Loire Valley barge cruise with Great Rail Journeys

Sailing with my 88-year-old mother on a Loire Valley barge in France

Beverley and Peggy Watts A canal cruise is the ultimate in serene travel, punctuated by the excitement of locks. Great Rail Journeys’ Loire Valley Waterways trip was the perfect choice for myself and my 88-year-old mother. She’s a veteran cruiser but a barge novice and, widowed last year, this was her first holiday without my dad.

On the canal banks alpacas graze and wild flowers bloom, with clusters of cow parsnip and spires of purple loosestrife. Mistletoe adorns the trees and pond skaters skitter across the surface of the water. Utter tranquility.

We joined 18 others on Eurostar from London to Paris and there was a 15-minute walk to our coach from Gare du Nord station. Mum, who uses a walking stick, took it slowly and managed fine, while I wheeled our luggage.                     

Leaving behind the city traffic, we arrived early evening at rural Briare, where barge MS Déborah awaited with glasses of chilled fizz. Once we’d met the 6-strong crew, we settled into our twin-bed cabin on the lower deck before dinner.

There’s a small spiral staircase to negotiate but with a firm handrail, Mum felt confident going up and down. One of our fellow passengers descended backwards and that worked for her.

Cruise Director Katalin suggested we swop tables every meal to get to know each other and, with our shared love of world-class French wine, it was easy to chat.

After an excellent 3-course dinner of mozzarella salad, braised rabbit and poached pear, served with crisp Muscadet and fruity Samaur-Champigny, we sipped a digestif and watched the soft pink sunset.

MS Déborah doesn’t travel at night so our sleep was undisturbed. We had coach excursions every morning after breakfast, a noon cocktail, leisurely lunch with a sumptuous cheese course, then sailed before dinner.

The sloped walkway to get on and off MS Déborah has a rope side-rail and surface foot grip strips so feels sturdy. The crew are also very considerate and always there to offer a firm hand.

On the first morning Le Petit Train picked us up – lovely for Mum – for a tour of Briare and delivered us to the Musée des Deux Marines et du Pont-Canal. The Loire Valley canals were built because the Loire river is wild and unnavigable for cargo.

Started in 1604, the Briare Canal goes north to Paris, connecting the Loire and Seine and carrying everything from coal to church bells. An infamous parrot named Ver-Vert is said to have learnt Latin mass from nuns but then disgraced himself by picking up swearwords from barge hands. His legend lives on.

Back on the boat, we headed south and crossed the Loire over the Briare Aqueduct into The Canal Latéral à la Loire. An elevated waterway is quite an experience and our first lock mid-afternoon was the next thrill.

This journey has around 20 locks and, if you’re feeling energetic, you can alight and walk – or cycle – between a few. Mum sensibly stayed on board with a cup of tea, while I jumped off and she enjoyed watching me trip in the mud.                       

Moored at Léré overnight, we were scheduled for a guided stroll around medieval hilltop town Sancerre. The steep lanes were too tiring for Mum and some of our new friends, so the coach parked near a look-out bench and they enjoyed the panorama instead.

During a 16th century siege, the starving inhabitants of Sancerre ate shoe leather and rats but now the area is prosperous with 330 producers of Sancerre wine, making 15 million bottles a year.

Nearby Chavignol is renowned for its goats’ cheese and we passed through the village to visit La Brissauderie goat farm at Jars. All the Alpine goats there are named and frisky Clara’s mature cheese goes perfectly with a glass of Sancerre.

In the afternoon, MS Déborah nudged a sandbank. The canals are shallow, with only a foot of water under the flat-bottomed hull, but Captain Camille soon navigated us through to arrive at charming MénétréolsousSancerre, surrounded by vineyards. 

The small French towns of the Loire Valley are beautiful and Pouilly-sur-Loire is no exception. At the Tourist Office, we learnt how the Pouilly-Fumé grapes get their name from the fruit’s smoky bloom, along with the ‘gun smoke’ bouquet imbued by the flinty soil. Wine maker Pierre Marchand, based in Loges, explained that his grapevines are never watered. They rely on deep roots and his oldest plants are 55 years old.                               

That evening we docked at Herry and played Pétanque at twilight on the bank with MS Déborah’s sailor Abdel, who taught us how to throw the boules. Mum plays bowls with U3A so she had an unfair advantage. As the sun disappeared, we were reluctant to stop.

Across the river in Burgundy, the Priory of La Charité-sur-Loire, founded in 1059, has house martins nesting in the ancient gateway entrance. Immensely powerful in the Middle Ages, this Cluniac priory was divided and sold off after the French Revolution. A car was once parked in the monks’ chapter house but that has fortunately gone.

France has so many glorious medieval buildings and those restoring them do so with passion and patience. Mum’s favourite excursion was to Fontmorigny Abbey, a former 12th century Cistercian monastery, which she found enchanting. For years a cow barn, it’s now owned by a family who’ve brought its beauty back to life to share with visitors.

The countryside that surrounds Fontmorigny is as peaceful as the canal banks but, with iron oxide in the soil, the region was once an industrial hub with flaming furnaces making cannons and cannon balls.

A wealthy ironmaster created whimsical village Apremont-sur-Allier after WW1 and it’s a fairy-tale place. The stunning Parc Floral is filled with rare plants and trees, ornamental pools, follies and a white flowerbed inspired by Sissinghurst.

Our final excursion was after dark, so Mum opted for a nightcap and an early night while we wandered around the city of Nevers with tiny lanterns. The Gothic cathedral has huge long-necked gargoyles which, once part of the guttering, spurted rainwater in great torrents. It must have been a magnificent sight. 

More information

Great Rail Journeys offer a 7-day cruise of The Loire Valley Waterways departing from London St Pancras from £1,895 pp for a twin share cabin. The holiday includes 6 nights aboard MS Déborah, all excursions, 17 meals and all-inclusive selection of drinks. A reduced mobility cabin is available on the upper deck with an extra wide bed and large bathroom. You can also arrange for your luggage to be sent ahead.

Visit Great Rail Journeys or call 01904 527180.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys.

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Beverley Watts

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