A few years ago when we were playing the Who-What-Where-When-Why retirement game, I thought that there was only one of those Ws unanswered. After all, it was just us making the decisions and we already had a timeline so the one thing left to do was to finalize the location of our next house. By that point we were pretty sure that we wanted to live in Carcassonne so we started reading everything that we could find about this medieval city. There were travel guides, history books, bicycle routes, photo pictorials, and a best-selling historical thriller trilogy by Kate Mosse. Then at the library I saw the book Narrow Dog to Carcassonne by Terry Darlington with the tagline, “Two Foolish People, One Odd Dog, an English Canal Boat..and the Adventure of a Lifetime.” Hmm, that kind of fit our situation since we were two people and one dog about to move to another country 4000 miles away. All that we were missing was that canal boat so it was time to investigate what life onboard might be like.
By chance, while I was reading this Narrow book we went on a Caribbean cruise where the ship’s purser happened to be French. We told Stéphane about our desire to live in his home country, perhaps on the water, and he said that his aunt did indeed live on a péniche (houseboat) moored in the Garonne river just outside of Toulouse. The Canal-du-Midi that runs right through Carcassonne connects up with the Garonne so this was sounding like a real possibility. He did mention that while his aunt truly enjoyed the location of her boat, it was quite an adjustment to live in a space that even Europeans would consider compact.
Downsizing was always part of our retirement planning. Bill’s parents had happily lived full time for years in a fifth-wheel trailer that they towed behind them from one coast of the US to the other. With such a positive example before us we started investigating the nomad life that we might have inside an RV (un camping-car) with a width of about 8 feet (2.4 meters). It didn’t take long, however, to realize that although we wanted to live in a smaller space, the camping life was not for us.
Then we began looking into living aboard a boat full time. There are plenty of books on the subject, along with websites, blogs, and video channels that give you a realistic glimpse into having your house literally on/in the water. Initially even a video entitled, “Why you don’t want to live on a narrowboat” didn’t deter us but soon there were more inconveniences for us than we wanted to deal with. While we thought 8 feet from wall to wall in an RV wasn’t very wide, a genuine narrowboat is only 7 feet across.
We abandoned our idea of water-based living but not our access to the extensive canal system in France or in the rest of Europe, for that matter. On a two-week vacation in Amsterdam we rented a houseboat on a canal near the central train station and in Aigues-Mortes near Montpellier we did the same on a canal that leads to the Mediterranean Sea. Since we live within walking distance of the Canal-du-Midi we often see smiling vacationers floating by on their own personal adventure or even the occasional hotel barge where all of your needs are taken care of including navigating the many locks you will encounter along your route. For inspiration (only, since we haven’t used these companies), I’ll put a couple of links below to the boats we’ve seen passing by. See you on board!
French Waterways: https://www.french-waterways.com/
Photo credits: Bill took the photos in Carcassonne, including the featured one by the train station while the others in nearby Trèbes come from the website of the Office de Tourisme Grand Carcassonne.
Reading note: The book I mentioned above won’t tell you anything about Carcassonne since this was the author’s final destination but it is quite the funny adventure sailing across the English Channel and down through France to arrive here. There are two other Narrow Dog books as well.