Member for 3 years 11 months
Passionate and curious
Outdoor and human
On Ardennes waters
Become a barge skipper for the day with Ardennes Nautisme
5 mins OF ESCAPE
Life in the slow lane.
Ardennes Nautisme invites visitors to unwind and contemplate the Ardennes countryside from the water. As I'm warned by Bénédicte, who has managed the premises for over twenty years, here we take the time to enjoy life! Forget your week of hard work, the traffic jams and all those invoices sitting in your letterbox. Take a breather, come here to recharge your batteries. Actually, as soon as I arrive I get that pleasant sensation that time has slowed down. It's a strange but relaxing feeling being here, in the hamlet of Pont-à-Bar. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, far from the weight of urban stress. I understand instantly why the mistress of the house is so attached to this place. Life must be good here. For a few minutes I imagine living aboard one of the nice little barges moored at the quayside. I learn that these small boats can be rented for anything between a day and a few weeks, for an exploration of the canals which irrigate and breathe life into this region. This whole setting appeals to me and I feel I really must try this adventure! That's it, I decide to go exploring the area, following the canals of the Ardennes aboard one of these lovely little barges.
An excursion and an encounter
I go aboard with a German family who have just returned from a 10-day trip on the Meuse in one of the rented boats. They've really enjoyed their holiday here and seem to hate the idea of their extraordinary adventure coming to an end. So Bénédicte kindly suggests the whole family make the most of their last day to admire the beautiful scenery along a small stretch of canal that they haven't yet explored. With open arms, they welcome me aboard the boat which has been their home for the duration of their holiday. This promises to be a warm and friendly experience. They start the engine and the father of the family skippers the boat skillfully out of our aquatic parking space. Clearly, he has gained a bit of experience. We slowly leave the harbour and the other boats disappear into the distance. The noise from the road and the little hamlet gradually fades away too, until all we can hear is the soothing sound of lapping water. We travel slowly, admiring the magnificent landscape on both sides of the canal.
Animals and locks throughout our cruise
We travel at cruising speed, slower than a car but faster than on foot, absolutely perfect for feasting our eyes on everything around us. This means of travel is new to me and totally different from anything else I've ever tried. Thanks to the leisurely pace and the reigning silence, I discover some unfamiliar wildlife species that thrive at the water's edge and can only be observed by those who take the time to explore these parts. As we pass gently by, we see herons, coypus and other local creatures who seem surprised to see humans here at all. They flee in silence, and we witness the majesty of a heron taking flight. I quickly forget the language barrier and so do my hosts. With gestures and a few words of English, we understand that this spectacle has cast the same spell on us all.
The tranquillity of these pleasant surroundings is an invitation to meditate
We snap out of our daydream at the sight of the first lock. So we have to stop, but this is more of a help than a hindrance because it forces us, once again, to take our time. First we must stop at the traffic light which, amusingly, reminds us of our usual means of travel. Then we wait for the gates to open and release the water before entering. The gates close behind us and a whole ritual is followed before we wait again, and finally leave the lock. These special moments are characteristic of this very different mode of transport. The family carry out all these gestures as I look on, amazed at how natural it seems to them. Their journey has taken them through more than fifty locks and they've become used to all these manoeuvres. Even the teenage son joins in, fulfilling his role at every lock. I'm extremely curious and the hosts of the barge tell me how everything works and even show me a few essential sailing knots. I'm now a fully-fledged landlubber!
A lock opens for us, freeing a trapped coypu which swims right past us to return to the bank. We then go through a tunnel, a chance to switch on the boat's lights and experience a different atmosphere that's a little troubling, but just as exciting. We feel like explorers, pot-holers even, in the dark silence of the vaulted structure. We emerge from the tunnel in the waning daylight. It's time to head back to port. We return via the same canal, yet everything looks different.
And then there was dusk...
In the late afternoon, the sun slowly sets over the landscape, making it look different and even more extraordinary. The still water ahead of us mirrors immaculate images of the colourful trees, until the passing barge ripples the surface, hypnotising us with a kaleidoscope spectacle. Suddenly the air is cooler on the water but, for once, I'm happy to wrap myself up in a warm jumper to enjoy the end of our trip from the deck. I sit at the front with the rest of the family while their father also enjoys the scenery from his skipper's cabin. It'll soon be completely dark and the boats will stop sailing on this canal, leaving it exclusively to the tranquillity of the natural landscape. After all the conversation we've shared on this trip, silence now reigns on board and we all contemplate the spectacular twilight as the harbour appears in the distance.
Back to civilisation and the real world. With the boat beautifully manoeuvred into its berth, we disembark with an absolute certainty: the Ardennes countryside, explored in this manner, has the power to bring people together and even create new bonds. After just a few hours with these people I'd never met, I feel as if I've just enjoyed a wonderful day out with my family. So I prolong the pleasure for as long as possible, accepting their invitation to stay for dinner in their tiny waterborne kitchen, before finally saying farewell to these lovely people and this extraordinary place. Undeniably, on these beautiful waters, aboard a lovely boat in the company of such warm and friendly people, my day couldn't have been more perfect.