town of Saint-Jean-de-Losne in the south at the river Sâone. The canal was built in order to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea via the rivers Yonne, Seine, Sâone, and Rhône and construction lasted from 1727 to 1832. The canal runs through the two départements of Burgundy, the Yonne and the Côte-d’Or. The canal passes through rustic towns, with castle-dotted hillsides, and some very important Burgundian wine-growing areas. The major city on the canal is Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, with its Ducal Palace, Roman ruins, and Notre Dame cathedral. Because the canal comes close to Beaune, capital of the Burgundy wine region, the charming town is often included as a coach excursion. Beaune is home to the world-renowned Hospice de Beaune, with its famous roof and wine center. One of the most interesting towns along the canal is La Bussiere sur Ouche, with its Cisterian abbey, Abbaye de la Bussiere, dating to 1103. Pouilly-en-Auxois is a small market town, which is pleasant for a wander. Built in the 13th century by the Dukes of Burgundy, St. Jean-de-Losne has become an important port town for barging and boating. There is a 17th century Town Hall, Hôtel-de-Ville, and a 16th century Renaissance church, Eglise St-Jean-Baptiste.

Le Canal du Nivernais (Nivernais Canal)

The 174 km (108 miles) Nivernais Canal was built in the early 1800s in the center of France. The canal has 112 locks and traverses a surprisingly diverse area and is surrounded by vineyards, forests, cliffs, lush green hills, and picturesque towns. The premiere town is Auxerre, which was the seat of a bishop and the provincial capital of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. It is now a flourishing and vibrant town on the banks of the river Yonne. The main attractions dominating the skyline are the Cathèdrale St. Etienne, which was built from the 11th to the 16th centuries, and the church of St. Pierre en Vallée, built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Descending down the canal, Mailly-le-Ville is a sleepy, but pretty little town, dating back to at least 1103. Across the canal on a cliff is the village of Mailly-le-Chateau, with its 10th century castle. Further down the canal is Clamecy, which is slightly more industrial, especially due to its use for the transportation of logs from the Morvan forests. Nevertheless, the town has a quaint church and a very pleasant town square. An important excursion is to the lovely hilltop village of Vézelay, with its St. Mary of Magdalene Basilica, sited since the 9th century. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the street leading up the hill to the basilica is an enchanting walk, with charming and friendly shops. The notable vineyards of Chablis are nearby and often there is a wine-tasting excursion to this small hilltop town. It is a lovely drive, among winding winemakers’ roads, and shockingly steep hills.

Le Canal Latéral à la Loire

The Canal Latéral à la Loire was built in the 19th century to connect the Canal de Briare at the town of Briare with the Canal du Centre at Digoin. Opened in 1838, this canal is 196 km (122 miles) long, consists of 37 locks, and is popular for holidaymakers, providing fishing opportunities, serene scenery, sunflower fields, ancient towns, and vineyards. The major towns and villages along the way from south to north include Nevers, which has the oldest porcelain factory in France and is famous for mosaics. The town has small cobbled streets leading up to the 15th century Ducal Palace (Palais Ducal), considered one of the first Chateau of the Loire. La Charité sur Loire is lively little town, which was started as one of the first Priories of Cluny. Further up the canal is Ménétréol-sous-Sancerre is a tiny port at the foot of the famous Sancerre vineyards, which lead up the hill to the mediaval village of Sancerre and its feudal castle ruins. At the edge of the hilltop village is a superb lookout point with sweeping views of the valley, canal, river, and vineyards below. Next to Sancerre is the tiny village of Chavignol, which makes the best goat cheese in France. Past Sancerre is Chatillon-sur-Loire; a sleepy, pleasant little medieval fortress town, which has 12th century castle ruins, a Protestant cemetery, and a late 19th century wash house. A popular excursion is to Gien, known for its faience (porcelain) manufactory and hunting chateau. The most famous aspect of the canal is the impressive Pont-canal de Briare, a splendid canal bridge over the Loire reminiscent of grand Paris boulevards, designed by Gustave Eiffel. The town of Briare itself is a pleasant place with a nice setting, known for its mosaics and a lovely 19th Romano-Byzantine church. Barge cruises often continue on the Canal-du-Briare to Rogny-les-sept-Ecluses, so named for the incredible flight or ladder of seven old locks. Though the original locks are not longer in use, you can see them as the barge ascends or descends.

The Canals of Champagne

Le Canal Latéral à la Marne

The Canal Latéral à la Marne closely follows the Marne River from Vitry-le-François to Hautvillers in the Marne département of France. Marne-Champagne cruises may last from as little as three to as many as six days, with some starting in Paris, with a short, but beautiful spurt on the Seine, before crossing over into the Marne. This is the heart of champagne country and the scenery is replete with vineyards, elegant mansions and houses, and historic towns, including Epernay and Reims. Epernay is the capital of the Champagne district and the main trading center for the wines of the region. Located on the left bank of the Marne at the edge of the attractive Cubry Valley, Epernay was established in the 5thcentury. The historic old town has quaint irregular streets, the renowned Avenue de Champagne with opulent 19th century Classical and Renaissance buildings. Dating back to Roman times, Reims is the largest city in the Champagne region, with a rich and varied history, not just relating to wine. Playing a significant role in the history of France, the Notre-Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Reims) cathedral is where the kings of France were crowned and where Clovis was baptized in 501 AD. Champagne cruises may also feature important historic battle grounds, such as Chateau Thierry, which played a prominent role in two different wars: the Battle of Chateau Thierry in World War I (1918), between the United States and Germany; and further back in the Battle of Château Thierry in 1814 during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Canals of Eastern France and the Lorraine

