Once Upon a French Canal…
The waterways of France are sensational,” says Richard Parsons. “Nowhere else in the world are they so beautiful.” Certainly no one else can speak with more authority about them than Parsons, the English enthusiast who is universally credited with launching the pleasure barging phenomenon in France. Says Parsons modestly, “I do think it was a very good idea.”
As a young reporter for Reuters in the early 1960s, Parsons already owned an English narrow boat, the only craft slender enough to tackle England’s smaller canals. Then in 1965 he and his brother John bought an old coal barge and brought it to Dunkirk with the idea of transforming it into a floating hotel in France. At the time, he says, there were already a few boats in England that took paying guests, but “basically, no one had converted a canal barge.”
Scraped, scoured and refitted for passengers, the new craft was named Palinurus—in Roman mythology, the helmsman who piloted the ship of Aeneas and his followers after the Trojan war, and also the pseudonym used by British author Cyril Connolly for The Unquiet Grave, which Parsons was reading when he bought the barge. “And of course,” he says, “I assumed that if you had the most beautiful barge in the world, everyone would want to come and cruise on it.”
When it comes to converted coal barges, though, beauty is often in the eye of the proud parent, and the Palinurus was far from glamorous. Outfitted for 20 passengers, “we had one bath, two showers and two loos,” says Parsons. “We never thought about luxury then—it was just the idea of a fun holiday, walking and biking and eating and drinking. The most exciting thing for me was that no one else was doing it. And I think we were responsible for coining a new French word: péniche-hôtel.”
Their first cruises were in Burgundy, on the river Yonne and the Canal de Bourgogne. A brochure sent to the London Times produced a travel story that started English customers coming. “It was sheer luck, really,” he says, “but France had terrific cachet then—the wine, the food, everything—so people wanted to visit. And at the time, tourism barely existed outside of Paris, Nice and the Loire Valley. We gave guests a new alternative, a way to see la France profonde. We went to local cafés, we participated in local activities, and everyone was so friendly.” Parsons also knew that food would be a crucial part of the package, so from the start there was an “extremely convivial” French chef on board to uphold French culinary standards afloat.
“There was still a lot of commercial traffic then, and we were the only pleasure barge. We’d get stuck behind commercial queues of barges—I remember once being 64th in line waiting for a lock.”
“It’s all so different now,” he says, “and hotel barges are so luxurious. It’s very strange, though. Over time we had some of the richest people in the world on this terrible boat,” he laughs. “They would be coming from a night at the Hôtel Meurice, and saying things like ‘The Meurice is not as good as it used to be’, and I would think,‘Oh dear, wait until you see my cabins...’.”
The clientele was exclusively British until, learning about the Palinurus through friends, American writer Emily Kimbrough chartered the barge with friends for a two-week trip in the spring of 1967. Best known for her early memoir of a post-collegiate European Tour, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, the then 70-year-old Kimbrough brought along an influential group of writers and actors including her co-author on Our Hearts, actress and humorist Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights and screenwriters Frances and Albert Hackett (It’s a Wonderful Life, The Diary of Anne Frank).
Kimbrough’s book about their adventures on the Palinurus, Floating Island, published in 1968, launched pleasure barging in the American market, and even now Americans represent the vast majority of hotel barge clients on French waterways. Americans, though, demanded more creature comforts, and as more Barges entered the business they became ever more lavish. In 1969, Parsons and another young ex-journalist Guy Bardet—“one of the very few French people who really got into barging”—started Continental Waterways. “We didn’t really think about it as a serious business,” says Bardet. “It was more about adventure.” At the time, he remembers, on the small, deserted Canal du Nivernais, “there were still locks and lock keepers, but there was nothing going through. The branches overhead hung so low we had to chop through them with a machete.”
But serious business it became, eventually growing to a fleet of 15 barges. More than 30 years later, in 2003, they sold Continental Waterways to the American Grand Circle Line. Bardet started Canal & Co., based in Dijon, which now runs five big hotel barges—two in Burgundy and one each in Alsace, ormandy-Ile de France and Germany/Holland.
