AFLOAT in France
Fairlady|November/December 2021
BOATING ON THE INLAND WATERWAYS OF FRANCE ALLOWS YOU TO ENJOY THE SCENERY AND THE SIGHTS OF THE COUNTRYSIDE WHILE AVOIDING THE MORE STRESSFUL SIDE OF TRAVEL. A CRUISE BY CANAL BOAT ON THE CHARENTE RIVER IS A GORGEOUS, RELAXING CHOICE.
RICHARD HOLMES

Thinking back, I can still smell the pêches plates, the sun-ripened‘ flat peaches’ piled high on the wooden trestle tables of the Marché Saint-Pierre in the town of Saintes. Flattened orbs of golden flesh redolent with the heady scent of a European summer, all set against the backdrop of cobbled lanes and ancient cathedrals.

Then again, perhaps it’s unfair to single out one stall from this Romanesque market town on the lower reaches of the Charente River in western France. For there were also the patissier’s fresh pain au chocolat; platters of fresh seafood from just down the river at Rochefort; long fridges of pungent local cheeses; and mountains of fresh cherries, perfectly plump and deep purple. And let’s not forget the saucisson sec, or dry-cured sausage, which is best enjoyed over lunch with crispy ring-shaped sourdough couronnes from the village baker.

The sprawling Saturday market in Saintes was certainly the culinary highlight of our week-long holiday aboard a canal boat on the Charente, but it’s only one of many reasons to return to the rivers of France.

Even before the pandemic, self-drive boating holidays were a popular way to explore the waterways of Europe, and now that France has opened up to fully vaccinated South African travellers, it’s a no-brainer. It is a road trip without the traffic, at a pace that allows you to appreciate the passing landscape. And France has long been the most popular destination for European boating breaks, with its rivers and canals stretching from the vineyards of Burgundy to the lagoons and beaches of the Camargue.

But for our holiday afloat we chose the Charente, linking the Bay of Biscay with the medieval hilltop town of Angoulême, and passing the handsome town of Cognac.

For centuries, the rivers of France were its highways of trade and commerce, and while the barges piled high with fresh produce no longer ply these waters, the Charente runs through the region’s most picturesque trading ports: towns such as Jarnac, just three hours by train from Paris, where historic warehouses still line the stone wharves. Today, though, it’s tourists that are loaded aboard, and our first evening was spent on the Le Boat quayside plotting our route.

We opted for downstream and headed for Saint-Savinien, passing grand chateaux, scenic vineyards, long stretches of open countryside and no end of quaint villages to explore. It was a good choice.

It’s tempting, of course, to open the throttle and squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible, but that’s not really the point of canal boat holidays. Rather take it slowly. Stop for lunch and a swim. Wander through quiet riverside towns as the fancy takes you.

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