A cruise on the beautiful Canal du Rhone is to float deep into the heart of France, a chance to experience the famous nature reserves of the Camargue, a tranquil break that takes in several key destinations on the Rhone to Sète route…
I always dreamed about living on a houseboat and a boat trip starting from Bellegarde on the Canal Du Rhone near Nimes in South West of France was a great opportunity to experience the lifestyle I hankered after…
I arrived at the Port of Bellegarde to take a self-drive cruise with my wife and two friends and met with the manager Ralfe, who presented us with a ten-year-old boat, one of their top models. This beautiful €300,000 boat is 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 is very comfortable and safe, designed to make you feel as though being at home. The small kitchen had surrounding windows which opened up on to a large swimming pool bathed in sunshine and onto lovely countryside and leafy green edged canals. You cannot get any closer to nature; cooking and eating while navigating at a slow pace and passing through small historic villages and fruit filled vineyards.
Our cheerful instructor gave us an induction about the boat with a few handbooks and a driving lesson. One of the big advantages to hiring one of these boats is that you do not need a license to drive on French Canals. I must tell you, it is a good idea to practice turning and reversing before you set off on your journey. It is simple to move forward, but you need to be vigilant at all times and keep the steering wheel in the centre.
Life on the boat was a new adventure, exploring the canal’s tranquility, emptiness and silence was another. The slow-motion boat floated at the same pace as the fish below and the birds hovering above. Watching other cruisers and people navigating or mooring near the port is part of the experience; it seemed as if we were joining a club, mixing with a new community. We sensed that there were new opportunities, different adventures, it opened a new window on our complex world.
The 60 miles of Canal du Rhone a Sète connects the Rhone River flowing from Beaucaire to the Etang de Thau at Séte. It was constructed around 1800, is at sea level and mostly straight. It passes through the Camargue Regional Park, which is in a vast delta formed by successive displacements of the river Rhone.
We cruised at a gentle speed of 6.5 km per hour. We were slower than the runners and cyclists who passed us by effortlessly. It compelled us to accept patience and calmness through the slow pace of the boat and made us feel very relaxed.
It was not long before we reached the small town of Saint-Gilles, famous for its Benedictine Abbey. Our journey took us through French waterways, wetlands, lakes and saltwater lagoons close to the sea. The marshlands are covered by water spikes and sea grass.
We watched entranced as the scenery changed, and birds flew round the boat. A grey heron guarded an entry to one of the waterways, watching over strangers entering its territory. As we approached slowly, it took flight and landed further out in front of us. It repeated its performance several times before returning to its nest.
It was sunset when we reached the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes with its old fortress in the heart of marshlands. The tower of Constance cast shadows on the surface of the canal, mysterious and inviting. This prominent heritage site in the Camargue was like a beautiful diamond cut from rough stones – and very handy to tie up the boat at the port just below the Tower of Constance.
We left the wonders of the lagoons behind and arrived in the city of Frontignan, mooring by a very low bridge that is only lifted twice a day. While we were waiting, we witnessed the game of Le Joutes (jousting in boats) being played in the canal – a most surprising sight. Two elbow shaped boats, each with a raised prow on one side propelled by several oarsmen. The game is similar to a duel of medieval knights, but in boats.
We had been warned not to go through the Etang de Thau at Sète in windy weather as it can by quite hazardous, particularly for beginner sailors like us. Fortunately, the winds were gentle but still, it was like navigating at sea, surfing the waves.
The end of our journey was reached at the city of Marseilles, the Canal du Rhone a Sète certainly has many amazing features and a lot to offer anyone seeking a boat holiday in France…
Read more about Sète – a captivating town with an enchanting lagoon, fabulous gastronomy and its wonderful network of canals that make it the Venice of the south of France.
Mohammad Reza Amirinia is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for documentary photography, street photography and photojournalism: www.amirinia.com