When I first went to Paris, I was struck by the beauty of this city. I was also amazed at how many boats I saw. Before I went I read about its history and about the things to see, food to taste and museums to visit. But being one who has spent a lot of time on boats, I was really surprised that I had not seen anything written about, or photos of, all the boats. Walking along the Seine I saw numerous vessels and wondered where they all came from. Many of them had been set up to be magnificent living spaces. I also wondered where all those people went when they left Paris. I had to find out.
Little did I know that my partner had an in. When I started asking questions she told me that her Texas parents had a Dutch barge. Now, in my mind a barge is one of those flat things that people pile dirt or scrap metal on and push around with a tugboat. That’s not the case in Europe. Most of them had been built for commercial uses but are self-powered, fully enclosed vessels. So, as it turned out, I got an invite to go cruising through the waterways of France and it changed my prior perceptions of cruising.
Now we go a few weeks every year. It is one of the most intimate ways to experience France. It’s an opportunity to move slowly around the country, take your time and become immersed in the sights, smells and tastes France has to offer.
There are several ways to go about getting on the waterways. The most popular is to book passage on one of the large river cruises or on what is called a “hotel barge” which can navigate the canals as well as the rivers. These offer much of the luxury of a cruise ship where everything is done for you, from meal preparation to planning what to see at each stop along way. For many this is exactly what they’re looking for. But some people want a more hands-on experience. Some of us want to create our own itinerary and decide what to put on our own menus. Creating your own cruise gives you exactly that.You suddenly transform from tourist to traveler and become part of a community. As many people know, most places where boaters gather there is a certain comradery. While cruising in France I met people from many places on the planet and walks of life such as the Australian soldier and the retired London cabbie. It’s a great mix of French, Brits, Australians, New Zealanders, Germans, Belgians and a few people from the United States as well as others, all with a common interest of cruising. It’s not uncommon to share stories, cruising tips, meals and some wine together. There is plenty of space though. Even with the increased popularity of cruising it’s estimated there are less than three boats per kilometer on the canals and rivers which span close to 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles).
Handling a boat creates added freedom and added responsibility as well. For people who have experience with boats the learning curve will be reduced. That said, if you have a desire to learn how to create your own cruising experience you can! I know many people who had little or no experience with boats and are now experienced cruisers and love it.
For the truly novice cruiser there are small cruise operations that will allow you to book passage and will teach you the ropes. They offer much of the benefits of the large operations such as meals, wine and local sites to see. All of this in a more intimate boating environment and a chance to learn as well. They will teach you how to handle the lines (ropes) when you go in and out of locks and docking. You will learn how to see when to approach a lock and the protocol when sharing a lock with other vessels, how to navigate the channels and watch for hazards. And you learn, if you like, how to go into the nearest town to provision which is something I love to do. There’s almost always a local cafe’ open where you can sit and enjoy a coffee or glass of wine while out getting fresh baguette for the night’s dinner.
For those more confident in their cruising abilities there is the option of renting a boat. There are companies that will rent a boat to you and help plan your trip. Some have multiple locations so you can take one-way trips which offer an opportunity to take in more of the country. These companies have modern boats which are nicely appointed, are easy to handle and often have multiple cabins for larger families or multiple couples wanting to share the journey.
When you do decide to take strike out on the water there are a few things you can do to make it the perfect trip.
1. Have a bicycle. Some companies that rent boats also offer bicycles for rent. Bicycles allow to you explore well beyond your mooring. The towpaths next to the canals are fun to ride. It also makes it easier to provision.
2. Have a light backpack for shopping. That way you can walk or bicycle further and make stops along the way more easily.
3. The locks close at night and at lunch so make sure you have provisioned ahead of time. This way you can eat while the lock keeper does what he/she needs to do.
4. Have a few Euro available. Some people like to tip the lock keepers. They help with the lines and make sure your vessel is safe while in the lock especially when there are other boats. Also, some of the lock keepers have local wine and produce for sale too.
Warm weather has arrived. It’s time to plan your cruise. I hope to see you on the water. Bon voyage!