Review: Canal Du Rhone
A voyage on The Canal Du Rhone through Camargue
I have some familiarity with the river and the sea. I have been on ferries on several occasions in the past. As I also live near the river Thames, I have a strong connection to water, but have never really had much insight into living on water. I always dreamed about living on a houseboat and even a few years ago did extensive research on buying a boat, but never experienced driving one. Therefore, a boat trip starting from Bellegarde on the Canal Du Rhone near Nimes in South West of France was a great opportunity to experience this desire of mine.
My friend Mojtaba and his wife accompanied my wife and I on this journey. I knew he was very keen about boating and fishing. It is nice to have grown up children and not to have to worry about them when escaping on a holiday break abroad. When children become adults, they have their own life and commitments so it becomes more difficult trying to organize a trip with them and please everybody.
Ralfe, the base manager in Port of Bellegarde greeted me. He offered me a ten-year-old boat from one of the top models made by Nicols. The beautiful €300,000 boat was a compact floating house with chic interior design incorporating all facilities necessary for a short holiday break. There were two en-suit bedrooms. One with a higher ceiling and reasonable space to move around and store things. The second one was more spacious with a small wardrobe. It looks very comfortable and safe, designed to make you feel as though being at home. There is a small kitchen with surrounding windows which opens up on to a large swimming pool bathed in sunshine. All this within lovely countryside surrounded by beautiful fields leading the way through green edged canals. You cannot get any closer to nature; cooking and eating while navigating at a slow pace while passing through small historic villages and fruit filled vineyards.
David, a pleasant and cheerful instructor gave us an induction about the boat with a few handbooks and a short driving instruction. There was a lot to take in in a short period of time. It looks like driving a car. The reality is very different. The car is governed by gravity, but the boat’s movement is more subject to the force of waves, winds and canal restrictions. We were so excited to start our journey that we did not want to ask too many questions.
The main advantage is that you do not require a license to drive the hired boats on French canals so it is easier for boat companies to get more customers. But it is a good idea to practice turning and reversing. I am still not sure how to control the boat reversing. It is simpler to move forward, but you need to be vigilant at all times and keep the steering wheel in the centre. It was real fun combined with curiosity but tempered by restraint.
It was nearly 6 PM and we could not wait to move, but the base manager told us we cannot navigate after 7 PM and it might be better to wait until next morning. Then, it was a good idea to pay a short visit to see the nearby Roman city of Nimes at night with its magnificent Amphitheatre, Jardins de la Fontaine and Maison Carrée before sailing off through the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
Living on a boat is a very much simpler way of life, in a limited space similar to a tent or caravan on a camping site but with added luxuries. The experience of life on the boat was a new adventure in itself, and exploring the canals’ calmness, tranquility, emptiness and silence was another. The slow-motion boat was floating at the same pace as the fishes in the water and birds hovering above the canal.
I was looking at other boat users and people navigating or mooring near the port, observing the reality of moving from land to life on water, it seemed like you were joining a different club, mixing with a new community, looking for new opportunities, different adventures, opening a new window on our complex world.
We started our journey from port de Bellegarde near the small town of Bellegarde on Canal du Rhone. The 60 miles of canal connects the Rhone River flowing from Beaucaire to the Etang de Thau at Sete and passes through the Camargue Regional Park, which is in a vast delta formed by successive displacements of the river Rhone. We navigated through the canal edged by low-rise green bushy trees before we saw the flat countryside. It was nice green open fields with small number of trees scattered in some places. There were many fishermen sitting quietly by the canal waiting to catch their dinner. The Camargue horses raised in the regional park are another visible beauty in those green open fields.
We cruised gradually down the canal at the speed of 6.5 Kilometres per hour. We were slower than the runners and cyclist who passed us by effortlessly. We were forced to learn patience and calmness because of the slow pace of the boat and the hidden energies of the nature that filled the air.
It was not long before we reached the small town of Saint-Gilles, famous for its Benedictine Abbey. It was built during seventh century by the hermit Saint Giles and became a resting and pilgrimage point for pilgrims on their journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The abbey church is one of the most beautiful Provencal Romanesque buildings.
We carry on our journey through French waterways with amusement, reaching wetlands, lakes and saltwater lagoons close to the sea. The marshlands are covered by water spikes and sea grass. The canal du Rhone, constructed around 1800, is at sea level and mostly straight.
As we pass through these canals the river water turns into seawater, the scenery changes as we are watching the birds flying round the boat, back and forth. A grey heron is guarding the waterways, watching over strangers entering its territory. As we approach slowly, it takes flight and lands further out in front of us. It continues this performance several times before returning to it’s nest in colonies. There are many other species of birds and ducks within the preserve of the Camargue.
The tower of Constance, which used to hold prisoners, casts its shadows on the canal water, as if inviting us mysteriously to a fairy tale town from afar. It was before sunset when we reached the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes. An old fortress in the heart of marshlands, a prominent heritage site in the Camargue. It was like a beautiful diamond cut within rough stones. The town that was built in the 13th century by King Louis, encircled with 1640 square metres of quadrangular walls, comprising six significant towers and ten gates, thus guarding this spiritual legacy.
