With so many towpaths in France, bikes can complement boats as they make their way through the countryside, says David Jefferson, author of Through French Canals.
Waterways offer a unique opportunity of sampling the delights of French towns and countryside. As a waterborne tourist, you motor through France at a speed no greater than walking pace, climbing or dropping as your boat’s crew assist in the locking procedure.
Having bicycles on board your boat has both practical and leisure uses, for it can be time-saving for one of the crew to ride on ahead to warn the lock keeper and assist in preparing the lock to receive the boat. Some members of a crew might simply like the option of taking some exercise on the bicycle after being confined to the boat’s cabin and deck for the best part of the day. A bike also gives you the freedom to ride inland or ahead to a nearby village or town to stock up on supplies, or to scope out mooring opportunities.
Where to cruise
You can choose to hire your own boat or take a bike-barge tour that takes the worry our of organising it all yourself. We have contacts with a number of barge and canal boat companies working on France's waterways – you can use our bespoke service to find the right one for you.
Start by choosing the region you wish to explore – at the height of the season, some of the waterways in the south of France will be particularly crowded; others such as the Brittany canals you can travel through the countryside and in the course of a whole day only see one or two other boats coming the other way.
There are waterways from Bordeaux and the Garonne through to the Canal du Midi and the Camargue by the Mediterranean. Or why not try those in Alsace-Lorraine near the German border? Burgundy and the Loire open up the river and canal routes along wine trails, or jump aboard in Paris and drift down the Seine.
If you are hiring your own boat, no previous experience is necessary unless venturing onto a section of waterway heavily used by commercial traffic, where charter boats are mostly precluded. The charter company is duty-bound to familiarise the skipper with the boat and ‘rules of the road’ with hands-on tuition prior to departure from the base.
Having a bike on board
The French authorities have converted vast lengths of the original towpath into top quality cycle tracks. There is much to be said for hiring bicycles with the boat. There will be occasions when you stop off for the night in the countryside, perhaps a kilometre or two from the nearest village, and someone can be despatched on a bicycle to buy croissant for breakfast and a baguette for picnic lunch. There will be times when the nearest restaurant for an evening meal is a bicycle ride away or the on board cruising guide might list a nearby chateau or wine cellars worth visiting but more than a walk away from the moored boat.
Bicycles can be stowed on deck, but care should be taken that nothing protrudes outboard of the boat’s topsides in case you receive a ticking off from the otherwise friendly lock keeper. When cycling along the towpath – particularly in the evening or early in the day – watch out for mooring lines straddling the cycle path in a most unseamanlike fashion, perhaps because the offending boat’s crew moored up at dusk the previous evening.
There are various series of guides to each of the waterways, and most of the charter companies provide the boat with the local 'Editions du Breil' which gives a useful write up in French, English and German of what to see en route, and also shows some of the bicycle paths. If you want to do some armchair research and planning before joining your charter boat, these local guides are available in the UK from Imray, Wych House, The Broadway, St Ives, Cambridgeshire, PE2 5BT. Tel: 01480 462114.
Further information and contacts
There are dozens of companies offering canal boat hire and holidays in France. You can go it alone or choose a package with a skipper and meals, allowing you to sit back and enoy the views, or cycle along the banks to local villages and markets. Again, drop us a line and we can recommend one that's right for you.
ABOUT OUR GUEST WRITER
David Jefferson is author of Through French Canals, a guide to negotiating France's waterways and canals by boat.
If you're thinking about a cycling holiday along French canals, see also...
Cycling the Canal du Midi by Declan Lyons is published by Cicerone
A Cycling Guide to the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi (UK, US, Fr) by Iain Griffiths
The Nantes-Brest Canal: A Guide for Cyclists and Walkers by Wendy Mewes
Watersteps Through France: To the Camargue by Canal by Bill and Laurel Cooper
Canals on Wheels: Cycling Adventures Along the Canals of France by Martha Marino
Floating Through France: Life Between Locks on the Canal du Midi by April Orcutt
The Canal Du Midi: A Cruiser's Guide by Bernd W Kiessler
Through the French Canals by David Jefferson
Cruising The Inland Waterways Of France & Belgium (2012 Edition) by Brenda Davison
Keeping Afloat: Up a French Canal ... Without a Paddle by John Liley
IGN Map No. 913 Tourisme Fluvial en France (Map of Waterways and Canals in France