Picture this: a French countryside awash in yellow canola blossoms, with chateaux and castles rubbing turrets with charming country homes. All this a few feet from the deck of your private canal boat, accompanied by birdsong you’d swear was off a soundtrack.
If you’d like to enjoy the view first-hand, consider canal boating through the lovely Loire Valley. Travelling through France’s secluded and skinny canals on a barge that barely fits through the sluices is an unforgettable experience. There are days you spend praying that you don’t meet anything larger than a swan coming toward you. There are other days when you tumble into the galley, after having bashed, scraped, and leapt your way in and out of 20 locks. But there’s never a day that won’t elate and energize you. This is a trip you’ll never forget.
One of the most rewarding routes occurs along the Nivernais. Construction on the canal began in 1784 to link the Loire and Seine valleys and finished 55 years later. With its limited draft and small gauge locks, it was abandoned by commercial barges in the ’70s but happily kept operational for pleasure crafts. As it climbs through the hills of the beautiful sylvan area called the Morvan, amateurs like us quickly find out how good they are at rope tossing and cranking open sluice gates, as the boat tumbles in and out of one lock after another. Fuel up for the challenge with pain au chocolat for breakfast; cheese, olives, and baguette at lunchtime; and a few glasses of the local Pouilly Fumé for sunset watching.
Blue Line Cruises has a base at Decize, and the advantage of starting here is that you have a nearby market for initial provisioning, and a choice of several canals. If the narrowness of the Nivernais and the proliferation of its locks unhinge you, you can always choose the ‘wimp option’ and take the much wider Lateral Canal by simply going right instead of left when you leave Decize base.
If you decide you’d like to navigate the tricky Nivernais after all, consider sharing the experience with another couple. Not only will they be eternally in your debt for introducing them to France in such a novel and intense way, but they’ll also come in handy at the locks. It’s always useful to have an extra hand to assist the lockkeeper in closing and opening the gates. This is a fun job; you get to try out your French, or at least do a lot of smiling and hand signaling.
Then there’s the challenge of chasing down your provisions. Nothing beats discovering where the bakeries are tucked away – for that you watch and accost. Look for a baguette weaving down the path or sidewalk, usually with the end nibbled off. Salute the nibbler with a bright, cheery, bonjour Madame (or Monsieur), point to the baguette, and then enquire from whence it came. For good local wine, fresh eggs, and other produce, head to the locks, farms, and country markets to try your hand at bartering. It’s all about munching and mingling, sipping and savouring. And never forget those bonjours; they go a long way.