Canal Barging in France
Canal of midi in Toulouse, France

Not many are those who associate France with canal barging! Cheese, wine, the Eiffel Tower, shopping, all come into mind when talking about a trip to France, but canal barging doesn’t exactly fit in our fantasies about France. Well, that’s just a shame! Canal barging is such a wonderful and unique experience that will definitely surprise, impress, and delight!

There are more than 5,000 miles of canals in France of which 750 miles create a network with the main French rivers. Of course, there are many opportunities for barging. And, if you’re wondering, river cruising is not the same thing with canal barging. Barge trips are usually more affordable than river cruises, mostly because the barges are smaller and carry fewer passengers. But this doesn’t mean they are not as fascinating!

Cruise the canals of France

Hop on a barge and enjoy a different way to discover France. Where should you go for canal barging? There are many beautiful canals in France and you’ll definitely have where to choose from. The most popular French canals are the Canal de la Marne that connects the Rhine with the Marne, Canal de Bourgogne in Burgundy that unveils the beautiful scenery of the French countryside and will take visitors to many quaint towns and perfumed French wine, as well as the peaceful Canal du Nivernais that passes through western Burgundy and invites you to admire serene valleys and hills, and historic villages.

The Canal Latéral de la Marne follows with dedication the course of the Marne river and takes travelers through the Champagne region, while the Canal Latéral de la Loire will take you to the upper Loire. Canal du Midi has charmed travelers for more than 300 years and hasn’t changed a bit. The canal’s banks are lined with cypresses, poplars, and pines, offering visitors the chance to admire beautiful Gallo-Roman sights.

Joinville. Vue sur le bief, Haute Marne, Champagne Ardennes
Joinville. Vue sur le bief, Haute Marne, Champagne Ardennes

Stretching for about 120 miles, Canal de Garonne will take you from Toulouse to Castets-en-Dorthe, where it flows into the Garonne tidal river. All barges stop for a little longer in the area around Agen, especially during summer, when the fruit trees are overwhelmed with cherries, peaches, plums, and pears, creating one of the most beautiful summer paintings.

What can you expect from a barge cruise?

A lot! You can expect to enjoy an abundance of experiences that will enchant all your senses. A barge usually carries from four to 20 passengers and it’s similar to a floating hotel, so you will not only visit this amazing country in a different, more interesting way than the majority of travelers, but you’ll also get a chance to make friends, discover authentic French cuisine and savor…life.

Don’t imagine that this “floating hotel” is a B&B or a 2-star hotel! The smaller barges that carry from eight to 12 guests are true luxurious oases of relaxation! There are usually six English-speaking crew members ready to create a wonderful experience. Barge cruises often last one week and are available mostly between April and October when the weather is perfect for spending time outdoors.

While the barge navigates through centuries-old canals and unveils the superb French countryside, you will get to taste sophisticated French cuisine dishes, like French onion soup, Coq au Vin, escargot, scallops and mousse au chocolat, and an impressive variety of French wines. The canals will carry you through vineyards, so you’ll be able to step off and do some wine tasting in Loire Valley, Alsace-Lorraine, Provence or Bordeaux.

There are barge cruises that offer the possibility to dine ashore in old convents, like the Abbaye de la Bussiere in La Bussiere-sur-Ouche, which is now a luxury hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant. For an authentic gastronomic experience, you should visit genuine culinary towns, such as Beaune and Dijon.

Your trip along the canals will have plenty of stops and invite you to explore the French countryside, bike into picturesque villages, visit castles and cathedrals, and enjoy private guided tours. Transiting the canals takes plenty of time and there are many locks that can take even 20 minutes to pass through, but there will be no time to get bored. You can simply step off and walk or bike to discovery the scenery along the banks and meet the barge at another lock.

Keep an eye on the lock keepers whose presence is truly a fun experience. Once the barges pull up, some well-built men appear to turn the wheels to raise the water level high enough for the barge to go through. However, if the barge needs the presence of a lock keeper at lunch, you will just have to have patience and wait for the look keeper to finish his lunch. Not even the barge captain will dare to disturb him during lunch!