A voyage on the Canal Du Rhone through Camargue

By | Category: Travel destinations
boat in morrings

all ready to start

I have some familiarity with the river and the sea. I have been on ferries on several occasions in the past.  I also live near the river Thames so  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 researched buying a boat. 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.

Keen about boating and fishing, my friend Mojtaba and his wife accompanied my wife and I on this journey. 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.

the canal ahead

the way ahead

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 the facilities necessary for a short holiday break. There were two en-suite bedrooms; one with a higher ceiling and reasonable space to move around and store things and the second one which was more spacious with a small wardrobe. It looked very comfortable and safe, designed to make you feel as though being at home. There was a small kitchen with surrounding windows which opened up on to a large swimming pool bathed in sunshine. All this surrounded by beautiful fields leading the way through green edged canals. You cannot get any closer to nature.

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 looked 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 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.

in some places, there are lots of other enthusiasts

in some places, there are lots of other enthusiasts

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 carried 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.

heron in flight

the “guardian” heron

As we passed through these canals the river water turns into seawater, the scenery changes as we watched the birds flying round the boat.  A grey heron guarded the waterways, watching over strangers entering its territory. As we slowly approached, it took flight and landed further out in front of us. It continued this performance several times before returning to its nest. This is just one of many 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, it is 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 IX – St Louis – is encircled with 1,640 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 colourful narrow streets filled with tranquility.

A bronze statue in the main square portrays St Louis on his way to the Crusades for he constructed the port to establish a Mediterranean gateway to through which he could reach the Middle East for his crusades.  The square is surrounded by many restaurants, ice cream parlours and coffee shops.

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 would not find any other place on our journey as beautiful as Aigues-Mortes.

horses on the banks in camargue

horses of the Camargue

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 guidelines to re-float a boat, but it did not work. A small motorboat leading canoers in the lake tried to push the boat, but we didn’t budge. 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 so other holidaymakers beware.

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 to the Mediterranean. It passes through many ponds, which are filled with waters from the sea. We could not see the sea even though there is only a narrow strip of land between the canal and the sea.

flamingoes in the Camargue

flamingoes – a few amongst thousands

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 near 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 wander 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  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, with 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 end of the voyage

end of the day and end of the voyage

The canal water is very dirty and its inadvisable to swim but the water in the lake was cold, very clear and here, we were tempted to swim. Mojtaba could not resist and jumped in the water. In a few seconds he felt anxious that the boat was leaving him behind. 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.

For more information about the Camargue, click here.

Story and images © M. Reza Amirinia




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