So, you want to go barging and you have no idea what to do. This will hopefully answer your questions and set you on the path to what is going to be the best holiday of your life. Well, that is how we felt and still do.
First, choose your area and the time of year you want to go. We selected a section of the Midi Canal which starts in Argens and ends in Negra. This is the direction we went in, but it can be reversed. Not wanting to go in the height of summer when the canals are busy, we went for the last week of April. The weather was still cold in the mornings and we experienced rain and I would keep that in mind when setting the time of year. We also went over the Easter weekend which meant everything was closed over the public holidays. Check out regional holidays before you leave.
Once you’ve chosen where and when, you need to decide on the size of the barge. In this case, the saying ‘bigger is better’ really applies. You need a berth for each couple but if you have it in your budget get an extra berth for suitcases etc. Space is limited and the berths are very small. However, the bigger the barge, the more difficult it is to handle.
We had a two berth barge and used one room as a dressing room. It had two single beds, 4 drawers and a small cupboard. The second berth that we used as our bedroom had a small double bed, a side table and a small cupboard. It also had a long thin storage cupboard.
We also had two water closets. I use this term for a reason. In the WC’s you will find a toilet which you have to manually pump to fill with water and manually pump to dispose of the waste. The barges have the capacity for a septic tank but there are no waste collection facilities in France, so you are disposing waste into the canal. There is a basin and an extendable shower head that doubles as the basin tap and for your showering. It is hand held and water is stored on the barge and heated via the gas boilers. Each WC has a small cupboard which is waterproof. The entire WC gets wet when you shower so you have to empty the WC beforehand of anything that is not waterproof i.e. toilet paper.
You would do well to choose a barge with both indoor and outdoor steering. If the weather is suitable everyone on the barge will enjoy the outdoors, and the scenery is stunning. There is space to eat outside, and this is great to do as you are really dining with nature.
The barge comes equipped with a roll of toilet paper in each WC and you should add a pack to the grocery shopping the barge company does for you, if you request it. Add to that list several litre bottles of water for drinking and any other staples you don’t need to choose yourself. We did shopping beforehand for dinner for the first evening, and breakfast for the first day. We then shopped as and when we needed to. There is a fridge of adequate size on the barge so you can shop for several days. Get bread fresh each day as baguettes are meant to be eaten the same day they are baked. Bakeries are open in the mornings in the villages and most shops close for lunch between 12 and 2. Major shops will be open all day.
Remember to plan ahead – take a look where there are shops and make a note of what time the locks close. We tied up at the next lock we got to at lunch time – the locks close for an hour between 1 and 2pm. We then had lunch on the barge and walked around a bit, if we had time. The locks operate on seasonal times and closed for the night at 6pm while we were there. We did not tie up in a village as per the proposed schedule, but rather went to the next lock and tied up. They are all alongside villages and we went for a long walk each evening. Some places have lovely small bars, but do not count on this unless you are tied up next to a big village or city. Plan to eat a lot – you do a lot of physical work. Supper is a long lazy affair and as there is no TV, when it gets dark you will be ready for sleep!
The locks opened at 9am while we were there, which meant waking up at 8am and getting ready for the day. Cooking is on a two ring gas stove – there is an oven, but we never used it. As the kitchen is small, wash up as you go along. Stow away all plates etc. and your food – there is ample storage and nothing will break if put away properly.
The boating company will give you a schedule. Take a look at the route before you go, and if you want to spend any decent amount of time in any city then plan to be ahead of schedule. They give you a lot of stopping time overnight but you can get an entire day ahead, sticking to the speed limit and not tying up for the night where they tell you to. Remember that if you tie up at a specified point you will be able to ‘plug in’. Take a 12 volt adapter for charging your laptop/camera/cell phone. Or this can be done when you are plugged in to the electricity. You can also only fill up with water at these places. You can do this during the day or overnight, but either way, you will be charged for this. We topped up with water twice. As we did not have a 12 volt adapter with us, we stopped at two places to recharge – one during the day and one overnight.
You will not have the time to do any clothes washing, and there are no facilities for this. Take with enough clothing for your entire holiday – comfortable clothes and proper shoes. It can get quite cold at night and a good rain jacket is recommended. Towels are provided and if you hang them close to the radiators, they dry very quickly.
Along the route you may see a sign for degustation / wine tasting. We only saw one along the route, and did not stop. I would recommend that if you can tie up do so, stopping could be an adventure all in itself. Some of the stops recommended by the boating company are not worth while, but use your own discretion where to look and linger.
You will be offered a choice of various insurance / refueling / cleaning options. We chose the full insurance package would meant we would be covered in the event of damaging the boat. The full package includes the refueling and the cleaning. I would recommend this as the cost is quite reasonable and all you have to do when you leave is a general tidy, strip the beds and throw out the rubbish. If you do not choose the complete package option you will have to scrub down the decks yourself! Not a great way to end your trip.
The transport in France is amazing. We flew in to Toulouse via Zurich on Swiss. We chose a hotel close to the main train station and then caught a bus from the airport to really close to our hotel. The trains are easy to figure out and once we were at the station closest to where the barge trip started we called the barging company and they sent out a taxi to collect us. We made an arrangement at the final stop for a taxi to take us to the closest train station for the return journey.
Using your cell phone overseas can be prohibitive. But, you can easily get a sim card for use while overseas. Check which company has the best coverage for the area you are in – for this part of France it was Orange.
If you have any questions, please let me know – I have tried to cover all the bases here.