It’s a dog life

The French love dogs, which is fortunate because many boaters want to bring them to France on holiday, as do we. For our Labradors, life just couldn’t be better – plenty of space, lots of water and best of all, lots of friends to play with.

Our boat has side decks and a raised aft deck, and their favourite place is to sit just above the steps where they can see forwards and keep an eye on us at the same time. They will venture into water at every opportunity, delighting in the abundance of sticks and the chance to pretend to be seals and dive for stones and shells. On land, they will investigate anything new and run at full pelt for something they think might proffer a reward of some kind, preferably edible.

One day, an accident happened to prove my first statement above. Chloe managed to fall off, in fact dive over, a high wall at the edge of the Parc de Bercy in Paris. Six metres below lay a major road, and we watched in horror as she landed, tried to get up and then lay still. We were berthed in the Arsenal and visiting our brother-in-law at his apartment but at this very moment we were alone and had no idea what to do.

With no time to even think, we ran for the steps down to the road and rushed to her. She was alive but really couldn’t move. A small car had pulled up, and a French man explained in perfect English that he had seen her fall and knew a vet close by. What a stroke of luck! We picked her up and she lay on our laps as our guardian angel stranger negotiated full-on traffic to get us there.

The vet took her in; her eye was bulging but other than that there was nothing else to see. He said he needed to X-ray and keep her in over-night. We feared the worst – that she wouldn’t make it, or at least we’ve have a huge bill and some tough decisions to make. We left reluctantly and tried not to fret too much. Next day, though, we were amazed to find her on her feet and wagging her tail. She had only dis-located one hip which had been popped back in, and had a superficial skin tear on her thigh. The rest was bruising. A miracle.

We took her back to the apartment the next day, with her lamp-shade on, lots of paperwork and a large bag of drugs. The vet could not have been kinder and a week later she was back on board our boat and out and about (on a lead).

As well as enjoying the routine visits to vets when leaving France, the chances to meet doggy folks on boats are endless, like when Chloe encountered two bearded shepherd dogs at Port Lalande on the river Lot. Barking from their 30 metre converted commercial barge they thought they should just warn Chloe to keep away, but she took this as an invitation for closer inspection and we met the owners in short order. We were soon friends and now, since Chloe has sadly departed, her successor Zoe has recently met and enjoyed playing with their new puppy, too.

Zoe is even more ready and willing to make friends with anything that moves – from a tiny black mole on the grass verge, to ducks, cats, ragodan (Coypu), ponies and bicycles – even a lama tethered at Buzet recently – the attention not necessarily reciprocated. She is especially interested in high street shops, where of course, even in the boucherie she is welcomed. One of our first visits to a boulangerie, where we tied her up outside, resulted in the astonished shop-keeper asking us to bring her in. Roughly translated, she said ‘Of course, you must bring her in. Why not?’

Over many visits to the French canals and rivers we’ve learned that life without our dog surprisingly restricts what we do – our adventures are diminished and discoveries less frequent. Many special places hide just a little further off the path or another half-mile further on, that we would never have found if we hadn’t been out with the dog and watching where she was going.

For instance, in Briare, we would never have seen the enormous mountain of broken and discarded ceramic tiles in some woodland, discarded by the tile factory which is still making the tiny tiles for mosaics. We heard Zoe clanking about on it, and then saw folks with carrier bags gleaning the pile for pieces to take home. Which led us to the excellent little museum in the town and its history as the world-renowned ceramic button maker as well as the fascinating evolution of the many disused canals in the immediate vicinity. As river commerce tried to cope with the unpredictable Loire many canals were dug and locks installed before it was decided to build a canal across the river. There’s much more to Briare than the famed Pont Canal.

Just as having a small baby with you draws ‘ahhh’ interest from passers-by, a dog leads you into many happenchance meetings with other dog owners – a natural ice-breaker and a common interest – and you also find out about exactly where you are, the hidden history, and get a chance to practise speaking some French.


Starting in 2003, James and Ruth have explored 10,000km of the rivers and canals of France on their boat ‘Grehan’. They publish the world’s most popular English-language website about the French waterways with detailed cruising and boating vacation information based on their unique first-hand experience.

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