I have now embarked on a personal ‘grand tour’ of the canals and navigable rivers of France, cycling on the towpaths. Over the years 2017-2019, in stages of 4 or 5 days, I will cover 9000 km of canals and rivers, most of them navigable today, but some waiting to be restored to navigation in the future. Between the stages I will continue my work as president of Inland Waterways International, an association that is precisely campaigning for implemen- tation of these restoration projects which will enhance the network and create new cruising possibilities.
On some sections I plan to jog, for a slower immersion in the landscape, closer to that enjoyed by boats. And occasionally I will put the bike on a boat, especially in the estuaries or along rivers where there is no path available.
The plan is to share my passion for this heritage that we are so fortunate to be able to use today by boat, but also to observe the current state of the waterways and their use, both on the water and on the banks. It will be a pleasure to meet many Pénichettes® and Locaboat’s clients, to chat with them about this fabulous experience of discovering France through her waterways. While telling my own stories, I will also take time to share some of their anecdotes, their own experience.
The adventure began in May 2017, with Padraic Neville, another keen ‘towpath cyclist’ and member of the Canal Society of New York State. We rented off-road bikes in Paris. SNCF’s regional trains transported us to our chosen point of departure in the heart of the Ardennes at Charleville-Mézières, in mid-May.
Our first ‘stage’ was thus the splendid Trans-Ardennes véloroute along the Meuse, its lock-cuts and its fine hewn-stone locks. At an average speed of 16 km/h (including short photo and convenience stops), we were able to reach the attractive port of Givet, close to the Belgian border, with its impresssive fortifications, by the end of a very hot afternoon! An air-conditioned regional train took us back to Charleville-Mézières for the night.
The next day, leaving the Meuse at Pont-à-Bar to head west for Reims and Paris, the project took on an unexpected dimension : we were devastated to find that the towpath of the magnificent Canal des Ardennes had practically disappeared ! After the success of the Trans-Ardennes, a new cycle path or véloroute is now to be laid out along this canal in the coming years, which will bring some welcome new life to this remote rural region. The landscape of gently rolling hills, grazing pastures alternating with woods and forests, is delightful. In this corner of deep rural France, the little town of Le Chesne sits proudly on the canal like a capital. Padraic and I occasionally had great difficulty making progress on this canal, as on the Canal latéral à l’Aisne and the river Marne. Many lengths of towpath have been included in hiking trails, but are no longer feasible for bicycles.
Towpath cycling has nevertheless become an accepted form of waterway tourism, qualified by the unfortunate neol- ogism tourisme fluvestre, a contraction of fluvial (which confusingly means ‘waterway’ rather than ‘river’) and terrestre (‘on land’). There was even an entire conference devoted to the subject in Paris in April 2017. I will of course take advantage of the paths laid out along many French waterways, but there will always be a lingering regret at the loss of authenticity resulting from these developments. A cycle path slightly alters a canal’s identity; maybe this is the price to pay to open up these secret corridors to the ever-increasing masses of cycling tourists.
I hope readers will find their own reasons to get on their bikes and head off to discover the best of France. The canals and canalised rivers are themselves fascinating heritage, with their 200-year-old structures and their constantly varying landscapes. The waterways are also the best way to appreciate and to experience at first hand the diversity of the regions and countless local areas or pays with their specific characteristics. The traveller, by boat or on bike, accepts that there will be contingencies and incidents. Anecdotes, even difficulty in finding one’s daily bread, are also part of this unforgettable experience…
The next stage, in mid-November 2017, will be the Canal du Rhône au Rhin in Alsace from Mulhouse to Strasbourg. Then maybe the Canal de Bourgogne, the Lys or the Canal de Nantes à Brest. Gradually, I’ll cover the whole network! So dear Locaboat clients, I look forward to meeting you ‘on the cut’ very soon !
David Edwards-May, October 2017