France seen from the water
Looking for peace and quiet and exceptional landscapes?
Every year, some 160,000 French and foreign tourists come to discover the delights of river tourism on the largest network of navigable waterways in Europe.
Huge and disparate, the 8,500 km of the French network unite the five principal rivers in France (the Seine, the Loire, the Garonne, the Rhône and the Rhine) with a series of canals between them that are perfectly navigable. On board a little barge, life stretches slowly ahead, never exceeding 10 kph, to such an extent that the passengers soon forget all about their watches and mobile phones. At this pace, they can relax, read, sunbathe, prepare meals at their leisure, or just play a game of cards.
Nature-lovers are never tired of the quiet, untamed banks of the river Doubs. They enjoy wending their way along in a flat-bottomed boat in the watery maze of the Poitevin marshes, to the north of La Rochelle, or surprising the pink flamingos and wild horses in the Camargue, in the Bouches-du-Rhône department.
In Amiens, visitors are surprised by the tangled network of canals around the "hortillonnages". Created by the Romans, two thousand years ago, in the marshy branches of the river Somme, these plots of cultivated land still produce three harvests a year.
From the water, the countryside looks different, marking out in silence the evidence of a far-off past: old fords, mills with their wheels stilled, villages lying sleepily around their clock tower, castles perched on the cliff-top…
Seen from the water, towns and cities take on a particular majesty. Giving the impression of a real avenue, the Seine is a magnificent backdrop to the most prestigious monuments in Paris (Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and so on) on either side of its waters.
In Strasbourg, the "Petite France" district, with its lacework of canals, has preserved its medieval covered bridges and its timbered houses decorated with geraniums.
A day on a boat on the river is punctuated with the many locks. Those still learning to sail try not to hit the boat against the walls of the lock. The more experienced take the opportunity to talk to the lock keeper about recent developments in canal transport.
Once on land, the amateur sailors go back to being ordinary tourists, especially if they have thought to bring a bike with them. Some are content simply to visit the village church, do some shopping or just chat, walk around, cycle or stroll in the immediate vicinity of the boat.
Others venture further afield and go to admire the altarpiece in Issenheim, in the Colmar museum (Alsace), meditate in the Cistercian abbey in Fontenay (Burgundy) or explore the medieval towns of Aigues-Mortes and Carcassonne (Languedoc-Roussillon).
The development of footpaths and cycle paths, and the creation of leisure sites, or of rural gites in the old lock keepers' houses, are part of an ambitious programme to develop our navigable waterways. Quays, old buildings and neglected industrial sites are transformed into boating harbours. The 242 kilometres of the Burgundy canal, for example, are now equipped with signposts, which invite the tourists to discover the many monuments in the region, give information about shops and services, and also indicate the many fêtes, festivals and exhibitions organised in the villages during the summer season.