Quacking ducks and bleached cows
Backwaters have an interesting tour proposition combining the simplicity of day cruising, with local hotels stays and exploration by coach.
The custom-built Natalia allows Backwaters to cruise some of France and Belgium’s 10,000km of navigable waterways not accessible to larger craft. With environmental protection high on many travellers’ list, Natalia’s design minimises wash (thus damage to the banks), whilst its hybrid propulsion method allows it to run on electric motors for up to 6 hours. This makes it admirably sensitive to its environment. I benefitted first hand from this almost noiseless form of propulsion as we cruised along a section of the river Somme near Amiens. To glide silently (almost) along the waterways of northern France, with the sun warming your face, is simply a delight. Without loud engine noise or diesel fumes to detract from nature you can hear the wildlife going about its business, birds singing, ducks quacking, and could I actually hear that cow chewing? This was slow travel at its best and indeed the opportunity to walk from one lock to another was possible as the boat barely goes faster than a brisk walk. Mornings in April can be a little chilly though and I was happy to move inside to Natalia’s comfortable (and warmer) interior to watch the world slip by via the large windows. Inclusive drinks and a lovely pick up style lunch was served by the delightful crew, who’ll tell you the love story behind the heart shaped cheese, as well as local information. I didn’t have to miss a thing over lunch though, the comfortable seating allowed me to face the view using a rattan chair and the wide window ledge accommodating my lunch and that chilled white (whilst others opted for the lounge style seating). They even have 2 spacious toilets (hooray).
The aim of most Backwaters tours is to select a hotel central to the cruising route, so most days there is a circa 30 mins coach ride between boat and hotel.
I was based in Amiens (the former capital of Picardy) at the Mercure, a very comfortable hotel in a great location to access Amiens’ numerous attractions. Top attraction for me was the Notre-Dame Cathedral (yes there is more than one Notre-Dame). The largest Gothic cathedral in France, it is so large that its more famous Pairs version would fit inside it twice over. For me though, it is the soaring arches and vaults of the architecture, combined with the magnificent carvings, statues, ironwork etc., that means I could easily spend a day exploring. Visiting with a knowledgeable guide (as I did) or hiring an audio guide will greatly enhance a visitor’s enjoyment and understanding of this UNESCO world heritage site. Originally conceived to house the skull of St John the Baptist, you can see part of the skull in the treasury or burn off lunch and climb the north tower for great views. Better still, time your visit to coincide with the Chroma event, where the facade is bathed in colour and light.
Within Amiens I also had the opportunity to visit Jules Verne’s house, filled with many artefacts from the famous authors life, fortunately it won’t take you 80 days to walk around it. At Hortillonnages, an electric flat-bottomed boat (built to mirror the traditional style), took me back to slow travel as we cruised the waterways of Amiens’ market gardens. It’s an excellent way to explore some of the 300 hectares that make up the site, a mixture of vegetables, flowers, fruit and wildlife (plus some amusing things done with mannequins – you have to see it for yourself). Other attractions include the Musee de Picardie or the recently refurbished zoo (housing around 300 different animals from 60 different species). I enjoyed simply wandering around some of its cobbled streets and along the riverside.
It’s worth mentioning that whilst Natalia can accommodate wheelchair users, individuals should check both the boat and other parts of the tour itinerary are suitable for your mobility needs. Amiens is largely flat, but the cobble streets and some uneven paths on the riverside need to be considered.
Further afield I enjoyed taking a ride behind a steam train on the Chemin De Fer De La Baie De Somme. Another trip in the slow lane (and back in time) to see the surrounding countryside (some of the cows were so white they looked like they’d been bleached in the sun) as I sat in the wood panelled carriages. The journey took me from Le Crotoy to St Valery-sur-Somme, around the Bay de Somme, a very enjoyable 90-minute ride if lacking in spectacular scenery. The Somme department has many other attractions to entice visitors. The Somme Bay itself being one, perhaps you could spot the seals on the Pointe du Hourdel sandbanks or migrating birds at the Marquenterre Bird Sanctury.
Maybe this region is best remembered for its battles, with many respectful and solemn ceremonies last year (held to mark the centenary of these important WWI events) bringing them to the forefront of the public’s attention. There are many memorials and cemeteries to visit in the area. Elsewhere there is Samara, an archeological park exploring 600 years of the history of man through reconstructions, period dress and more. Numerous parks and gardens to explore, such as Le Jardin des ifs, or castles e.g. the 15th century fortress of Rambures. Combine that with cycleways, canoeing and other active pursuits, you’ll never be able to say you had nothing to do.
This part of France is just a short hop across the channel and begging to be explored, even the coach journey to and from Calais allows you to watch the rolling countryside, whilst blossoming trees look like they’ve been dusted with snow. One of the Backwaters tours seems to me an interesting way to do it.
Some of the Backwaters Tours are available through Saga Holidays but for a full understanding of all the tours available speak to Backwaters direct.
Read my review about Mercure Amiens Cathedrale Hotel.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Holidays.