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5 French Canal Towns You Need To Visit

1st May 2018

As well as river cruises along sprawling waterways like the Rhine and Danube rivers, we can also offer the chance to enjoy a more relaxed way of life along the peaceful canals of rural France. Why not step aboard one of a range of charming barges operated by lines such as Backwaters Tours and Belmond River Cruises.

As you sit back and enjoy the passing scenery, you will travel between small towns and cities untouched by the tourist crowds and which demonstrate day to day life in regions such as Burgundy and Occitane. If you like the sound of a French canal cruise, here are some destinations you should definitely look out for.

Clamecy, Canal du Nivernais

Clamecy Church

As well as the Canal du Nivernais, which you will sail along to reach pretty Clamecy, the town also stands on the banks of the Yonne and Beuvron Rivers. Its medieval centre is dotted with interesting buildings, with the timber frames of the Maison du Tisserand being the most eye-catching. Speaking of timber, Clamecy made a name for itself (and did great business) floating wood down the river towards Paris – an industry you can learn more about at the Romain Rolland Museum of Art and History.

The maze of narrow alleyways in the centre will lead you to the Church of St Martin – not that you won’t have already spotted it. Built during the 13th century, it has been adapted and embellished throughout the years, including the addition of some imposing Gothic gargoyles.

La Charité-sur-Loire, Canal Latéral de la Loire

Priory at La Charite sur Loire

By Yann Gwilhoù [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons 

This small commune, on the banks of the Loire and the canal that runs adjacent to it, is most well-known for being a starting point for the pilgrimage known as the Way of Saint James, leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The Priory of Notre Dame, housing a Benedictine monastery and church has therefore been given UNESCO World Heritage status to mark its importance.

Elsewhere, you can wander the charming streets and explore the medieval ramparts that are still in great condition. As you stroll through arches and up stairways, you’ll notice an abundance of bookshops, binders and calligraphers. This is another thing La Charité is known for and people come from far and wide to purchase historic texts.

Noyon, Canal Latéral à l'Oise

Noyon Cathedral

Easily explored on foot in a few hours, Noyon is dominated by its 12th-century Gothic cathedral, one of the first to be built in France. Due to the fact it was built from the ruins of another cathedral that was destroyed in a fire, one facade still retains the original Romanesque architecture.

Two museums share the history of the town (Musée du Noyonnais) and the story of Jean Calvin (Musée Calvin), a theologian who played an important role in the Reformation. There is also a local market, featuring live animals, on the first Tuesday of every month, and the area around Noyon is a great place to enjoy walking and hiking.

Joigny, Canal de Bourgogne

Joigny in Burgundy

As with many of the towns on this list, Joigny, found between Auxerre and Sens, has been designated a zone of protected development to ensure its heritage remains intact. Examples of the preserved architecture include the medieval houses on the hill, some of which feature interesting carvings, and House of the Tree of Jesse. There are also a number of churches to admire which, together with the ramparts and historic town gates, give the whole place its medieval appearance.

For a more modern view, cross the old stone bridge over the River Yonne and discover the shops of Avenue Gambetta. Amongst these, there are a few restaurants where you can sample some of the delicious local wine grown in the vineyards surrounding Joigny. However, if you are looking for a true gourmet experience, head to La Côte Saint Jacques for a Michelin-starred meal.

Béziers, Canal du Midi


The Canal du Midi is one of the more well-known canals in France and a great waterway to explore on your first barging holiday. Béziers is much larger than some of the other towns above, but it still manages to maintain that small town feeling and is never overrun with tourists. It’s also home to plenty of history, making it the perfect place to stop when sailing through the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

Due to its hilltop position, the Cathedrale Saint-Nazare de Beziers dominates the skyline. A visit may involve a bit of a climb, but it’s definitely worth it. Not only for the cathedral and its manicured gardens, but also for the views across the countryside. Art fans can peruse the walls of the Musée des Beaux Arts, home to works by a variety of European painters and sculptures, and anyone looking for more active pursuits can take to the water by renting a kayak or paddle board near the medieval bridge.

If you would like to know more about our French canal cruises, our team can talk you through the different options we have available. Call us on 0800 954 0064 or click here to submit your enquiry online.

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