Fancy exploring the canals of France but don’t know where to start? Get the lowdown on the five main French canals…
1. Canal de Bourgogne
This canal is important in providing a north-south route and stretches between the Seine and Rhone. The canal had been falling into a bad state of repair but grants have allowed for some much needed extensive renovation work to take place.
It is the highest canal in France and passes through 189 locks, as well as a long tunnel at its summit in Pouilly-en-Auxois. The town has a museum dedicated to the canal’s heritage if you’d like to find out more. There are also some fine examples of churches, castles and bridges to admire in this part of the country.
The Canal de Bourgogne is enjoyable to cruise and passes through particularly pretty scenery. Take your pick of vineyards where you can take a tour behind the scenes and select a bottle to enjoy with a local cheese, such as the pungent Epoisses de Bourgogne.
2. Canal de Roanne à Digion
Linking the Canal Latéral à la Loire and the Canal du Centre at Digoin to Roanne, is the Canal de Roanne à Digion, which plots a rural course through the French countryside. Now used to transport holidaymakers, the canal’s original purpose was linked to Roanne’s textile and ceramics trades.
Its 10 locks have been resized since the canal first opened back in 1838 and the commercial traffic started to disappear in the 1970s – it is now considered a calm route that is ideal for those on their first self-drive boating holiday. The towpath that runs along side the canal is ideal for cycling when you get the urge to stretch your legs.
Roanne itself is a lovely place to visit and its spacious marina is conveniently located close to the centre. The Château de Roanne is one of the star attractions as is La Maison Troisgros, a well-known restaurant that boasts an impressive three Michelin stars!
3. Canal du Centre, Loire
The canals Loing, Briard, Lateral, Loire and Centre connect the river Seine to the Saône and are collectively called the Canal du Centre.
These waterways are diverse and very scenic, passing through through the Côte Chalonaise, which is where a lot of Burgundy wine is produced.
The starting point for a journey along this canal is a canal bridge in Digion, which provides a good photo opportunity, offering good views across the surrounding countryside.
4. Canal du Midi
This is the canal which featured in Rick Stein’s ‘French Odyssey’. Built by Pierre-Paul Riquet in the 17th century, the Canal du Midi was made a UNESCO heritage site in 1996 and is one of France’s most popular cruising zones. Much of the waterway is flanked by canopies of shade giving plane trees.
This incredible feat of engineering connects the Altlantic to the Mediterranean, along the foothills of the Pyrénneés mountains. Navigation is in three sections; the Canal du Midi (70 locks), the Lateral Canal to the Garonne (53 locks) and the Garonne (2 locks).
If you fancy mooring up for a day’s exploration, a trip to the historic walled cité Carcassonne is a must, as is Castelnaudry, home to a famous version of cassoulet. Béziers will allow you to add a touch of culture to your stay, while Agde is a lovely seaside town worth an afternoon’s visit.
5. Canal du Nivernais
This begins on the river Yonne, near Auxerre, and connects the Seine with the Loire. The Canal du Nivernais was originally designed to transport wood to Paris is still well maintained.
The canal is characterful and scenic, passing through pretty countryside and villages, combining leafy trees and open fields with opportunities to wave at joggers, walkers and cyclists on the towpath.
It comes highly recommended for wildlife spotters – this stretch of water attracts a great many different species of birds, including herons and kingfishers.