Parsons retired in 2003 and now runs Burgundy Villas, rental cabins on a farm near Semur-en-Auxois, but he hasn’t given up barging. He owns Xanthos, on which he is gradually pursuing his dream of barging to Moscow. So far he’s made it to Poland, and this spring he’ll move on. And he’s lost nothing of his enthusiasm for canals. “I live five minutes from the canal now,” he says, “and from there I can float all the way to Moscow. Isn’t that wonderful?”
And the Palinurus? Bought and refitted by John and Penny Liley, it’s now the Luciole, plying the Canal du Nivernais. Without benefit of machetes.
Take your pick
Today the most popular places for barging in France remain Burgundy and the Canal du Midi. Burgundy, with its wealth of waterways (1200 km/746 mi) is a boater’s heaven. Not only do the Seine, Loire, Yonne and Rhône rivers water the region, but starting in the 17th century they were linked with an intricate network of canals. Together they offer an unforgettable glimpse into one of France’s most appealing regions, rich in history, with terraced vineyards, stone villages, unspoiled countryside and flourishing wildlife. Burgundy’s three main canals are the small but beautiful Canal du Nivernais, from Decizes to Auxerre, the larger Canal de Bourgogne, linking Migennes to Dijon, and the Canal du Centre, flowing between Chalons-sur-Saône and Digoin.
There’s a tendency to refer to the entire length of France’s great southern canal as the Canal du Midi, when in fact only the southeastern portion, from Toulouse to Agde, rightfully claims that name. North of Toulouse it’s the Canal Latéral à la Garonne, which flows all the way to Bordeaux. Together with their branch canals they account for 500 km (310 mi) of waterways, 145 locks and seven great canal bridges.
But France offers many more options for water travel. Barging is possible in Alsace, for example, on the Canal du Rhône au Rhin, which links the Burgundy network to the Rhine through Montbéliard and Mulhouse; farther north, there’s the Canal de Colmar (a city known for its own “Petite Venise”) and the northern branch of the Rhône au Rhin at Strasbourg.
On the Seine there are week-long cruises between Paris and Honfleur on the Normandy coast; Brittany is crisscrossed from east to west by the Canal de Nantes à Brest and from St-Malo in the north to the Atlantic near Pénestin in the south by the Canal d’Ille et Rance and the peaceful Vilaine River. And river cruises ply the beautiful Charente, which passes through Jarnac, Cognac and Saintes on its way to Rochefort-sur-Mer.
As for the best way to experience French waterways: For the more adventurous, there’s the self-drive trip, where, after a short lesson in barge handling and a quick explanation of how to work the locks, you’re on your own. A self-drive trip takes plenty of advance planning—you set the itinerary, determine the timing, what to see and where to tie up at night. Booking companies can take much of the guesswork out of choosing the right barge, but there’s still a lot of learning by trial and error. For those who want a do-it-yourself experience, though, that’s part of the fun.
Many more people, and certainly most beginners, prefer the ease, comfort and cosseting of a péniche-hôtel.
Lapping in luxury
More than 60 hotel barges ply the canals and rivers of France, offering accommodations that range from snug and comfortable to positively princely and promising a relaxed, stress-free voyage taken in hand by professional pilots, genial hosts and attentive crews—a floating world of luxe, calme et volupté.
Barge hotel names are often lyrical, from Alouette, Anacoluthe and Anjodi to Renaissance, Savoir Faire and Sérénité. For romance, there is the Athos—one of the dashing Three Musketeers—usually found on the Canal du Midi. The St Louis, named for France’s Crusader king Louis IX, operates on the Canal Latéral à la Garonne, between Toulouse and Bordeaux, while the Roi Soleil—the Sun King Louis XIV—holds sway on the Canal du Midi and in Provence. There’s a bouquet of barges named Amaryllis, Fleur de Lys and Nénuphar (Water Lily), and for flights of fancy, there is the Hirondelle (swallow), the
Papillon (butterfly) and the Libellule (dragonfly), all in Burgundy. There’s Latin panache on the Midi canal with sister ships Tango and Fandango; happy times in the Loire with Bonne Humeur, Bon Vivant and Bonne Amie; La Lorraine cruises Alsace (and Lorraine); and in honor of the tranquil pace of barging, in southern waters there is La Tortue—the turtle.