It was very handy to tie up the boat at the port just below the Tower of Constance. As I entered the town through southern gate, it was just like walking across a film set, a fantasy and fictional city with colorful narrow streets filled with tranquility.
A bronze statue in the main square portrays Saint Louis on his way to the Crusades. The square is surrounded by many restaurants, ice cream parlours and coffee shops. The King constructed the port to establish a Mediterranean gateway to through which he could reach the Middle East for his crusades.
The Aigues-Mortes means “dead-waters” which refer to the still salt-water marshes surrounding the town. Salt is the principal economic resource of Aigues-Mortes, apart from its unique vegetation and wildlife.
We had to move ahead and leave this ancient city behind, not knowing that we wouldn’t be able to find any other city through our journey as beautiful as Aigues-Mortes.
We continued journeying towards Sete via the small town of le Grau-du-Roi. As we were passing the lake of Plan d’Eau to reach the canal connecting us back to Canal du Rhone, the waves pushed our boat to the side and we were stranded in the mud. There was not much activity in the lake. No boat was passing and we were getting worried that we may not get any help. Ralfe, the base manager in Bellegrade gave us some guideline to disengage the boat, but it did not work. A small motorboat leading canoers in the lake tried to push the boat, but it did not move. We thought we are going to spend the night in the middle of nowhere. He gave me a lift to the nearby port by the city of le Grau-du-Roi to get help. It took us several hours before getting a costly recovery (€120.00) by a local boat yard called Espana. It took the guy only a few minutes to pull the boat out of mud. I was very surprised that there was no recovery scheme available in French waterways.
We only had a few hours to reach the next city of Carnon, a modern seaside resort, to stay overnight and get our boat’s engine checked for any faults in the morning. We did not spend much time in Carnon, as we were anxious to pass the Etang de Thau at Sete before it got dark.
The canal from Carnon continues entirely in a straight line on lagoons in very close proximity of the Mediterranean. It passes through many ponds, which are filled with waters from the sea. We could not see the sea, but there is only a narrow strip of land between the canal and the sea.
One of the significances of this open water is the intensity and variation of the birdlife. One of the favorite species and the symbol of the Camargue is the pink flamingo. They have a colony in these waters in summer and normally leave in autumn for Spain or Tunisia.
We left the wonders of the lagoons behind and arrived in the vicinity of the city of Frontignan, mooring by a very low bridge that is only lifted twice a day. We had to wait until 4 PM. It was enough time to have lunch and wonder around. Although at first sight, the town looks very dull with gloomy approaches, it is surrounded by the Gariole mountain range in the north and lagoons and lakes in the east and the west with the Mediterranean shore to the south. It has an attractive church and a museum of showcasing local history.
While we were waiting in the canal by the bridge, I witnessed the game of Le Joutes (jousting in boats) being played in the canal by a number of teenagers. There were two elbow shaped boats a raised prow on one side propelled by several oarsmen. The game is similar to the duel of medieval knights, but in boats. It was interesting watching their challenges as they tried to drop each other into the water.
We were told not to go through the Etang de Thau at Sete in windy weather. The wind could push the boat out of control towards the shell farms on the north side of the lake and ground our boat. Fortunately, the winds were gentle and we managed to pass Sete and go very safely through this large lagoon. It was like navigating in the sea, surfing the waves. There were very few boats going through. We felt very lonely despite the distant view of Sete, Meze and Bouzigues. The only other sign of life were the birds and a few people kite surfing.
The canal water is very dirty and its inadvisable to swim but the water in the lake was cold but very clear and tempting for a swim. Mojtaba could not resist and jumped in the water. In a few seconds he felt anxious that the boat was distancing from him. In panic, he swam back towards the boat. While our wives were laughing, I helped him to get back on the boat.
We reached the city of Marseille to end our exploration of the Canal Du Rhone. This canal certainly has many amazing features and has a lot to offer tourists and boating lovers.
Reza and crew travelled onboard a spacious 2 cabin Confort 1350 VIP from the Nicols base at Bellegarde in the Camargue. Boat hire prices for the Confort 1350 VIP, sleeping up to six people start from 1,258 Euros for a 2 night short break or 2,515 Euros for a one week trip.
Nicols offers river and canal holidays onboard a range of self-drive cruisers suitable for parties of between 2-12 people and no previous boating experience is required. Boat hire prices start from 497 Euros for a 2 night short break or 993 Euros for a one week trip based on a 3 cabin boat.
In addition to the Camargue, Nicols offers boating holidays throughout France from 18 different bases in popular regions such as Burgundy, Alsace, Franche Comte, the Loire Valley, the Canal du Midi and Brittany plus a base in Germany and a base in Portugal.
For more information visit www.boat-renting-nicols.co.uk
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.