HAVING introduced himself, the young man sent to teach us how to operate the 12m-long motorboat we’d hired to cruise the canals between Digoin and Châtillon en Bazois in Burgundy, asked if he could speak French because his English “iz leetle”. My son and I glanced at our designated captain.
“No problem,” replied my husband, whose schooling in the Netherlands never fails to impress me, having included many years of lessons in English, French and German, in addition to Dutch. A rigorous half-hour session of parlez-vousing and demonstration ensued. Le jeune homme spoke steadily and quickly, firing up the engine and backing the boat out into the marina as he did so. And, as the instructor manoeuvred the vessel back and forth, the attentive wannabe skipper stood alongside him at the steering wheel, nodding, “Oui, oui, oui”.
Then, with a wave and a fleeting “bon voyage”, the instructor was gone. We looked eagerly at our captain. Our great escapade in the canals of France could finally begin. He stared back at us, raised his brows and lifted his hands: “What? I lost him in the early stages of the lesson. My French is a little rusty, I guess. I have no idea what he just told me!”
But, having never before allowed ignorance to get in the way of adventure, Captain How Hard Can It Be wasn’t about to begin now. He turned a key, started the engine and deftly steered the machine away from the quay using the bow thruster (it’s the boating equivalent of power-steering in a car) to make tiny movements left, right, backwards and forwards.
Within minutes, we chugged off in the direction of Canal Latéral la Loire, which would take us to Decize where we’d meet Canal Nivernais for the journey to Châtillon en Bazois. What we did not know however, was that less than a kilometre from the marina we’d have to traverse the River Loire on a very high, narrow, 240m-long stone aqueduct, constructed in the 18th century to avoid river crossings complicated by regular flooding in winter and droughts in summer.
“Uh oh,” said the skipper as he caught sight of the narrowing waterway and the throng of villagers assembled on the adjacent walkway for some summertime entertainment. But the almost 4m-wide boat slid neatly onto the aqueduct and, without a single whirr of the bow thruster, we glided across without even nudging a wall. By the time we hooked up in the lock on the other side, the disappointed spectators had turned their attention to the next crew of nervous tourists .
The ease of operating the motorboat is just one of the reasons this holiday was the most relaxing break I’ve ever had in Europe.
It also required no rushing about between campsites or hotels; just the gentle, leisurely motion of moving in one direction in our own comfortable, fully equipped accommodation with just two firm dates — collection of the boat in Digion and its handover a week and about 120km later in Châtillon en Bazois.
Then there’s the tranquillity of the shady canals that traverse farmlands and woodlands with endless and immaculate cycling paths alongside the water for your riding pleasure whenever the pedalling bug bites. (It’s a good idea to rent bikes with the boat because not all the villages are close to the canals should you want to visit them and/or stock up at markets.)
The canals have the added attraction of allowing you to safely moor wherever and whenever you want. There are no restrictions beyond not obstructing the waterway. You can pull up beneath a large tree, hop off, hammer the met al spikes provided into the ground, secure the boat with the mooring ropes, and picnic in the field or cycle to a village for lunch. If the fishing is good in a particular spot, there’s no rush. And when evening arrives, you simply moor in a quiet, dark place, whip up dinner using the delicious ingredients bought at the market earlier and relax. It’s the perfect recipe to unwind.
Our route took us past the kind of scenery I imagine inspired Vincent van Gogh to paint his scenes of haymaking in summer. The gentle hills were shorn to yellow stubble and strewn with circular bales of hay. Herds of white Charolais cattle, for which the region is renowned, were as pleasing to the eye as they were to the palate. We also passed numerous impressive châteaux.
Many of the villages — ancient and centred around a large church with the “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” slogan engraved on its walls, the Mairie (town hall), a statue honouring fallen soldiers, and the village square — could have inspired the British sitcom ’Allo ’Allo. They are tiny and quaint in a deserted, tumble -down kind of way. My son and I excitedly cycled to one such place, Gannay-sur-Loire, on a sweltering day because the guidebook told of a “knotty tree alongside the church planted in 1597 to mark the meeting point of Burgundy, the Bourbon territory and the Nivernais region”. A 414-year-old tree? That’s something this tree- hugger had to see. Alas, we arrived in the village to discover an out-of-control truck had demolished the tree two days prior. A messy pile of wood the villagers had swept together, was all that was left to embrace.
Decize, an island town sandwiched between the Loire and Aron rivers, forms a junction between the Canal du Nivernais and the Canal Latéral la Loire, and was the busiest and most interesting village we encountered. Its history dates back to Roman times, and the church of St Aré was built in the seventh century. Our visit coincided with an outdoor exhibition of 70 photographs selected for the Forests and People series to celebrate the International Year of Forests. The enormous works were installed between a magnificent avenue of (very healthy) trees in Promenade des Halles alongside the Loire.
But, while Decize and many of the other villages along the canals are interesting for a few hours, I don’t believe they’re special enough to motivate a cruise. So that’s not why I strongly recommend the holiday. It’s because of the beauty of the countryside and the extraordinarily leisurely nature of the experience.
Even if you’ve never been on a boat before and can’t speak a word of French, this is one for le seau liste (the bucket list).
(First published on the Business Life (Travel & Food) page of Business Day. All photographs by Penny Haw.)