Captain a boat!
Cast off on the Mayenne at the helm of a habitable barge, to float gently along at nature's pace... A magical experience accessible to all – and with no boating licence needed! – that we enjoyed over a weekend.
Set sail for adventure!
As the mist gently loosens its grip over the water, the little port of Chenillé-Changé, a village in the Haut-Anjou tucked beside the Mayenne, is slowly waking up. A holidaymaker emerges from a boat moored at the pontoon and stretches, while a group of morning joggers dashes past. Soon, our instructor arrives to give us the steering instructions for the little barge that is to be our floating home for two days. The craft has been hired from Les Canalous, a company specialising in river tourism that also offers departures from bases in Angers, Daon, Châteauneuf-sur-Sarthe or Le Mans. The fleet of boats include various formats that sleep 2-12 people for a weekend, several days or a week. The first thing we notice as we enter through the glass door that opens into the "mess" is that the barge has everything you'd need to cast off, from the two bunk cabins and the fully-equipped kitchenette to the shower, loo and even a heating system! We then spend around ten minutes learning how to steer the barge and operate the gear lever at the helm. There' no licence needed, as the boat doesn't go faster than 8 km/h/ We finally cast off and feel ourselves drifting towards a lock, before our guardian angel briefly returns to the helm to set us on course for the river...
The perfect viewpoint for looking at nature
Then we're off along the water, to the soothing grumble of the engine. As we glide gently along, the surrounding landscape is soon revealed in a new – and sometimes surprising – light. We see grey herons, black-headed gulls, moorhens and the less-common kingfisher. Majestic châteaux and sumptuous houses also appear along the way, nestled overlooking the ribbon of water that, in some places, takes on various shades of emerald green. Cyclists on the Vélo Francette, which follows the towpath beside us, sometimes wave, while fishermen look impassively on. With every different lock comes a new little village, such as La Jaille-Yvon, Daon and Ménil. Soon, we can make out the silhouette of the magnificent Hôpital Saint-Julien, the symbol of Château-Gontier. The thousand-year-old city, which is thought by many to be the finest in the department, is overflowing with treasures that are well worth a visit by stopping off at the port.
This is where Christian, the captain, welcomes amateur boatmen, helps them to manoeuvre, offers to charge mobile phones and even cooks! "Go and see if there's anything you fancy in the fridge and I'll cook it on the griddle. We're not really a restaurant, but we do know how to look after people!" Chicken with freshly prepared fries will set you back around €5.50, or €2 for a beer. It is truly unbeatable. What's more, the host loves giving tourists tips on where to visit. "If you've got time, cross the Vieux Pont, take the first right and walk a few metres along the quai de Verdun. You'll arrive at what looks like the entrance to a house, which people obviously don't dare go inside. But it's actually the old entrance to the historic centre, and ends up on the rue des Trois Moulins, which is bound to surprise you!" He's right: the site houses a magnificent secret courtyard with a corbelled house. It's a fitting starting point for a stroll around the old town and its little paved streets, with a short stop at the bakery for supplies for tomorrow's breakfast. Then it's back to the boat for the rest of the adventure.
The landscapes continue to pass by, and night gradually begins to fall. We decide to drop anchor for the night at the Neuville lock. We have a little stroll on terra firma before settling at a table at the Vieux Moulin, a restaurant with a large waterside terrace. The house speciality is crêpes, with other small dishes like fried eels also served. It's a welcome feast after sailing some thirty kilometres. A magical night follows spent all alone, surrounded by nature with its rustling leaves and lapping water...
We awake the next day to pearls of dew on our barge's little windows. Having devoured our pains au chocolate on deck, we tackle the return journey. Far from feeling like the same again, returning along the route we came up lets us see another side of it. We see the bridges in a new light, approach the mills bordering the water and notice that some have been transformed into guest houses, and take time to chat with the people we come across. Yann, for example, the lock-keeper-cum-adventurer of la Roche du Maine, has presided here for several years after working as a geologist in Madagascar in a previous life. His dream is to build toue cabanées, traditional boats that visitors can use to pass under the bridges and even pull up on sandbanks. "My advice for you is to come back one day and sail a little further up, from Mayenne to Laval. The landscape is different again, you almost feel like you're in the mountains!" We're sold.
Stops in little villages before the final return
We continue back down to where we started from. The diversity of the natural landscapes, which sometimes have the feel of Canadian forests or even mangroves, is even more striking. Along the way, we stop off at Ménil, a charming village of a thousand inhabitants, that we didn't have time to explore on the way up. It's the perfect opportunity to take down the bikes on the boat and explore its ochre-stone centre, its little art gallery or its ferry, which has been the link to Coudray – located just opposite – since the 19th century. We then head back to the helm and make for Daon, a little town with incredible character, home to a church perched up high, a dozen manors and a water sports centre. It'll be our last stop before returning to Chenillé-Changé. The day comes to an end and as we disembark, we take a last glance at our travel companion. It's back to after this enchanted break, during which we learnt an important lesson: as our lock-keeper friend Yann would say, "you have to know how to take your time!"