Canal Cruising with Wildflowers

Words by Valerie Helps and photography by Geoff Bull

Valerie and Geoff aboard their canal boat in France

Have you ever dreamed of living on a canal boat and exploring the myriad of waterways in France? Imagine, lazy afternoons spent sailing down a two-hundred-year-old canal experiencing the world of welcoming ports, gastronomic delights and even medieval jousting. Sounds amazing, right?
Not many late middle-aged people would even consider actually doing it but that’s exactly what Valerie and Geoff did for five glorious years. They even wrote a book about their incredible journey.
Here Valerie gives us a brief summary of their experience.

Our search for a canal boat took a year, starting with enquiries on the Internet, to driving through central France to explore the major boat companies en route. We saw a variety of craft, but none quite suited our needs or our budget. Finally, we heard of a boat in Trèbes on the Canal-du-Midi and within days we were the owners of a sleek, fibreglass canal boat (vedette fluvial) in excellent condition. We named her “de Villehardouin” after one of the Frankish crusaders, whose crumbling castles we had explored in the Peloponnese.
We purchased it from an English company operating throughout France, this meant that if we had a problem, we could communicate with the person at the other end of the phone in English, our French being fairly basic. For years, we crisscrossed this beautiful country on its rivers and canals and one of my greatest joys has been living close to nature and the abundance of wildflowers encountered along the way.
Here are just some of the highlights:

Anyone for breakfast? The galley on de Villehardouin

CANAL DU MIDI – early spring
How smoothly our engine runs on this warm day, as we cruise past banks rich with wildflowers ; snowdrops, mauve honesty, tall yellow irises, orchids, pale arum lilies, ladies lace; tassel hyacinths, scarlet poppies, sprays of perfumed honeysuckle and the startling blue of wild borage. Our green and gold world is filled with the heady perfume of broom in bright splendor, as we purr through the French countryside watching our dreams unfold.
Evening and we are sipping “vin de pays” a very acceptable red bought from the barrel in Trèbes and to-night we will feast on fresh asparagus and strawberries drenched with crème fraîche from the weekly market on the banks of the canal. A coypu (beaver like animal) swims by. It’s going at quite a speed disturbing the long shadows across the water. A swan begs for tit-bits; in a château garden furry almonds swell on twisted branches and above us, birdsong from giant plane trees bursting with pale, spring leaf. Outside, the air is cooling and a sickle moon lies on its back in a clear sky, while on the CD player, Mahler feeds our souls.
What’s so rewarding is our gentle cruising pace and the solitude we find – far away from the hustle and bustle of traffic, people and towns. Utter tranquility. When a boat passes, we feel the slight pull of the waters and then the purr of an engine, nothing more. Later outside our cabin, a nightingale serenades us.

Evening primrose - Canal de la Marne à la Saône

CANAL DU RHÔNE À SÈTE – summer in the Camargue
This canal runs straight and true through the flatlands of the Camargue. Wildflowers are scarce; perhaps we are too late in the season, though dusky pink tamarisks are in flower and horned sea poppies; those delicate butter-yellow flowers that drop their silken petals the minute one touches them. Walking back from our first swim in the Mediterranean, we are distracted by a pair of Avocets with four chicks wading in the shallows. They are being hassled by two Stilts and a fine old row is in progress with lots of high-pitched “blik blik” sounds and fierce tussles in the air. Next day they are at it again.
Evenings – oyster-hued, peaceful, with the low sun lying like silk on the lagoons that stretch for miles. Silence descends but for the whining of the voracious and infamous Camargue mosquitoes, they are a curse and tend to spoil an otherwise idyllic evening. This lonely world of windblown salt marshes and lagoons is home to many birds and huge flocks of flamants, rose pink flamingos, nest in the wetlands during spring and summer. They make a curious honking noise if disturbed and when they trace across the sky in skeins, their bodies disappear and they resemble flying matchsticks with red wings, so thin they are almost without substance.

Common mallow

The Moselle River south of Toul, meanders through a wild and unspoiled landscape of heavily forested slopes, where the trees lean low over the water. We come across a magical glade of foxgloves on the slopes of a bank in a forest clearing. Deep purple flowers grow tall in search of the sun and Geoff goes mad with the camera – then suddenly there are none. Wildflowers are choosey and are often to be found in a small area and nowhere else.

Beautiful purple larkspur with de Villehardouin in the background

A profusion of wildflowers: orchids; pink mallow; tansy – those glowing bright yellow pom-poms; clumps of dark hemp agrimony; giant heads of pink clover; graceful sprays of mauve salvia – this is lovely country. One evening a solitary yellow flower attracts our attention on our cycle ride; it is an evening primrose and there are several closed buds along the short stem, so we pick one and put it in a glass of water as we are leaving in the morning. Next evening, we watch as the bud opens up at an incredible rate as we turn on the lights – exactly like those speeded-up botanical films of opening flowers. By morning it is wide open and quite perfect. This thing of beauty lasts for days before the silken petals drop.

The glowing pom-poms of Tansy

CANAL DE LA MARNE AU RHIN – early summer
On the banks, splashes of creamy guelder rose; common comfrey; buttercups; hyacinths; buddleia smothered in butterflies. We tie up to a tree beneath a wild plum in full yellow fruit and gorge shamelessly on its sweet and juicy offerings.
A solitary male swan hurls himself into mid-canal, wings akimbo doubling his size, head low and heads towards us, strong legs pulling at the water. On reaching the boat he turns alongside, twists his neck in all directions and hisses furiously as he attempts to keep up with us. He continues until it is evident that we have gone past his territory, then he begins to preen nonchalantly. Swans are extremely aggressive, nevertheless, their pristine beauty is unequalled.

Hemp Agrimony - Canal de la Marne à la Saône

CANAL DU CENTRE – mid-summer
Fields of mauve and yellow yarrow mingle with ladies’ lace, while pristine Charolais cattle with their young calves graze along the banks. The lock-keepers’ bright gardens are a source of great pride. Porches smothered with climbing roses and hanging baskets of cheerful petunias; they make good use of wheelbarrows and wooden boats that overflow with a tumble of nasturtiums, marigolds, salvias and various summer annuals. Often they sell produce; pottery, local honey, wine, strawberries, fresh eggs, tomatoes, runner beans – anything in season.

Moored in the River Yonne in the heart of iconic Burgundy


It is very hot – over 40 degrees and even in port with the fan on, the boat is unbearable. We decide cruising is the coolest option. Along the banks briar roses droop and we spy a feast of blackberries that we pick and gorge on them shamelessly, drenched in crème fraîche and castor sugar – will we grow tired of them? I doubt it.

Please note:  Neither Geoff nor I are botanists but we have identified these wildflowers to the best of our ability.  I believe most of them have been correctly classified, however, I make no guarantees!

Valerie’s book – The Voyages of de Villehardouin: Cruising French Waterways is available at all good book stores including Booktopia, Book Depository, Amazon and Angus & Robertson.

FOOTNOTE: If Valerie’s article whetted your appetite for canal cruising, below is a list of a few of the better known self-drive hire-boat companies throughout France: