A world apart in Paris

By barge and bike in the City of Light

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - FIONA HARARI

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

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