A world apart in Paris
By barge and bike in the City of Light
On an early Sunday morning in spring, the sky above Compiegne is a deep and welcoming blue. The air is warm, and while few residents have yet appeared on the streets of this historic French town, daily life has already resumed on the picturesque River Oise. A pair of swans glides along quietly, the surface of the water still and clear and barely rippling, even as the barge that has been moored beside ours overnight pulls away from the embankment and makes its way upstream.
“There goes the neighbourhood,” jokes fellow traveller Bob, a witty Canadian who is sipping his morning coffee from the dining room of our temporary floating home, which takes in the ever-changing landscape through its wide windows.
We are 85km northeast of Paris, close enough for a commute of less than an hour to the capital, but quiet enough for the distance to feel significantly more as we begin a mostly bucolic week-long bike and barge trip in and around the French capital.
Our home is Clair de Lune, a Dutch-owned and operated barge with a small sun terrace and a rear deck loaded with the bicycles that will take us beyond the river most days. With a dining room that occupies a large chunk of the main deck, the vessel is compact at 35m long and just 5m wide and sets a sedate 12km/h pace along multiple waterways to and from the French capital.
Up to 17 passengers can be accommodated in its nine simple but comfortable en suite cabins. This week, however, at the early end of the barging season, there are only 10 of us on board — from the US, Australia, Canada and Europe — plus a three-member Dutch crew of captain, chef and guide.
Over seven days our small group spends many hours on wheels, never more than a few dozen kilometres from Paris, although seemingly much further. We encounter frequent pockets of history from our starting point in Compiegne, where Joan of Arc was captured in 1430 and the armistice to end World War I was signed in a local forest, to the charming community of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent van Gogh spent his last weeks and was buried in an ivy-covered grave .
We travel to Melun, where Paul Cezanne lived in the late 1800s and which, like Paris, began as a small island in the Seine, and to the Chateau de Fontainebleau, one of France’s largest palaces and the site of Napoleon’s abdication. And we spend one free day wandering Paris at leisure, ambling through multiple neighbourhoods, to the Eiffel Tower and beyond, and sampling local brasseries.
Most days, though, centre on cycling, about 45km on average, but sometimes up to 55km, and across a variety of terrains. And it must be noted that the trip is categorised as introductory to moderate, and graded one to two on a rating out of five. But riders need to be competent and confident enough to tackle a route that includes a ride, en masse, into Paris, via the busy roundabout at the Place de la Bastille.
There are regular stops for picnic lunches, which passengers prepare each morning from the substantial provisions set out at breakfast, and many more unscheduled breaks, depending on the day and the desire of the pack. One morning, when a riverside cafe near Creil is unexpectedly closed, we make a lovely detour of just a few kilometres to a nearby town, and observe the bustling trade at a weekend market from a cafe terrace.
And no matter where we go, we are never far from
Canal Saint-Martin, top; Clair de Lune, above; barge salon, above right