From Nantes, we travelled two hours north to the village of Saint-Martin-sur-Oust where we started our week-long canal boat trip.
The adventure originated when our friends in Germany told us they had found a German Groupon for a discounted rental of a live aboard boat, with availability in a couple dozen spots around Europe. The timing hadn’t worked out to travel with them, but we decided to go for it ourselves.
The boat was perfect for us: it had a small kitchen with a gas stove, refrigerator and sink, a double bed in a berth in the front and a single bed off to the side. It was easy to pilot, and with a maximum clip of about 10 km/h (or 6 mph), it would have been difficult to get into any real trouble.
We were aboard for seven days, making our way first to the little art colony of La Gacilly, then backtracking past our Saint-Martin-sur-Oust to Josselin, with its riverside medieval castle providing the photo ops.
Days were spent mostly puttering down the canal, enjoying the scenery as it went by and going about daily life on board. We rented bikes along with the boat, but only took them out occasionally. I enjoyed tying up and taking jaunts into the countryside, but Zevin caught a grumpy about his bike (exacerbated by a couple days of record-breaking heat and a bout of a stomach bug), so we didn’t ride as often as I would have liked.
There was a great, languid pleasure to the week, though. The villages were small and we certainly would have passed by the area entirely if we were in a car on a motorway, and that would have been a shame. We enjoyed strolling La Gacilly’s studios, filled our larders at Malestroit’s farmers’ market, and stumbled on a local summer festival, complete with a huge table of moving wood sculptures illustrating farm life by a local craftsman.
Very few people spoke English, and our high school French came in handy. I also found in remarkable and interesting that all the road signs in the area were printed in both French and Breton, a Celtic language native to the area and spoke by about 35,000 people as their first language still. It was almost wiped out as a language, as it was banned from 1880 through the mid-20th century by the government, which sought French national unity through language.
We were also struck by how friendly everyone was. The French have a reputation as rude and dismissive of foreigners, but in the small villages we visited, we found quite the opposite. Despite the language barrier, everyone was welcoming, friendly and engaging. The area doesn’t get many Americans, and so we were a bit of interest, and everyone wanted to talk with us about where we were from, what we thought of the area, and anything else they could think of to engage.
Of course, one of the unique pleasures of the trip were the locks. Two to four times a day, our boat would float up to a pastoral little building, often beautifully decoratored by the caretakers, who would take advantage of their long stretches of inactivity to create art and gardens. The lock keeper would come out, greet us warmly and we would go through the 10 minute process of entering the lock, lowering / raising the water, and then moving on our way. Several of the lock keepers spoke English, but again, like most of the people we met in the area, the conversation was simple, friendly and French.
Here’s a little time lapse video I shot of passing through the lock just before Josselin and proceeding to our dock.
Food is always a trick when we travel, so having the little kitchen where we could refrigerate and cook food was handy. We did enjoy a number of galettes, a buckwheat (thus naturally gluten-free) based crepe that is filled with savory delights like mushrooms, sausages and eggs.
We spent our last day docked in St-Martin-sur-Oust, and took a day trip by car to The Brocéliande Forest, where Merlin and the King Arthur stories are said to have originated. (We were surprised to learn that the legend of King Arthur comes from modern day France, not England!)
The visitor center there had a sweet, interactive and immersive video that told the history of the area, but the treat for me was discovering an old road side spring where we could drink the tastiest l’eau I think I’ve had.