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Like many others, I've had my own version of France. I've been there many times; skied in her Alps; visited the splendid museums of Paris; ridden, rather anxiously, a bicycle through Burgundy; indulged myself in the caves of Moet et Chandon; and feasted on succulent crabs on the Riviera. Most years we take a house in Provence, from which we journey to the blue and white villages of Lot, the apple scented world of Normandy, or the stony beaches of Brittany. The great and marvellous châteaux of the Loire are old friends too. But a recent experience has changed my perceptions of this most diverse of countries, I went barging and on the way discovered I knew little of France, after all.

canal boats on canal du midi
canal boats on canal du midi
riders by canal
saint martin canal at night
saint leu district
chateau du chambord
grape picking by hand for champagne

Barging is the most intimate of ways to explore France and, having around 7,000 miles (more than 11,000 kilometres) of canals on which to journey, you find regions and villages, towns and castles you never knew existed. Floating in leisurely fashion along this watery network, you discover a panorama like a mobile frieze of history - medieval villages, colourful marketplaces, contemporary towns, the battlefields of the First World War near Verdun, and the mountains between Strasbourg and Nancy in north-eastern France, where you are dragged up the mountain in a sort of bath which saves you 17 locks.

The diversity of sites and sights is limited only by the length of your stay. Most barges carry bicycles on board, so you can ride along the tow paths, stopping to admire the lockkeepers - houses with their pocket size vegetable gardens, from which your chef will probably negotiate a deal in fresh leeks, raspberries or asparagus worth killing for. You can take off to explore the villages and looming châteaux which border the river and canals; or drop in to Aigues-Mortes on the fringe of the Camargue in the South of France, where Louis IX left France to take on the Infidels in the 13th century; or spend an exhilarating day at the great châteaux of Burgundy. visiting the most famous red wine vineyards in the world.

The choices offered by the barging companies of France are numerous. Do you want to see the Loire châteaux, or the picturesque villages of Alsace-Lorraine? Would one prefer a leisurely Jaunt to the Champagne district, or to venture to the south and the Canal du Midi where, with a bit of luck, you might drift past a herd of legendary Camargue horses drinking from the edge of your canal. This choice of destination is probably the most difficult decision you'll make all trip. Along with your choice of vessel, as barges come in all shapes and sizes.

I questioned whether I would actually enjoy being closeted with my nearest and dearest for days on end aboard a barge - with only the occasional jaunt ashore to the local patisserie. If you are similarly nervous why not test yourself on a short journey first. Perhaps the Saint Martin Canal, built by Napoleon in 1802 would be a good choice. This canal takes you to through the heart of Paris under tiny bridges and past majestic trees. Beyond is a flat landscape reminiscent of Holland.

If you try a larger and luxurious hotel barge first, you'll be instantly attracted to it, but you should consider which type of barge really suits your needs. Some cater for up to 30 people others, two or four or perhaps six passengers. You can even hire a do it yourself barge and take on the responsibility of negotiating the locks singlehanded (not difficult after you've mucked up one or two), and victualling and cooking. It really is a case of whatever suits you best.
You can take off to explore the villages and looming CHÂTEAUX which border the rivers and CANALS
Most barges offer private loos and showers or baths, comfortable beds and adequate but necessarily limited cupboard space, no need to pack too many designer dresses. All have salons and deck space where you can loll about in the sun as you drift through the countryside. Laundering is only provided on some of the very top end choices so packing may test your ingenuity. Another important consideration is whether your barge has a raised deck space. The Luxury Travel Bible recommends this since many of the canals have very high banks and you'll want to be able to see as much of the countryside as possible. Obviously every waterway has patches where you'll be below bank level (this is a hazard of the Canal du Midi in particular), but it?s really important that your peniche has some raised deck area.

Most barge companies have chosen their chefs very carefully indeed - I always put on weight when barging but if you have special requests, many chefs will obligingly cook to your taste. They always use local produce - pate in Strasbourg, quiches in Lorraine - and it's not an unusual sight to see your chef bargaining like mad with the local lock keeper for something special from his garden. You can also take off wherever you like for an evening meal at a local village or town, for the barges always moor at night, often simply hitching up to a poplar tree beside the tow path.

It's also fine to swim in most canals when the weather gets hot, but do remember many of them are very shallow, so be careful. Take some reading matter with you (though you won't read as much as you think) and a digital camera for both on board and for shore excursions to the local sights.

Most barging companies operate between April and October. Two barges are of particular appeal to The Luxury Travel Bible reader. Chris Bennett's Savoir faire (formerly the Etoile de Champagne) is a luxurious air-conditioned vessel which offers six twin berth staterooms, each with two baths, larger than usual wardrobes and writing desks. Savoir is one of the very few owner-operated luxury barges. Savoir's sister-barge (operated by a different owner), is La Nouvelle Etoile. The 8-passenger La Nouvelle Etoile claims to 'sets a new standard for elegance and sophisticated technology in barge cruising', certainly the teak-walled cabins are spacious and have internet access with flat-screen monitors, satellite television and video. Each suite has a luxurious bathroom with double sinks and a size of shower rarely seen on barges. Most barging companies' charges are all inclusive, except for the odd side trip or excursion, and while gratuities are a matter for personal discretion, they are always appreciated.

Casual attire is the order of both day and night, but rubber soled shoes are obligatory on most vessels. Take along a swimsuit, a light rain jacket and a sweater or shawl for the evenings. Men should also take along a jacket and tie, appropriate for the occasional reception on board or a visit to an onshore restaurant. The real attraction of barging is that it offers a true get-away-from-it-all holiday, with the freedom of being able to step ashore when you see something you want to visit. You won't even have to find a parking space! It's also the most leisurely, relaxing way to travel in a world gone mad with speed and pace. But best of all, you'll see places that really are off the beaten track, and you'll see them without being caught up in a herd of fellow tourists.
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Jill Mullens updated 12/3/10
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