Canal holidays in France often focus on the south, centre or east of the country, but if you are curious to explore a more off-the-beaten track region, river cruises on the Canal du Nord might be just what you are looking for. |
Familiarise yourself with the story and sights of this characterful canal.
The Story of the Canal du Nord
Unlike many other canals around Europe, the Canal du Nord has its conceptual origins at the end of the 19th century rather than the start of the century or even before. Even more unusually, major construction work actually was in progress during the early 20th century.
The problem was that by the middle of the 19th century, the French coalmining industry along the north-eastern coast was in full swing, trying to supply ever-larger quantities to the voracious industries in and around Paris and other parts of central France.
Although a canal did exist, it was small and became totally overloaded with coal traffic. Major delays built up, which increased costs. One consequence was that for many French industries, it was faster and cheaper to import coal from Germany or Britain than from its own major coalmines.
The Canal du Nord was born therefore out of the need to radically improve the coal-carrying capacity of the transport infrastructure. By using barges capable of carrying up to 3000 tonnes over the relatively short distance (under 100 kilometres) between Arleux and Pont-l'Évêque, it was hoped to decrease transport costs by 30%.
Construction began in 1908. It was close to three-quarters complete when World War I broke out and the canal was very heavily damaged in the fighting over the next several years.
Further construction was abandoned until after World War II, but the canal was finally finished in the 1960s - largely with leisure in mind, though it does still carry smaller commercial vessels and as such, it’s still a working canal.
The Stunning Sights
Canal holidays in France which cruise the Canal du Nord offer a huge range of wonderful things to see and do.
In the town of Péronne, one is very close to the battlefields of the Somme and the town has its own museum of WWI in its chateau. The area is now silent and very pretty but it serves as a strong reminder of the futility of war.
Noyon is an ancient Roman town with a magnificent cathedral, which is well worth visiting. It was once sacked by the Vikings and its Bishop murdered. There are also ancient abbeys, castles and industrial museums to visit, as well as some great towpath walking and cycling. Don’t underestimate the cuisine of this part of France either – it’s delicious!
Enjoyment Inside and Out
Almost inevitably though, the subject of the weather is always raised when considering canal holidays in France that are based in the north and east.
It’s true that even in summer, northern Europe can have unpredictable weather. However, a luxury barge cruise is going to offer the ultimate in relaxed pampering and even if you’re unlucky with the odd shower, it’s not likely to dampen your enjoyment of this hugely under-rated part of France. Local cuisine is served by an on-board chef, stories can be exchanged in the lounge with staff and fellow passengers, and some barges have a whirlpool where passengers can relax on deck.
Canal holidays in France along the Canal du Nord deserve serious consideration!
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury canal holidays in France. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
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