This enchanting fleet also comes in various sizes. For passengers, the important factor is the size-to-passenger ratio. The greatest luxury on any ship is space, and a 30-foot craft taking 14 guests will have smaller cabins than a 38-footer taking six or eight. “There are barges that are very simple, basically B & Bs” says John Liley, secretary of the Hotel & Barge Association and owner of the Luciole, based on the Canal du Nivernais. “And some are extremely luxurious, with big cabins, air-conditioning and four-poster beds.”
To a certain extent, size also determines the itinerary, since the dimensions of waterways vary. Many larger barges cannot navigate smaller canals like the Nivernais or the Canal du Midi, while smaller barges usually avoid rivers like the Rhône and the Saône. The size of locks, the height of bridges and the canal depth also come into play— bigger passenger barges can draw as much as a fully-loaded freight barge, and would scrape bottom in smaller canals.
Speed limits (4-8 mph) affect the distance a barge travels in a day, as do the number of locks on a stretch and lock hours—now much shorter than they once were, in part because France’s 35-hour work week has cut lock keepers’ schedules. Locks today generally operate between 9 am and 7 pm, with an hour for lunch (they are also often closed on holidays).
No matter the size, virtually all péniche-hôtels now have private baths in every cabin, and all offer bikes and cars or minibuses for excursions to towns and villages, museums, monuments and vineyards along the way. Side trips to a gourmet restaurant or two are often included too, but when it comes to food and wine, most hotel barges promise great eating and drinking on board, with copious breakfast feasts, three-course lunches and lavish dinners, often by candlelight and sometimes on deck on fine summer nights. Wine is almost always included in the fare, and many barges offer open bars as well. The secret to the most successful barge trips, experts seem to agree, is extremely good food and wine, and the good service that goes with them.
While three- or four-day cruises exist, a week-long voyage is the most popular, usually six nights. Some barges, especially the larger ones, are truly hotels, accepting individual reservations, with prices usually per person per night for a double room (and usually surcharges for singles).
But some “boutique” barges accept only charters, with one group of two or more passengers taking over the entire barge—one way to be sure of passenger compatibility, especially in case of rainy days confined to indoor quarters. Some barges also offer special-interest theme cruises—wine-tasting, golf, hiking or biking among others—and small charter groups can usually work out custom itineraries.
Oddly enough, most hotel-barge owners on French canals are British, while the overwhelming majority of passengers is American. Except for on-board chefs and lock keepers, the French are notably absent from the waterways. “It’s like offering a cruise on the Sacramento River in California”, says Guy Bardet. “Foreigners would love it, but it would be hard to interest a Californian.”
Finally, hotel barging is expensive. “That is the nature of boats,” says John Liley. Maintenance costs are far greater on the water, and barges must generate their own electricity, carry their own water supply and deal with sewage. Larger barges, carrying more passengers, can be less expensive than smaller craft with fewer cabins. Rates vary seasonally: in general, high season is May-June and September to mid-October; the hot summer months in between are often called the “value” season, and low season is early spring and late fall. Rates are usually all-inclusive, but tips for the crew are expected.
Like their captivating names, every hotel barge in the French flotilla has a unique ambience, created not only by captain, chef and crew but also by the boat itself—as any sailor will tell you, every vessel built to float has a character all its own. How to choose among them? Lots of research on the Internet is a good start, and many specialized barging agencies have tested dozens of barges and can help match passengers up to the perfect péniche of their dreams.