Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

French Canals Create Barging Experts

with one comment

By Joan Rattner Heilman

Mature Life Features

If, like us, you’re slightly worn adventurers who have given up black-diamond ski slopes, camping trips, and outdoor plumbing but are still game for a good challenge, rent your own canal barge.

You can skipper and live aboard your own traditional narrow-beamed barge or a cabin cruiser for a week or two while you chug along canals at five or six miles an hour as folks did to get around the country before the advent of railroads.

It’s all called barging and you stop wherever, whenever, and for as long as you please. It can be for lunch, dinner at a local restaurant, a good night’s sleep, a walk around a quaint village, a bike ride into town for groceries, or a hike to a nearby castle.

Your boat provides much the same facilities and equipment as a land-based recreational vehicle. There’s no laundry service and nobody’s going to make your bed.  The size and cost depend on the number of people it can accommodate.

France, with its network of waterways that covers most of the country, is probably the most popular choice, although other favorites are England, with its miles of recently restored canals that were built during the industrial revolution, along with The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.

If you’d rather stay closer to home, upstate New York’s historic Erie Canal is the best-known waterway with boats for hire.

For our French canal cruising, my husband, Mortimer, and I picked up our 30-foot rental at the Crown Blue Line’s base station in the hamlet of Boofzheim on the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, not far from Strasbourg in Alsace.

“Don’t worry,” we were told during our half-hour meet-the-boat session, “It’s very easy.” And if we had a problem, “you can call us.” Our only requirement was to turn up at a village called Hesse 106 kilometers (a little more than 60 miles) away in exactly one week.

Armed with these instructions, a guidebook, map, and emergency telephone number, we gurgled off at five miles and hour.

We learned quickly that you can’t get into too much trouble at that speed. The water is always flat and calm, the canals are just wide enough for boats to pass in opposite directions, and it’s almost impossible to get lost.  We did encounter a couple of boaters who required emergency engine service, which is provided by a van traveling on the towpath that runs alongside the entire length of the canals.

It took us three hair-raising attempts, with much crashing into the sides of the gates, before we managed to inch into our first lock, tie up to a stanchion, pull a green lever, and, when the lock filled with water, chug out the other end while dodging a large barge coming the opposite way.  We became experts by the time we had negotiated the 43 locks on our route, two long dark tunnels carved through the mountains, and one apparatus that lifted three boats at a time 400 feet up the side of a hill.

We decided to tie up for our first night and calm our nerves at Plobsheim, a typical Alsatian farm town five locks upstream. “What you have to do,” Mortimer told me, “is jump off and tie up.”  I was to grab the bow line, leap over a low wall from the rear deck onto the grassy bank about a foot below, drive a metal stake into the ground with a mallet, and tie the line firmly to it.  Then I was to do the same for the stern line.

When I told him, “I’m not jumping,” he inched ahead to a spot that was level with our lower deck, allowing me to step off onto the grass and fulfill my assignment.

We unpacked our bags and explored the three sleeping cabins, two bathrooms, showers, linens, a galley equipped with pots, dishes, silverware and glasses, the living-dining area, and upper sun deck. The boat was provisioned with breakfast foods, beverages, a crusty loaf of bread, butter, milk, a bottle of wine, and a few other staples. Steering was done inside the cabin or up on deck where there was a table, umbrella, and four chairs, plus the two bicycles we arranged to carry along.

Heaving the bikes over the side onto the towpath, we rode into town to scout out a restaurant, where we tried our first tarte flambee, the Alsatian version of pizza — a paper-thin crust topped with cheese, ham, and onion.

The cabin was cold in the morning until we started the engine, left it in neutral, jumped back into our narrow bunks, and waited about half an hour for the quarters to warm up.  After breakfast at our dining table, it was onward to Strasbourg, the picturesque capital of Alsace.  At the Plaisance Club, a small marina designed for self-drivers, we backed into the last remaining spot along the wharf for the night. It was a short walk over a bridge to a three-star restaurant in the heart of the city. We stuffed ourselves for the first and last time on the Alsatian national dish – a huge pile of choucroute (sauerkraut) topping a couple of wursts and thick slabs of pork with a side of crusty potatoes.

We always ate breakfast aboard, lunch sometimes, and dinner once by default because restaurants in the French provinces are open only on certain days and certain hours. We traded groceries with fellow boaters, most of them entire families, we met along the way. They were Danish, Australian, Dutch, Israeli, and American. And we had twilight
drinks together on one boat or another.

By the time we reached Hesse, the tiny farm town where Crown Blue Line is the major industry, we were addicted to barging.  We were already making plans for barging in Burgundy, or the Loire Valley, or maybe even the Avon Canal in England.

Mature Life Features, Copyright 2004

Written by Cecil Scaglione

November 22, 2012 at 12:05 am

One Response

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  1. Never cruised on a bateau, but I have dined on a few along the banks of the Seine in Paris. Nice article. Maybe I’ll shove off one of these days and give it a go.

    The Palladian Traveler

    November 23, 2012 at 1:38 am

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