Canal de la Marne au Rhin

In the eastern part of France, the Marne-Rhine Canal connects the Marne River at Vitry-le-François with the Rhine River in Strasbourg. Opened in 1853, the 312 km (194 miles) canal and its 155 locks make transportation between Paris and the east possible. The scenery on the canal is that of sleepy flower-filled villages, verdant hillsides, sweeping countryside, and charming houses. The significant towns along the way include Sarrebourg, Saverne and Strasbourg. Sarrebourg is known for the church, La Chapelle des Cordeliers, with the monumental stained-glass window by Marc Chagall. Saverne is a charming little hill town which is intersected by a bend in the canal. The resplendent Château de Rohan, former residence of the bishops of Strasbourg, has center stage. The largest city at the end of the canal is Strasbourg, the ultimately picturesque center of Europe, sauerkraut, half-timbered houses, a remarkable cathedral, and storks.

When the barge is on the more westerly part of the canal, there are often coach excursions to the town of Nancy, where there has been a settlement since 800 BC. In the old town, the heritage ranges from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, resulting a beautiful array of architectural styles. Included on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list are the grand Place Stanislas, the Place de la Carrière, and the Place d’Alliance. Nancy is also the site of the Ecole de Nancy, which consisted of a group of artists and architects who worked in the Art Nouveau style at the end of the 19th century, creating a rival design center to Paris.

The Artzwiller Lift, an ingenious contraption created as a shortcut to bypass the 17 original locks in this section of the canal. Vessels are lifted up and down the mountainside via the inclined-plane boat lift and the view from the ascending or descending ‘vats’ is marvelous.

The Doubs

The Doubs

Not a canal, the Doubs is a 430 km long river in eastern France and western Switzerland. The river rises in the Jura Mountains, goes northeast following the France-Switzerland border, flows into Switzerland, and then jumps back across into France. The river skirts along the foothills of the Jura and passes through the vineyards of eastern Burgundy. The main attraction is Besançon, capital of the Franche-Comté region of France, which boasts one of the most beautiful historic old towns in France, situated at a horseshoe bend in the river. The town has Roman ruins, Vauban fortifications, an impressive Cathedral, and a 16th century palace. Additionally, Arc-et-Senans is home to a salt works, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Halfway between Besançon and Dijon is Dole; a quiet and provincial town and the birthplace of Louis Pasteur. Some cruises also continue on to Dijon and Beaune.

Canals of the Southwest Regions of the Dordogne and Garonne

The canals in the southwestern part of France are some of the oldest in the country, built to create a navigable shortcut between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Referred to collectively as the ‘Canal of the Two Seas’, they include the Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne. The canals pass through or near some of the most famous wine regions of France, including Languedoc, St. Emilion, Sauternes, Graves, and Bordeaux, as well as ancient sites, Roman ruins, Cathar strongholds, and marvelous towns and villages.

Canal du Midi

The 240 km (149 mile) Canal du Midi in the south of France connects the Garonne River at Toulouse to the port town of Sète on the Mediterranean Sea. Opened in 1681, the Canal contains many structures, including 103 locks, some brides, dams, and a tunnel. The canal has the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered a remarkable engineering achievement. There are several historic towns and villages along the canal, including Béziers, Carcassonne, and Toulouse, and the scenery is luminescent and radiates warmth. Béziers has the well-known aqueduct, Pont-canal de Béziers, which spans the river Orb, as well as the St. Nazaire Cathedral, and picturesque old bridge. Enchanting Carcassonne, the fortified medieval fairy-tale city and castle, is a picture-postcard perfect photo opportunity and popular tourist destination. Located on the banks of the canal and the Garonne river, Toulouse is one of the fastest growing metropolises of France, and a thriving university center. It is located halfway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and has several lovely sights, including the 18th century Town Hall (Hôtel de Ville), the Augustins Cloister, and the city’s landmark, the St. Sernin Basilica.

Canal de Garonne (Canal Latéral à la Garonne)

Included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the 193 km (120 mile) Canal de Garonne, connecting Toulouse to Bordeaux, with 16 locks and several canal water bridges. From Toulouse, the Canal de Garonne travels through sleepy, medieval Moissac, continues on to Valence d’Agen and Aiguillon, after which the canal passes through some of the most renowned vineyards in the world on the last leg to Bordeaux. A beautiful sight is the Château de Beynac, a majestic castle high on a limestone cliff, overlooking the water below. A possible excursion is Nérac, where Henry IV spent much of his youth and the site of a castle, which is said to have been the setting and inspiration for Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost. The renowned city of Bordeaux is an elegant and historic gem, with fine 18th century buildings, an impressive opera house (Grand Théâtre), and diverse churches. The Saint-André Cathedral, Saint-Michel Basilica, and Saint-Seurnin Basilica comprise part of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France. Bordeaux is the capital of Aquitaine and was of significant historical importance because of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II. There are several compelling museums, especially the Musée d’Aquitaine, a captivating place showcasing the entire history of the region. At the heart of the world’s wine-trade, Bordeaux is perfectly positioned for excursions to Médoc, Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Emilion. Additionally, there are ample opportunities for fine-dining, wine-tasting, and shopping in the many market-squares and crooked cobbled lanes of the city.