When we started planning our route through France we figured that we’d want to minimize our time major commercial waterways. The commercial routes, we imagined, would be sterile concrete-lined channels choked with massive cargo carrying barges. They would be the equivalent of a semi-truck filled superhighways.
In reality, we found the French commercial waterways intriguing. Yes, there are a lot of large heavy barges moving fast. But the waters are big and navigation is not particularly problematic. Indeed, passing the largest of commercial barges on the Grand Gabarit is usually far easier than squeezing by a typical cargo barge on the much narrower Freycinet waterways. The canals themselves are wide but usually have grassy banks. They look less like canals and more like long lakes. But there’s nothing wrong with a long lake.
To us, a part of the appeal of the commercial waterways is the glimpse into the lifestyle of the professionals who travel these routes for a living. Often operated by families, the large commercial barges are relentlessly mobile. The barges have full living accommodations with spacious rear cabins serving as a mobile apartment. On deck commercials invariably carry a car or two and many times a speedboat.
We crossed the path of numerous commercial barges as we continued inland on the Grand Gabarit from Béthune. There’d be even more big barges when we reached Douai in the afternoon and looked a place to stop for the night. Douai is a popular layover location for the commercials. On the main channel and on a branch of the River Scarpe there are numerous places to moor. At least there are numerous places to moor if your barge is 38 meters or longer. Wanderlust, a mere 20 meters long, is too short for many of Douai’s fixed moorings. Eventually, after much consideration, we found a spot between two commercials on the concrete bank at a narrow section of the main channel. We maneuvered in and set mooring springs for the night. Between the big boys, Wanderlust looked distinctly out of place.
With our position close to the channel we were concerned about being tossed around by the wakes from the passing barge traffic. But in reality, the barges passed this spot slowly, the wakes were not so bad, and the mooring springs functioned as planned. It turned out to be a comfortable place to moor. We liked it enough to spend two nights.
Douai itself is an interesting town. Like Béthune it has a UNESCO-designated belfry and a large pedestrianized central square. Also like Béthune, Douai was rebuilt after suffering more than its share of the ravages of World War I. In this region, seemingly every town was crushed by the war to end all wars. Traveling through the area is a reminder of how devastating WWI was. Today Douai has recovered and is an interesting place and pleasant to explore. But to be fair, I say that about most of the French towns we visit.
This leg covered 43 km with just one lock. We traveled the canal d’Aire, the canal de la Deûle, and briefly the dérivation de la Scarpe autour de Douai segments of the Grand Gabarit.