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Barging through France


There is a booming business in the commercial hire of boats and barges on Europe’s thousands of kilometres of beautiful canals and rivers, and it is no surprise – what could be more fun than mastering one’s own vessel along her criss-crossing waterways, stopping at your leisure to sample local cuisine and investigate the natural and historical sights that would otherwise be too far off the beaten track?

If you are that way inclined the answer is of course, nothing… unless that is you have had the pleasure of doing it chauffeur driven! Imagine if you will…

…over-nighting in Paris following a relaxing train journey from London, and after a long lie-in and sumptuous lunch, heading for Gare du Nord to catch your train south into the glorious countryside of Burgundy. It is the last week in July and, whilst the weather you left behind in London was a darker shade of grey, here in the heart of France it is still strictly T-shirt and shorts time.

The ride into the countryside passes easily, the wine from lunch having its desired effect, and before you know it you are arriving at your destination, Laroche Migennes – a small pretty town on the River Yonne and at the northern entrance to the Canal de Bourgogne.

On the platform you are greeted heartily by the captain and first mate of the Maggie May, your home afloat for the next week or so, and wasting no time at all are en route to the canal-side to make her acquaintance.

Maggie May is a 46ft long, 11ft wide luxury river barge with two comfortable guest cabins sleeping two a piece and both with en-suite bathrooms. She was commissioned during the Winter of 2004 and launched in May 2005 so we were her first guests. Kit and Maggie are a retired English couple who now reside the whole Summer on board the Maggie May; their retirement dream, and having developed a fondness for France over four decades of visiting her, are now enjoying their retirement in some style exploring the waterways of this large and varied neighbour of the UK. Over the next few years they plan to venture into Germany, Switzerland and Belgium as well.

After a brief tour of this lovely boat and some light unpacking, we congregated on deck for a glass of bubbly with French bread (I know all bread in France is technically French bread but you know what I mean) and cheese to mark the beginning of a new voyage, and off we motored into the beautiful warm evening in the direction of Joigny. We have been communicating with Kit for some weeks as to our route and planned stops so we are completely educated as to the geography of Burgundy.

The big advantage of hiring a boat yourself is that you can stop and start whenever and wherever you want – the advantage of doing it this way is that you still have the freedom to stop on a whim, but you have experts on hand to point out if you are making erroneous judgements or at least, ones that don’t fit in with your declared agenda!

During the course of our oh-so-short week away we negotiated dozens of locks – some with rooom for two narrow boats, some containing huge commercial barges – and we all ggained a basic knowledge of driving a big boat (and this lady takes some steering I can tell you) on both canal and river. The process of learning is great fun and often downright hilarious – fortunately Maggie May’s construction allows for a few bumps here and there! She carries four hardy mountain bikes on her rear deck, which serve as the perfect mode of transport for daily grocery shopping and sojourns into the surrounding area – one of our favourite pastimes was ‘racing’ the boat between locks on the bikes and using walkie talkies to communicate our unscheduled refreshment stops to the skipper. Virtually all of the canals have parallel tow paths so you can hop on and off any time.

We tended to dine on the boat every other night and took full advantage of Kit and Maggie’s local knowledge to walk or cycle for dinner on the other nights – likewisse with lunch, sometimes moored, sometimes in pretty riverside restaurants. Our hosts were as happy to accompany us as to leave us to our own devices, but we often found ourselves ‘meandering’ back to the boat together in the evenings having reduced the French wine surplus as best we could!

And as for the wine, well…¦ Burgundy is one of France’s richest wine regions, perhaps most famous for Chablis and Pouilly Fuissé, and to visit this area as a non-consumer must be heartbreaking. For us, who consume perhaps a little too much on occasion, it is B.E.A.utiful – I swear it tastes even better when drunk in the placce of its birth. A tradition that we initiated on this inaugural trip was to accumulate all the corks that had been rendered unemployed and make a string of them as a memento – I understand that a longer string than ours has been consstructed since our visit, and believe me, that constitutes some impressive consumption!

From a more cultural point of view it’s a question of where to start. Highlights included a visit to a working vineyard to see first hand how the local liquid gold comes to be (needless to say we sampled extensively to check they weren’t selling substandard product), we explored the spire-strewn ancient city of Auxerre and the awe-inspiring St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Sens, which was almost worth the trip in its own right – it dates from the 12th Century aand is famous for being the ‘venue’ for the marriage of  Louis IX in 1234 – its striking gothic architecture and broooding tombs provided a cold contrast to the pleasantly meandering river that brought us there. The prettiest town we visited was Moret sur-Loing, its multiple arched bridge straddling the shallow clean river to create a picture postcard scene.

We eventually disembarked reluctantly at Montargis, our pre-planned destination, and following a surprisingly tearful farewell on the platform from Kit and Maggie, we boarded our train back to Paris still laughing at Maggie’s farewell call, which was also the tag-line for our week aboard Maggie May; “Resume zig-zag Mr. Christian” (a reference to my time at the wheel where only with supreme effort was I able to keep the Maggie May on course!)

In summation then, as a method of seeing the France that exists beyond the regular tourist destinations we can’t recommend the experience highly enough, and your hosts are happy to be as involved in your holiday as you wish – beginners French lessons and knot tying classes are available (all tongue in cheek of course), or you can merely take advantage of the mobile ‘office de tourisme’ at your disposal. Think of the nicer sentiments in “Sideways,” swap the car for a boat and a couple of complete strangers and you’re there. We have made friends for life with these colourful and kind people and will be heading back for a week this Summer – tthis time to Champagne country where we can do some real damage!

In practical terms, we would recommend this holiday to one or two couples or a single couple with one or two children of ‘mucking in’ age – very young chhildren on big boats tend to put everyone on edge – but don’t take my word for it when you can get it from the horse’s mouth… 

For further details on how to book and meet the people go to: www.canalvf.com or call Kit on +44 208 505 2658.

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