Slow travel is the only way to really appreciate a destination. Because we rush around too much in our daily life, when we finally are “Out of Office,” “Gone Fishing,” or simply away, we should relax. Not only is slowly exploring a region much more sustainable, but it is also good for the soul.
As the old wisdom goes, we need to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies sometimes. In today’s world, our body can travel so much faster than our soul, so that often we have already returned home before our soul has a chance to catch up with us — let alone enjoy the break. Slow and soulful are the buzzwords when it comes to canal or riverboat trips.
Europe is crisscrossed with magical waterways and perfectly set up to hire a boat and travel through a canal, enjoying the sights along the way, hopping off occasionally to explore, or otherwise, sit back with a book and allow the world to slowly move by. Whether you take the helm yourself or opt for a small cruising boat where others play captain, really doesn’t matter, because a canal boat trip is guaranteed to allow you to exhale and breathe deeply.
I have selected a few of my personal favorites in France, the UK, Germany, and Italy. Each one has a special appeal to me, and no two are the same, so I hope you will find one or two that inspire you for your next Europe trip.
1. Canal Du Midi, France
The Canal du Midi is not only a scenic canal but also a historic engineering marvel. Commissioned in 1666 by the progressive King Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, an overall 225 miles of waterways connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. Strictly speaking, the Canal du Midi is only the part between the Mediterranean and Toulouse but is often used for the entire stretch.
It is probably the most popular canal to self-navigate, despite its 328 structures, comprising bridges, locks, aqueducts, and tunnels, and is superbly set up for visitors either hiring a narrow boat themselves or choosing one with a captain. The difficult thing is to decide whether you are going to sail the entire stretch, which direction to take, and how much time to spend because in addition to Toulouse, there are countless beautiful rural villages and historic sites to explore along the canal.
Pro Tip: The true Canal du Midi is my personal favorite, boating between Toulouse, past cute Bram, imposing Carcassonne, and ending up in the stunning Camargue region, from where you can extend your vacation to Montpellier, Avignon, and Provence.
2. Canal Saint-Martin, Paris, France
Not all canal trips meander through quiet countryside, some even take place right in the center of a bustling city, in this case, Paris. This four-day, part-on, part off-board trip through the Canal St.-Martin, the Villette Basin, and Canal St.-Denis allows you to see Paris from a whole new perspective. You probably know that there are canals right in the center of Paris, formerly used to transport cargo, and today lined with trendy cafes, restaurants, and houseboats, but the chance of actually traveling along them, through the locks, under the bridges, and even through the tunnel linking the Seine with Bastille, is very rare, indeed. Backwater Cruises offer various cruises in France, but only this one-off special, rare opportunity of cruising through the canals of Paris, in September 2022.
Pro Tip: You will not only sail through Paris, but also have half-day excursions and sightseeing trips around the city, so this is a great opportunity for both, those knowing Paris well already but wanting something a little different, as well as newcomers.
3. The River Thames, England
You start your Thames barge vacation with afternoon tea in London, stepping aboard a luxury canal boat complete with a crew of four looking after you, and then sail down the Thames. Stops along the way include visits to the palaces and castles of Hampton Court and Windsor, taking chauffeur-driven cars to historic sites such as Cliveden and Oxford, and ending up at Henley-on-Thames. These are four days spent in luxury, enjoying English history, beautiful waterways, gourmet dining on board, and being pampered all the way.
Pro Tip: The Magna Carta barge has four cabins, making it perfect for a barge vacation with friends, taking over the entire boat rather than sharing it with other parties. That said, the boat’s amenities are superb, the lounge large, and day trips take place in private cars, so it is more like a floating luxury hotel than a cramped narrow boat, even if you don’t know your fellow travelers.
4. Kennet And Avon Canal, England
If you liked the Thames route, and the trip whetted your appetite for navigating along a canal yourself, then why not continue westward along the Kennet and Avon Canal? The canal connects the river Kennet, which in turn joins the Thames, with the River Avon and meanders through the gorgeous southwest English countryside following the rough route of the Great West Way between London and Bristol. Narrow boat hire is so popular here, that you can either go the entire 87 miles or choose your favorite shorter distance route for a day or two, such as between Devizes and Bath Spa.
Pro Tip: You can also walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal, along the towpath, so you could opt to take a boat trip one way and walk back the other. My favorite route is between Bath and Bradford on Avon, which takes around three hours of walking, but longer if you stop at the pubs along the way. Do plan those pubs into your itinerary, be it from the boat or while on foot because they are fabulous, especially the Cross Guns Avoncliff with its beer garden overlooking the weir.
5. Canals In And Around Berlin, Germany
The region of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommen stretching between Germany’s capital city Berlin and the Baltic Sea in the north is not only beautiful but also honeycombed with lakes, rivers, and canals. It is simply crying out to be explored by boat. Hiring not a narrow canal boat, but instead, a rather sleek but not too overwhelming motor yacht, you can take your time exploring the lakes, the historic towns such as Potsdam and Furstenberg along the way, mooring alongside lake shores for a coffee, or simply sail in and out of canals and rivers, finding quiet spots to moor and read a book.
Pro Tip: This company also hires out small, license-free boats all across Europe. Have a look at the brochure for further inspiration.
6. River Po And The Bianco Canal, Italy
Please forgive me for including a canal boat trip that is more like a small cruise, but the route taken is so nice that I wanted to include it. Picture Italy at its finest: starting off in Venice, then being welcomed with Prosecco on board the Bella Vita, the Good Life, and staying overnight on board for a bit more Venice in the morning. Then you’ll be sailing off past small historic fishing villages, taking in the odd wine cellar, looking at Renaissance art in Ferrara, also famous for its marble. You’ll be sailing along the River Po and the scenic Bianco Canal, also known as the Tartaro-Canalbianco-Po di Levante, before being transferred back to Venice after five days. Bella Vita indeed!
Pro Tip: There are some options to get off the boat to delve into the surroundings by bicycle, maybe working off some of the calories provided by the scrumptious Italian gourmet food on board.
7. Champagne Region, France
Yes, France again. But really, you can’t go wrong with France, right? Especially not with a luxury canal boat tour through the French Champagne region, quite literally from champagne house to champagne house. Setting off from Châlons-en-Champagne, for six days and five nights, you putter through the Marne Valley, visiting the two main centers of Champagne, and champagne, Reims and Epernay, while in between visiting vineyards, exploring the nicely flat countryside by bicycle if you so wish, and always returning to the luxury boat Hirondelle, the Swallow, for gourmet food, a glass — or two or three — of champagne on the shiny teak deck, while allowing the French countryside to slowly move past you. This is a luxury boat trip, curated by Belmond, with four cabins on board, available for private hire, or per cabin.
Pro Tip: This boat trip includes transfers from and back to Paris, so you could easily combine it with the Paris Canal St.-Martin tour.
River cruises are an excellent way to explore destinations: